SHane Manier recalls finding the cafe nearly empty – the perfect place 10 years ago to perform a poem she had written about her own suicidal thoughts.
In the poem, titled “Sitting Next to Death on the Fence with a Pack of Cigarettes”, Manier chose Death as the main character, who challenges her to reconsider. She had just finished her round at the open mic of the cafe in Lincolnton, North Carolina, when an older man approached her.
They met their eyes, just for a second.
Then he threw his arms around her and began to cry.
“He said he didn’t know there would be poetry tonight,” she recalls. “He had just been looking for food, coming home and killing himself.
“He told me he wasn’t going to do that, because he heard that poem.”
It was then that Manier realized how powerful poetry could be.
“I was just on fire after that,” she said. “I realized that poetry could not only heal me, but by sharing my story, it could also heal others.
“It feels a lot like real community when you share an article you’ve written that explores a deep, vulnerable part of yourself and to get a response back. This connection of our humanity that is happening is so beautiful because we allow ourselves not to be defined by any judgment.
That same year, Manier founded Guerilla Poets, and the organization began performing poetry in flash mobs across Charlotte—eventually expanding to perform in classrooms, shelters, and retreat centers. Over the past decade, Guerilla Poets has spanned continents and art forms, with 18 artists leading programs in the US and 12 in the UK.
The non-profit organization wants to teach communities how to empower themselves through art – be it poetry, painting or performance – especially marginalized communities.
Several Charlotte organizations have partnerships and contracts with the group, including Time Out Youth, a community organization for LGBTQ+ youth, and The Relatives, a crisis center for homeless youth.
And the organization still performs its own poetry at open mics. The third anthology of the collective’s work will be available in February.
Typically, through a monthly program, members of the collective stop and hold workshops and performances, pairing an art form with a personal development skill, which can vary depending on the demographic group they are working with. . And in addition to performing and teaching, they held clothing and art drives all over town.
Tarik Kiley, who grew up writing raps as a teenager, started performing poetry with the band years ago.
He said that while leading these personal development workshops, he was struck by how much art brings to the participants.
“Children sometimes say they don’t want to participate,” he says. “I think they’re just trying to give me a hard time. I tell them they can sit for an hour and do nothing instead, and when they’re engaged, their defense mechanisms go away.
“They just talk about their life.”
Manier said kids often come in with their hoodies — and tusks — up. And they come out of the workshops changed.
“You can tell they were just waiting for a space to talk about what they’re going through,” she said. “And it’s really powerful to be able to see that in one session.”
And art, she knows from personal experience, empowers people to work through their trauma in healthy ways.
“What art does is it empowers the body to get out of fight or flight. It’s such a powerful tool for someone who’s been through trauma,” she said “A lot of the teams I work with are violent because that’s the only way their body knows how to react. If your body is trapped in trauma, this is the only response you know how to do.
“It’s like you have no choice and you feel like you’re constantly being punished for being traumatized. But if you can show them that they have the ability to change that, it can completely change the trajectory of their life.
how art heals
Poetry has been used throughout history as a means of protest.
It is this power that Manier hopes to harness through Guerilla Poets, as well as equipping the community with other tools to sustain themselves. The group’s website includes a section with information on natural recipes and other street survival tips.
“In poetry, there’s a lot of activism… But usually there’s no call to action at the end,” she said. “You end up with a crowd full of energy, but they don’t know what to do with that energy. One thing we realized is that if you empower people with knowledge and inspiration, you empower that individual to move forward and empower their community.
Another longtime member, Andi Porter, said that many people think of art as “fuzz,” but it has the potential to be so much more than that.
“It’s transformative. It’s healing,” she said. “It helps people express themselves in a way that is sometimes too deep for words.”
Manier said the group knows the power that poetry and art have to change people’s lives. Their mission is to spread this message.
“One of the things we’ve always wanted to do from the beginning is to serve, uplift and inform,” she said. “We just want to leave the world a better place through our art forms.”