When Tonita Few started work as admissions counselor for the School of Professional Studies at Raleigh’s William Peace University in 2004, she came ready to spread the joy of spoken-word poetry.
“I had always wanted to bring spoken-word poetry to the campus,” says Few. “For some reason, it just never took off until this year.”
In the meantime, she and a group of local enthusiasts worked together to arrange spoken-word performances around Raleigh, and that’s how she met Atlanta-based performer Abyss in 2012. She already knew about him from his appearances on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam.”
They struck up a friendship, and it’s paid off. On Thursday, he’ll share the stage at the university’s Belk Dining Hall with hip-hop/reggae/R&B band UpRite Lions from Greensboro, and phenoMEnal, a student poetry group that Few put together and mentors on campus.
It won’t be the first time that Derrick “Abyss” Graham, 43, has visited a college campus in his mission to educate folks about the art of poetry. In a 16-year career that follows eight years of military service, the activist/poet has also performed at after-school programs, churches, jails and community centers.
After he left the Navy, Abyss says, he worked “in corporate America for five years. At the same time, I’m developing my craft.”
He was more interested in producing music than crafting words until he went to an open-mic night in Jacksonville, Fla., that featured spoken-word poetry.
“That changed my life,” he says.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I’ve got so much to say.’ But at that time, my vice was bigger than my vision. It was superficial. Kind of like radio is today.”
He gained some experience, maturity and perspective as he traveled as an opening act for chitlin’-circuit comedians. Eventually he taught himself guitar, and now he sometimes accompanies himself with it, as well as keyboard and djembe.
“It’s a vibe thing,” he says.
One of the students performing at the Thursday show, 18-year-old freshman Nina Barrett of Virginia Beach, is almost as experienced a poet as Abyss.
The pre-law student says she’s been writing verse since she was about 9 years old.
“It came from having a lot of books around the house,” she says. “Reading was very important in our house. And my older brother got into poetry, and somehow, he just put it onto me.”
Inspired by William Shakespeare, Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou, she stuck with it and went on to perform spoken word at various colleges, as well as open mics in Raleigh and Virginia.
Last year, before coming to Peace University, she first heard about Abyss from her mother, a poetry fan who saw him perform in Virginia and came home raving about it. As a college student, Barrett heard about him again from Few, who showed students numerous videos of Abyss.
“I was just amazed by his craft,” says Barrett.
Few says she’s gratified by the enthusiasm Peace students have shown toward poetry, and she’s glad to give young budding poets the opportunity to share feelings they might otherwise be too shy to express.
And there’s one more thing.
“The students write,” Few says. “That’s what I love about it – reintroducing them to the art of writing.”