Something to say

Ben Arnold hosts weekly poetry open mics and slams for Reno youth

BEtheCAUSE workshops are from 1-4 p.m. every Saturday throughout July inside the West Street Market, 134 West St. Open mics, poetry slams and live music will take place from 4-10 p.m.

July 23: Inner Rhythms Guerilla Theatre. This dance and musical performance features classical ballet, jazz, hip hop and modern styles as part of Dancing in the Park. Held 8 p.m. in Wingfield Park. Free.

July 24: Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. Artown is warming up to bluegrass, and Vincent is called the “Queen of Bluegrass” on the national circuit. She and her band play today and July 25 at 7:30 p.m. at Hawkins Amphitheater, 6000 Bartley Ranch Road. $25-35.

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

into thangs

sharpies and notebooks


Montana cans and alleys

airsoft pops

turned into

real bangs

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

but no

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.

Another passage:

My two Mormon girls bring in poetry

that their parents would tear

then burn,

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.