Word up

Dec 30, 2009 at 12:00 am

Ever since Myriha Burton chopped her shoulder-length hair— to a Me'Shell Ndegeocello cropped coif — people tell her she looks like a poet. Well, that is what she does. See, this 18-year-old Cass Tech senior shows the kind of resolve common among world-class poetry competitors, a ghetto-bred poise and tenacity that pushes her through the finish line and onward and upward. (Come to find out Burton's a citywide champ in the 100 meter dash too.)

When it comes to competing in SLAM poetry, she has to remind herself to slow down, which is not her strong suit.  

Only two months after penning "Flashback," Burton's first poem, the young writer found herself on stage at the eminent Apollo Theater in Harlem, reciting it once more. That wasn't even two years ago. She's since traded in her kicks for pens and local tracks for the stages across the country. Burton doesn't have a part-time job — she's brutally honest about not looking for one any time soon. Instead, she picks up money by winning slams with poems that bear harsh personal truths. She's not some slacker (she has earned a full-ride scholarship to the University of Wisconsin), nor is she a cheap word hustler. Burton spends spare time with various literary arts incubators, like CityWide Poets, an offshoot of InsideOut Literary Arts Project and Teen Hype, which educates middle and high school kids on relationships, pregnancy, drugs and violence by way of theater, poetry and music. She's a good kid — just don't call her one.

Metro Times:
You're staring at the last-half of your senior year of high school, so how are you going about balancing your school workload with this budding poetry career?

Myriha Burton: School's always come first, but lately poetry has taken its place. I don't know if that's a good thing.

MT: You're pretty serious about education.  

Burton: I was going to Cass Tech, and then went to Crockett, but I transferred back to Cass this year because I felt like I wasn't getting the kind of education that was really going to prepare me for what I might see in college. School also works its way into poetry — like, I'll take terminology we just learned in a lesson plan and use it in a new poem. Teachers sometimes give extra credit if I can work a poem into a theme they give me or something. At Crockett, kids in the hallways called me "Poem."

MT: So what does autumn 2010 look like?

Burton: There's a program at the University of Wisconsin called FirstWave — it's a culmination of break dancing, rapping, singing, and being a poet. Basically, it's a full-ride and as long as you stay in the program, you can study whatever you want. I'm not sure what I'm going to major in, but I need a backup plan, just in case, you know? I might minor in creative writing.

MT: Madison, Wis., is a beautiful town.

Burton: A cold town!

MT: For better or worse, it's far from Detroit.

Burton: I need to go away, but at some point I want to come back. I want to see stuff. In Detroit, you're limited to what's really out there. I've learned there's a lot of power in words, but there's a lot more to learn, you know?

MT: You've got the "power in words" part down.

Burton: [laughs] I'm doing alright. I just want to move into the grown stuff. Everyone looks at me as "Myriha the youth poet." That needs to change. 

MT: Why?

Burton: Well, InsideOut's Citywide Poets, and Brave New Voices are youth poetry organizations that I take part in. So …

MT: So there's the catch. What's Brave New Voices all about?

Burton: It's the International Youth Poetry SLAM. We were sent to DC in '08, we went to Chicago this year and next year is Los Angeles. LA! I can't pass up on that. It's also about the atmosphere there, the whole experience. It's all love, man. There's poetry going on all week long, people wander around with saxophones and guitars and just break out in song, someone will start harmonizing on some melody that, like, just came out of nowhere.

MT: Sounds divine.

Burton: But you gotta remember, at the end of the day, it's a competition. You know what you're getting yourself into. I embrace it. Everything is strategy. You have to take the crowd. Sometimes you have to go with the vibe in the room, sometimes you want to be the one who shifts it in a whole different direction. When it comes time for the slam to start, I'm not silly Myriha anymore, I'm quiet, I'm looking around the room and studying the audience, locking down which poem will affect the room.

MT: So you're all about the competition?

Burton: Before poetry kind of took over, I played basketball and was on the track team. Now it's all poetry. SLAM satisfies my competitive streak — I'm itching for competition.

MT: What do you have to remind yourself not to do up on stage?

Burton: Always keep it honest. If there's one thing I hate, it's an overly dramatic performance. Some of the people who go up there, they cry every time they're on stage. Every single time, every single poem. We know you're fakin' it. Never fake cry, never fake an emotion.

MT: Solid advice. 

Buton: Versiz (Jamaal May) told me that — he's the coach of the Detroit youth slam team.

MT: As well as a Grand SLAM champ and one of the city's most notorious poets. Who else do you look up to?

Burton: I'm always trying to get pointers from Versiz, but, man, there's also T. Miller, Cassie Poe and Blair. There's more too. Detroit has some serious poets.

