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National slam poetry champion Douglas Powell, aka Roscoe Burnems, breaks barriers with his new collection of poetry, “God, Love, Death and Other Synonyms” 

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Scott Elmquist

Music makes singular impressions on every listener and interpretations of a composition's lines or lyrics differ from one person to the next.

In the same way, poetry — reading, writing or performing — is an individual experience, says Richmond-born artist and writer Douglas Powell, who bears the moniker Roscoe Burnems on stage and on the page.

"[Poetry] is like viewing a painting," says Powell, a national poetry slam champion and founder of Richmond-based arts collective, the Writer's Den. "Everyone will see different things in it."

Powell's second collection of poetry, "God, Love, Death, and Other Synonyms," published in February, is open to interpretation, he says, adding that whatever readers find, "I'm hoping they will find themselves in this book."

A longtime lyricist and fixture on the East Coast performance poetry scene, Powell honed his craft as a Tuesday Verses crew member, writing and performing poems and spoken word compositions at Richmond's most senior open-mic series, started by the late Lorna Pinckney more than 15 years ago.

His persona Roscoe Burnems was forged "in the creative crucible of [Tuesday] Verses," says Powell, 32. Starting in 2006, he learned from "some of the best MCs, artists and poets that the state has ever seen," he says.

Open-mic experiences like Tuesday Verses provide a community of like-minded writers and artists the opportunity to share original works with live audiences in an intimate setting. Songs, poems and spoken-word compositions flow freely in these communal, creative settings. Anyone may take the stage to share this type of art that emanates from the heart.

Powell has perfected the art of slam poetry: a hybrid event that synthesizes the open-mic experience with elements of competition. Poets perform their pieces, usually adhering to a time limit of three minutes with a grace period of 10 seconds. Members of the audience then judge the quality of each writer's work, taking note of their delivery and stage presence.

Powell has performed at slams nationwide, competing as an individual artist and as part of several teams at longstanding series such as the Southern Fried Poetry Slam, held annually during the first week of June in rotating cities throughout the Southeast since 1993. Powell has ranked nationally at Southern Fried poetry tournaments multiple times since 2009, and, performing with the DC Beltway team, was named the National Poetry Slam champion in 2014.

Here at home, Powell has been a slam poet and slam team performance writing coach for more than a decade, fusing his oratorical talents with groups like SlamRichmond and Art 180. "God, Love, Death, and Other Synonyms" takes Powell's presence from the stage to the page, through dozens of poems that explore aspects of the human experience to which anyone may relate.

"I'm talking to everybody," Powell says crisply. "These poems center on relationships: We all have them. The relationships we establish with our spirituality, the relationships we establish with loved ones — romantic, platonic, familial, et cetera — and our relationships with mortality," he says.

Using his personal narrative as a vehicle, Powell addresses conditions of humanity, like identity and spiritual beliefs. Most striking are Powell's examinations of tough topics, namely depression, anxiety and self-esteem. In candid lines about his mental health experiences through the lens of his identity as an African-American man, Powell says these poems have "allowed conversations to open up about how depression looks in black men."

Mental health is a topic often shrouded in secrecy within black communities, and Powell explains that thoughts of suicide or admitting depression is widely considered taboo. To help break down this stigma, Powell appears in a newly released, locally produced documentary titled "Man … Listen," and he will perform poems from his book at the film's premiere screening March 23.

"Man … Listen" filmmaker and executive producer Nikkea Sharee, half of award-winning film production house Kweli Legacy, says Powell's poetic candidness about his own mental health journey was the reason she asked him to participate in the project.

"[Powell] played an important role in the film [and] his contribution will break barriers as it pertains to thoughts of suicide and fighting depression daily," Sharee says. "We felt it important to show how those perceived to be the strongest amongst us are able to cope in their weakest moments and fight daily to overcome. His story was empowering and we are certain it will help many." 

"Man … Listen" is the second documentary Sharee and Kweli Legacy has produced in recent years. The first, "Sis, You OK?" highlights "the unique experiences that African Americans face daily as it pertains to trauma, anxiety, depression, suicide and overall mental health," with a focus on black women, Sharee says. Like the first film, "Man…Listen" will be available to steam on Amazon Prime Video after the premiere.

After celebrating the book's release at his beloved Tuesday Verses in February, Powell embarked on a regional book tour and performed selected works at venues from Washington to North Carolina, Florida and Texas. A few weeks ago, a guest at his first tour stop in Fayetteville reminded him of his poetry's purpose.

"A young lady came up after the show. I had talked about different levels of prejudice that night, and how that affects people and how they see themselves. I was speaking from a socio-economic standpoint, but this woman started speaking from an ableism standpoint." She confided in Powell that because she has multiple sclerosis, "all people see when they look at me is my disability," he says. The woman told Powell that experiencing his poetry made her "feel seen and understood."

"That's what my work is all about, and I think that is the power of poetry," he says. "It reaches beyond us as individuals and connects us to each other."

God, Love, Death and Other Synonyms" is available for purchase on Amazon or on the website of a Texas-based independent publishing house, 310 Brown Street.

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