Something to say
Ben Arnold hosts weekly poetry open mics and slams for Reno youth
Open mic nights can be a tricky thing. No matter what the genre of art or music, they often attract the lowest common denominator of talent. It makes one ask the question: Is sitting through a bunch of crap for the hope of one good piece of art worth it?
Ben Arnold, a local slam poet, occasional freelance writer, graffiti artist and teacher at Wooster High School, thinks so. As an English teacher, he’s used to bad writing, so he may have a higher tolerance than the rest of us. But he sees potential in some youth poetry.
“I’m blunt, too,” he says, regarding coaching students on writing. “If I have a student that thinks he can write like no one else, and his writing is the worst I’ve seen in five years, I tell him.”
That’s part of the reason why Artown recruited him to host weekly all-ages poetry workshops throughout July at Se7en Tea House and Bar on West Street, where he’s been hosting open mic nights since January.
Arnold understands the need for young people to express themselves. He speaks to the rebellious teen spirit: “What’s their cause? What’s their message?”
But Arnold is probably more rebellious than many of his students. He’s pleasant and well mannered, but he certainly doesn’t sugarcoat anything. Sitting at Mel’s Diner, sporting a messy beard and a Reno Envy T-shirt that doesn’t quite cover the colorful half-sleeve tattoos on his upper arms, Arnold dives into a conversation about life, death, his writing career, and how working with Reno’s youth has influenced him.
What would normally have been a standard 30-minute press interview turns into a three-hour candid conversation about everything from the major lack of money in writing as a profession—“That’s why I’m an English teacher,” he says—to how his students turned him on to the art of graffiti when he was 30 years old and one year into his teaching career. He also discusses how the death of a former student of his, artist Luis Sedano-Felix, both inspired him to pursue his own art further and showed him, in an all-too-real example, the tragedies of gang life. Arnold doesn’t spend much time talking about the open mic itself. He doesn’t need to. Writers are inspired by these defining moments in life. The story of Sedano’s life and death are also the story of Arnold’s inspiration.
Luis Sedano-Felix was a graffiti writer, not a gangster. He was also a 19-year-old psychology major at the University of Nevada, Reno, and a community service volunteer who often helped clean up the Neil Road area, a place some referred to as a ghetto. In high school he was in several student clubs, graduated with honors and was loved by his teachers.
On Oct. 31 last year, a gangster shot and killed Sedano and his cousin Jesus Garibay, 20, after they crossed out graffiti on Neil Road.
The tragedy inspired Arnold, who paints graffiti art with many of Sedano’s friends, to write a poem called “depress”:
one thing into another
then things spun
sharpies and notebooks
Montana cans and alleys
a wannabe thug
got his name crossed out
now Luis can’t even breathe
I wish we could go back
to when graf writers
weren’t confused with gangs
my friend didn’t live
in the old school
he’s now depressed
into the earth
way too soon
Another of Arnold’s poems, “Ya keep makin me” is an ode to other writers, both famous poets and students of his. A passage from the poem reads:
I thank Ismael Reed
for reminding me
that “Writin’ is fightin’”
and that tenure jobs just don’t mean shit.
My two Mormon girls bring in poetry
that their parents would tear
and I thank someone’s god
for letting them still learn.
Arnold’s BEtheCAUSE open mic nights include a slam poetry contest, as well. Arnold hopes that, throughout the summer, he can filter through young poets and create a six-person youth slam poetry team that will be able to compete against teams in other cities.
“I really do want this to be a bridge for these younger writers and artists to get into the real world with it,” says Arnold.
BEtheCAUSE is also linking up with the poetry collective Spoken Views and youth art advocacy group Holland Project—two groups that have had varying success with youth workshops.
“If we all work together, which we’re starting to with this summer stuff, I think it’ll help all three groups,” says Arnold.
Two films related to spoken word poetry, Slam and The Cruise, are shown July 4 from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. at West Street Market. $5 suggested donation.