Ebony Stewart (Jen Reel)

Direct Quote: Words on a Stage


A version of this story ran in the April 2015 issue.

Ebony Stewart is a 32-year-old poet, performer and three-time Austin Neo Soul Poetry Slam Champion. Recently she’s begun performing fewer slam poetry events in order to concentrate on advancing her career touring universities and organizations across the United States, where she discusses sexual health, gender and body-image issues through performance and workshops.

“When my parents were going through their divorce, it was a very difficult time and I wanted to write to get away from everything. So I was journaling and writing and jotting down thoughts, just to get it out. I was 8. I remember distinctively sitting in my closet when my dad was being abusive towards my mom. I would close the door and sit in my closet and sit on top of my shoes with my teddy bears, and I would read them these entries I would be writing. It was a way for me to zone out when all these things were happening around me.

“Initially I thought I was going to be a rapper. I would write my best friend letters in rap form, and she was like, ‘Can you just write me a regular letter? Does it have to rhyme? Really?’ I was like, ‘OK, you’re right. ’Cause it takes me a long time to write you back, I get it.’ … But music was very fulfilling for me, and that stemmed from my father as a drummer, and so music was a very big part of me. So it was, ‘What kind of music can I create?’ and my poetry became the music. Without the harmony or the instruments, but the rhythm was there.

“I talk a lot about relationships, sexual health, body image, women. I talk about black history because I’m a black woman, right? I talk about a lot of different things. I write about my life or what experiences transpire throughout my life. It might be a memory that jogs me to write about something.

“For me, [slam] wasn’t always something that made me feel good, because I started getting more concerned about the points rather than the poetry.”

“For me, [slam] wasn’t always something that made me feel good, because I started getting more concerned about the points rather than the poetry. So I was like, ‘I need to take a step back from it.’ … It’s also good for me not to get validation from slam, you know … but just rather, ‘I did this ’cause I wanted to. I did this for me.’ And nobody gets to take that away. Nobody gets to judge that.

“I always want to be the woman that brings that fierceness and that fire so other women can get lit. Women are these matches and they don’t even know. I want to bring that fire and come to women in a way that isn’t necessarily gentle but that’s honest and recognizable. ‘We can work together on this.’ You know, I never want to go into a slam or a performance and let someone think that because I’m a woman I’m weak. Nobody has said that to me, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking that’s what’s being thought. For whatever reason, I’m obligated in my head to be, ‘Naw, I’m going to show you, tell you how it is.’

“How I approach anything I share is because that’s what I want to share. … I’ll do this poem about empowering women because I know what it feels like to not be empowered. And then hopefully in that poem, not just women but people will relate and it will be a poem that everyone gets.

“I think that for me, in my poems, I just want to keep pushing that message over and over again. And I don’t know, people might get tired of these stories I tell or these poems I write, and maybe I’ll get tired of them when things change completely, but until then I’m good with it, and I’m going to keep writing them the way I’m writing them.”

Interview has been edited and condensed.