MT: Now that you've been exposed to poets from other regions, what sets Detroit's poets apart?

Burton: As far as style? Not sure. I think, as far as SLAM goes, cats in Detroit can really write. That's where we excel. A lot of people are good at writing and a lot of people are good at performing, but not everyone can do both. For whatever reason, I think we have more who can.

MT: You're pretty upbeat and have a good sense of humor — your poems show a much more serious side.

Burton: Man, I'm one of the silliest people you'll probably ever meet — easygoing and all of that. I think that a lot of times, unless you really sit down with someone and get to know them on a deeper level, you'll never have a clue of what that person's really been through. Poetry is how I converse like that. But at the same time, though, I write about the abusive relationship my sister's in, and that my father passed away the day before my birthday, I never put myself out front as the subject. I think I'm still waiting to write that poem.

MT: How do you go about separating the personal, emotional weight of the subject from the performance?

Burton: I have a knack for committing things to memory — I do it so well that I don't even have to think about what I'm saying, like "what line comes next?" Sometimes I'm thinking about that lady in the front row who looks like someone famous or something, or I'm thinking about what I have to do the next morning. Sometimes though, when I do lock in on what I'm saying and not so much on how I'm saying it, the performance comes from an emotionally raw place. But I hate crying. Where I'm from, you don't really cry, you know what I'm saying?

MT: How has your family reacted to your life as a poet?

Burton: There was this show called History of the Word with Saul Williams at Music Hall about two years ago. That's when I wrote the first poem, "Flashback," which I hate now, it's garbage.

MT: Artists always hate their early work but think their next piece is a masterpiece. 

Burton: Yeah, I still like it to some degree, but compared to how far I've come since, it's garbage. So, yeah, this lady saw me perform it and asked if I would be interested in coming out to New York for a show at the Apollo. That was something else — we stayed in Time's Square, we saw Hairspray on Broadway. Once my family saw that I could really go places with this — literally — they've been cool with it.

MT: If you could go back two years when you were just getting started and give yourself some advice, what would you tell yourself?

Burton: I'd definitely tell myself to slow down, try not to act nervous, and try not to sound like I'm rapping. I'd also have to tell myself to avoid faulty concepts, like writing all of those "wake up, black people" poems. I hate that stuff now, you know? I mean, it's not like there's some messages we should be sending, because we should, but it got to the point where, like, every SLAM was full of those "wake up black people" poems. That got really boring. I want to be different; I think every poet should want to.

MT: I saw a video of you and another up-and-coming Detroit poet, Reonna Barnes, performing a piece together, "Two Mommies." Same-sex child rearing is a unique topic for any poet, but especially so coming from a couple high school kids from Detroit. Would that poem be received differently at a SLAM than it would at your high school's auditorium?

Burton: A good number of poets are homosexual, and every other SLAM poet out there has a gay poem or two, so they usually love it before it's even over. At Cass Tech, some people wouldn't get it — others might. But, to be honest, what other people think is very unimportant to me. I know that sounds harsh. I value my family, and my mother is very important to me, and I care what she thinks, but there are just not too many other people who I care what they think. Even though I'm very sociable, I only have two real friends. I care about what they think.

MT: Do you erect a barrier?

Burton: I'm going to be real — I'm from the hood. A lot of people in the hood get drunk all day, they're high smokin' weed all day, people sell drugs. I don't want to be associated with any of that, you know? The hood plays against you, it sets traps for you. There's nothing for me there — poetry keeps me out.

MT: So the hood has put a bit of an edge on you. It's that same edge that has fueled some of this country's best art. Whole movements, like hip hop — a close cousin of SLAM — have come out of it. Would you say hip hop plays into your poetry?

Burton: It's definitely there, if you're looking for it. In the early stuff, you don't even have to look for it. The more I write, the less concerned I am about rhythm and rhyme. Like hip hop though, I'm starting to see more SLAM poems about SLAM poetry.

MT: Rappers, in my experience, aren't exactly keen on creative criticism.

Burton: If it's something that Nandi Comer or Versiz have to say, I'm listening. In fact, I'll listen to all criticism. I might not take it all, but I'll listen to everything. I'm not trying to act like I got this all figured out.

MT: What have you figured out?

Burton: That I want to — and have to — get out of this youth poetry box I'm in. Take Brave New Voices. It's supposed to be about poetry and spoken word, but it's really a performance competition. The more you do on stage, the more points you get. You're on for three minutes and ten seconds and if you rap, dance or sing you're going to get more points.  I mean, you don't even really have to be saying shit in your poem — it's all about being entertained. That's not me — I've figured out that I'm a poet. 

Myriha Burton performs Saturday, Jan. 2 at 1515 Broadway, 313- 965-1515.

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]