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Passion for Poetry: Student Finds Voice Through Spoken Word

Graduating senior Justin Williams, at one time a shy and reserved student, uses spoken-word poetry to shine.

Date: 6/5/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Kim Burdett

UC ingot   Hughes High School may only be a short walk to the University of Cincinnati, but it’s been a long road for McMicken graduating senior Justin Williams. As an honors student in the math and science track at Hughes, Williams was geared up for a career as a mechanical engineer.

Justin Williams.
Williams, a spoken-word poet, hopes to continue his education in UC's English department.

“I thought I had a love for math and science but when I got to college that wasn’t the case,” says Williams, who will graduate from the university this quarter with a bachelor’s in English. “It was a struggle and I found out it wasn’t something I was passionate about.”

His grades dropped, some scholarships revoked, but the Madisonville native didn’t give up. With the support and guidance of the staff in Ethnic Programs and Services, the Darwin T. Turner Scholar and Cincinnati Pride Grant recipient was able to find his true passion: poetry.

“Once I got to college, I started going to open mikes on campus to listen and watch other poets,” he says. “When a good friend of mine would go up and recite her poems from memory, I said, ‘Wow, she has a great stage presence. How is she doing what she’s doing?’”

That was when Williams started performing spoken word poetry on a regular basis. The more he performed, he says, the more comfortable he felt.

It was this outlet of artistic expression that has helped Williams come out of his shell, says Brandi Hutchins, program director of Ethnic Programs and Services, who has known him since he came to UC as a high school junior to participate in the Darwin T. Turner Scholars Program Coca-Cola Summer Collegiate Experience in 2004.

“I’ve watched him grow up,” she says. “He used to be quiet and reserved. Then all of the sudden he had this gift of spoken word. Give him a microphone, and he will just say the most dynamic words of inspiration.”

Today, Williams says he performs spoken word whenever he gets the chance. He frequents places on campus, such as the African American Cultural & Research Center, TUC and Catskeller, and sometimes makes appearances at off-campus locations. One of his favorite pieces he uses to introduce himself at his performances is called “Why Do I Write?”

Justin Williams.
The McMicken senior will graduate from the university on June 13.

Why Do I Write?
By: Justin Williams

When someone asks me why I write, I find the answer remains the same
Because maintaining this poetically relevant mind frame is the only thing left to keep me from going insane

See, we reside in a time where bullets create pools of blood as bodies fall to the wayside
And sons who sell rocks and carry 9mm glocks would rather die than listen to their own mothers’ silent cries

So I write with the hopes that dope BOYS will one day transform into grown MEN,
So that my home can never be surrounded by people who are D.O.A. by way of powder-filled packages again

And so I use this God-given double-edged sword disguised as my tongue to help me win a seemingly unwinnable war.
Otherwise, in the midst of all this death and demise, I’d be tucked in by a straight jacket, and having sweet dreams behind padded walls and a bolted door.

His poetry consistently focuses on political and social issues, topics that helped him excel in “Discourse Communities,” one of his favorite classes taught by Assistant Professor of English Lisa Meloncon.

“He took a very creative approach when looking at course material,” Meloncon says. When presenting on the topic of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Williams created an original poem that represented the struggles of the native people they were discussing.

“The poem was scholarly, but it was also creative,” she continues. “He is so passionate, so energetic, so dynamic.”

These traits helped him in his campus life as well. He was the president of the Black Arts Collaborative, a member of the Collegiate 100 and United Black Student Association, and was named Mr. Kuamka, a title that even allowed him the honor to introduce Spike Lee when the film director visited campus for a lecture series.

Williams is quick to credit UC for giving him opportunities that would otherwise not be available to him. As a Cincinnati Pride Grant recipient, he received enough federal, state and institutional aid to equal the full cost of tuition and books for his four years at the university. The grant is given to qualifying graduates of Cincinnati Public Schools who can maintain federal guidelines for academic success, remain in good standing within their academic program and continue full-time enrollment.

“It’s been a blessing,” he says. “It’s more than just paying for my education, it’s giving me a chance to interact with people and do what I love to do most.”

He hopes to continue following his passions, and wants to do so in the English department’s graduate program for creative writing. His ultimate goal, he says, is to garner a PhD so he can help others find their passions.

“This is the path I’m most passionate about,” Williams says. “I want to be able to express my love for it but also inspire someone to follow what they love to do.”

Williams will be marching with the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences in the 2:30 p.m. commencement ceremony on Saturday, June 13.

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