When Matt Foley started organizing poetry slams and performances with local poetry group The Unspoken Word a few years ago, it was tough to fill seats. You need at least five people in the audience (who aren't performers) to serve as judges, Foley says, and there were times when they had to cancel a slam due to low attendance. These days, Foley and his crew, which includes Charleston's first ever poet laureate Marcus Amaker and author Derek Berry, have no trouble drawing crowds at Elliotborough Mini Bar, PURE Theatre, Eclectic Cafe & Vinyl, and Harold's Cabin for their events.
Though Foley didn't always consider poetry a career, his history with the craft runs deep. Growing up in Columbia, he says he found himself listening to bands like Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam in order to deal with tough issues in his life. He fantasized about being a rock star. "Unfortunately for me, I discovered that I had no musical talent whatsoever," Foley says. "My dreams of being in a band were sadly crushed." But he realized that if you took the melody away, song lyrics were really just poems. So he started writing said poems when he was 15 and hasn't stopped since.
Still, Foley didn't exactly plan on becoming a poet. He graduated from the College of Charleston in 2008 with an English degree, which he used to start a career teaching English in Charleston County. Currently he teaches high school English at the Charleston County School of the Arts, where he also holds various youth writing and poetry workshops to help creative-minded students develop their talents.
It wasn't until about five years ago that he began seriously considering the idea of beginning a writing career. "I realized it was time, that I am a writer, and I just [had] to start making stuff happen," he says. Foley, who has published two books of poetry and is working on a third, tells the story of making the decision to dive head-first into writing and performing in his poem "Life Should Be Played Loud:"
don't sit content between covers.
was screaming from the shelf,
"Release me from this paper cage!"
So I placed this poem
on a record player
and let the needle
because this poem was born
with a dying wish:
To Foley, as this poem makes clear, performing his poetry is just as important as writing it because of the direct connection he makes with the audience. "For me, a poem becomes real when I'm sharing it in front of a crowd and I can see people react to it," he says.
Often, bigger cities than Charleston — like New York City or Atlanta — are touted as "better places" for artists. Foley says he, like many artists, was tempted to leave Charleston for one of those cities, but he decided to stay. "The epiphany I had was that those cities have established art communities because someone stayed there and put the work in to make that happen," he says. So Foley, Amaker, and the others he'd connected with in the city started building from the ground up. "It came down to realizing that Charleston's poetry scene needed fresh energy. And we were determined to be the ones to do it."
Fusing his love of poetry with his talent for teaching, in 2014 Foley founded the Holy City Youth Slam, a program encompassing ongoing writing workshops and poetry slams for Charleston youth. Foley says his passion for working with young writers comes from his own childhood. "I remember being that kid who desperately needed an outlet and a way to deal with what was going on in his life and the world," he says. Foley has found that many of his worst-performing students turn to poetry for similar reasons. Often, he says, they're struggling academically because of tough issues at home. "I've seen poetry be a lifeline for students who needed something like that," he says.
Foley's poems range in subject matter from personal issues — like his parents' divorce when he was young and his own just a year and a half ago — to political ones, but many hinge on the theme of social justice. Foley says one of the primary reasons he didn't write much while attending CofC was that he was busy organizing activism groups and leading protests on campus. As he learned more about spoken-word poetry, he discovered that many poets used the stage to shed light on important and often controversial public issues. "I write out of a feeling of obligation that something needs to be said," Foley says. "I discovered the powerful thing about the arts is that it has the ability to change the way people see the world and influence people's hearts and minds."
One of the best examples of this is Foley's poem "Dear Officer (A Poem for Walter Scott)," which takes the point of view of several young white males (including Foley) interacting with an officer. The poem continues with a direct address to Officer Michael Slager, who fatally shot Walter Scott in North Charleston in April 2015:
I am a 30 year old white man
and my life has always mattered.
It is time
Foley and the rest of The Unspoken Word are partnering with MUSC's Alliance for Equality for a poetry event on Sat. Dec. 17 called "Speak Up: Poetry & Dialogue on Social Justice." Charlotte-based Jay Ward, Foley, Amaker, Berry, and others will perform pieces related to the theme, and afterwards the floor will be open for the audience to contribute to the conversation.
"I think we're going through a poetry Renaissance right now," Foley says. He offers up as evidence the packed crowds at spoken-word events around town and the naming of fellow poet Marcus Amaker as Charleston's first poet laureate. "Nobody was more deserving of that than him," Foley says. "It was a signal from our city that poetry is valued and treated as a very necessary art form."
In the upcoming year, Foley is re-focusing his efforts on mentoring adults looking to get started with poetry and performance through a new workshop initiative called Contribute Your Verse. And with all the excitement in the city around poetry as of late, he and Amaker take some (lighthearted) offense to previous descriptions of the Charleston poetry scene as "small" or "developing." Though it continues to grow, Foley says it is no longer a tiny niche in the art community.
"We're here," he says. "We've arrived. We're poetry."