CHAPEL HILL - The hip hop beats coming from the DJ’s table made the room in Flyleaf Books pulsate.
A group of kids filed in to the Sacrificial Poets’ open mic night, bobbing their heads and swaying their bodies to the rap.
Some wore cut-off shorts and tank tops to stay cool in the hundred degree heat outside. But others were covered head to toe in capes and spandex.
The superhero edition poetry slam kicked off with several charged performances.
Then, 17-year-old Ruben Angulo took his place behind the microphone, nervously adjusting his backwards Dodgers snapback.
It was his first time at the mike, but Angulo opened up to a room of strangers about his dad abandoning him. After he dropped his last line, the audience erupted in applause.
The monthly open-mic nights held by the Sacrificial Poets, a group of local competitive youth poets, have generated a substantial following since the group started them in 2008.
Despite hardships and even tragedy, the Sacrificial Poets is now expanding. Always loosely organized, it will now have official leaders and its own meeting place in Chapel Hill.A tragic start
When the poetry group formed in 2005, it was called the Chapel Hill Slam Team. But three years later, a local tragedy prompted the group to change its name.
The group adopted “Sacrificial Poets” after 20-year-old member Irina “Ira” Yarmolenko was murdered, said C.J. Suitt, development and public relations director.
Yarmolenko, a UNC-Charlotte sophomore, was found dead next to her car on the banks of the Catawba River in Mount Holly May 5, 2008.
“We felt Ira’s life was a sacrifice,” said executive director Will McInerney, who joined the Sacrificial Poets four years ago.
Jake Jacoby, the program director, had attended Chapel Hill High School with Yarmolenko.
“She was the last person we ever expected something like this to happen to,” he said. “She really didn’t have any enemies.”
In poetry competitions, the sacrificial poet is the name given to the individual who goes first. This poet is “sacrificial” because he or she is graded the harshest and usually receives a bad score, Suitt said.
“We continue the Sacrificial Poets in her honor.”Youth education
Angulo takes his seat next to friends who congratulate him on the reading.
Though this was Angulo’s first time reading at the Flyleaf open-mic night, he is not new to writing poetry.
“My way of getting away from things is through poetry,” he said.
Angulo said he listens to his favorite rappers on repeat as he writes. Rappers tell stories through their lyrics, and poetry lets Angulo tell his own story about the father he’s never met.
Like Angulo, the other young poets who signed up at open-mic night don’t hold back.
A boy wearing a lavender shirt tucked into khaki pants sings “Imagine” by John Lennon before “spitting” a poem that catalogs the injustices of Amendment One, the amendment to the state constitution that bans same-sex marriage.
Reading from a sheet of printer paper, he said he felt ashamed when the amendment passed. The night it passed, he said the only person he could think of was gay uncle.
Another poet, a girl with a tight brown bun, unleashes her frustrations with the dating scene. The audience snaps its fingers as she recalls the days you weren’t expected to sleep with someone on the first date.
Adults in the audience perk up when she mentions the need for parents to talk openly and educate their kids about sex.
“Young people are told they are not important,” McInerney said. “But we can learn from them if we take the time to listen.”
The Sacrificial Poets teach their curriculum called YouTH ink. in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Durham Public Schools.
The staff oversees a program called poetic justice, a 10-week program that teaches students how to take control of their emotions and put their reflections on paper.
“They are taught their whole lives to keep their emotions inside,” program director Jake Jacoby said. “But we go in, and tell them it’s OK to feel the way they do.”Need for expansion
In the past, the Sacrificial Poets ran meetings out of their apartments or cafes because they didn’t have an official meeting space.
The group uses facilities at The Marian Cheek Jackson Center, a historical society that works to preserve African-American communities in Chapel Hill. But McInerney said he realized the Sacrificial Poets needed a place to call their own.
The group’s emphasis on youth education drew the attention of Robert Humphreys, president of the Street Scene, a drug- and alcohol-free place for local teens in the basement of the Franklin Street post office.
Humphreys said when he first saw the Sacrificial Poets perform two years ago, he was completely blown away.
“The poems that these kids write, and then speak, are powerful,” Humphreys said. “It’s certainly not what you would expect from the typical teenager.”
After that show, he told Suitt that the Sacrificial Poets could use Street Scene whenever they needed.
“We knew they were a struggling nonprofit trying to make their way in the community and do good things for young people,” he said.
He recently agreed to let the group work permanently out of the Street Scene, part of which is being turned into offices for the group. Though Humphreys is letting the poets use Street Scene for free, he said it as a mutually beneficial arrangement.
“They provide services to teenagers, and we provide them with a space,” he said.
The newly instated board of directors recently held its first meeting there. The board will help the group manage its finances when it files to become a tax-exempt nonprofit and allocate salaries for staff positions that until now have gone unpaid.
Though the poetry group is growing, its goals and mission will remain the same.
“The ultimate goal is to break the silence,” said Suitt.
The silence that we encounter in everyday situations is the most jarring, he said.
“I was in a subway in D.C. and I wanted to put a sign up saying, ‘Don’t talk to the person next to you’ – just to make people think about it.”