Richmond Poet Laureate Slams RPS For Lack of Payment

Roscoe Burnems says he's been waiting too long to pay artists for RPS youth poetry slam tournament.

To say that Richmond’s first poet laureate, Douglas Powell, artistically known as Roscoe Burnems, is “very upset” with Richmond Public Schools (RPS) is an understatement.

In a recent post on Facebook, he vows that he will “never do another program through RPS again.” He explains in the post and later, during a telephone interview: “Neither [he] nor the teaching artists who worked with him to organize the RPS Youth Poetry Slam Tournament, have been paid.”

Despite having a signed $17,700 contract and submitting a detailed invoice for the work, the bill is now nearly two months past due, he says.

“The measures they [RPS] go through to not pay you is unparalleled,” he says. Exhausted and frustrated by what he sees as bureaucratic hoops and a litany of excuses from RPS administrators, he took his lament to social media.

When asked why the bill hasn’t been paid, RPS School Board chair and 5th-district member, Stephanie Rizzi, had this to say: “I mean, vendors need to make it clear that they are vendors and not fully community servants.”

Nonetheless, Rizzi says she feels “a little taken advantage of in this. If they are paid, there needs to be an evaluative component to their work.” Having served as a judge at the tournament, she recalls that “almost all of the poems those students presented were sad, traumatic and hopeless.”

She says she wonders if the program is run by professionals who understand how to help our young people process their emotions. “When the poems are about rape, sexual abuse, cheating boyfriends, without any deeper analysis, then it could be problematic.”

Powell bristles at the notion that the poems created by the students who participated in the tournaments were somehow too sad, traumatic, or too hopeless.

“The purpose of poetry,” he says, is to call us all to be more fully human. “At its best, poetry is a way for healing and transformation to happen, it is about exposing the truth of our lives — it is not to simplify and compartmentalize issues that the students face in their lives.”

Powell is an author, spoken-word artist, educator, and Richmond’s inaugural poet laureate; named so by Mayor Levar Stoney in 2021. A TEDx speaker, he is the founder of The Writer’s Den, a poetry-based art collective. In 2021, he received an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship. More recently, he was named a member of Style Weekly’s Top 40 under 40 Class of 2023.

During his time as a slam poet, Powell has twice been a Southern regional team finalist, as well as a National Poetry Slam (NPS) champion. As a poetry slam coach, he was a NPS group piece finalist and took Virginia Commonwealth University’s poetry team to a third place ranking internationally.

However, Rizzi remains critical of Powell posting on his Facebook page about this issue. “He could have reached out to me before doing this social media thing.”

Says Burnem: “Please spare me the ‘don’t put this on social media’ […] Emails, calls and conversations haven’t worked and I got artists to pay. Someone in Richmond owes me money.”

All he wants to know now, he says, is when will he and the teaching artists be paid?

Says Rizzi, July 15th.

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