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Tracy Frank, Published March 03 2014

Express yourself: Teens organize ‘Outlet’ for performance poetry

FARGO - Teens and adults bare their souls each month into a microphone onstage at Red Raven Espresso Parlor.

They talk about deeply personal topics like relationships, suicide, abuse and sexuality. Some have memorized what they’re going to say, while others read their own or someone else’s poetry from a book, cellphone, notebook or slips of paper.

But those who share their innermost thoughts with a room full of friends and strangers say it’s a very freeing experience.

The event, called Outlet, is a venue for people to express themselves through spoken-word poetry (also known as performance poetry or slam poetry.)

Teens Hannah Westerholm and Jackie Kelsh, who organize the events, were inspired by videos of performance poetry they had seen online, Kelsh says.

“Fargo is such an artsy town that we were surprised it wasn’t here,” said 17-year-old Westerholm, of Fargo.

They chose the name Outlet, she says, because it sums up what they want the events to be.

“It’s a place for adults and teens to express themselves in a healthy environment,” Westerholm said. “It’s a safe place where they can creatively express themselves.”

Westerholm, who’s also a folk musician, says spoken-word poetry has helped her through hard times.

“Not only did performing and writing the poetry for Outlet help, but so did watching other people perform and listening to other people’s stories,” she said. “That is the main thing that really helps me, listening to other people’s stories.”

Kelsh says performing makes her feel better.

“It’s this group of people who are completely non-judgmental and are just there to listen and are interested in the same things you are,” the 15-year-old said. “Maybe not necessarily in the same way, but they’re all interested in this poetry.”

Heather Grosz, 23, of Fargo has been going to the Outlet since they started in November and has performed both her own poetry and other people’s works.

“It was nerve-racking the first time because I was never comfortable performing my poetry in front of people, but it’s a really non-judgmental atmosphere,” she said. “I’m the kind of person who keeps my walls up a little bit, so it took a lot of courage.”

Grosz says she has always liked listening to performance poetry. It can be an emotional experience for the audience, especially if they can relate to what the performer is saying, she said.

“It’s nice to have an outlet like this in Fargo,” she said. “I’ve had all these pieces that I’ve always wanted to share but I never knew where to share it.”

Grosz says she has shared really personal stories, like living with Tourette syndrome.

“That was kind of nice to get that off my chest,” she said. “A lot of people came up to me afterward and said they could relate to what I had said.”

People who may at first be nervous about performing usually build up their courage as they night goes on and they see more people performing, Kelsh said. Once they do it, she says they’re often hooked.

“So many people have come up to me and said, ‘This is so great. Thank you so much for starting this event. I’ve written poems before and never had a place to perform them,’ ” she said. “Now they have that place. It’s their outlet.”

Both Kelsh and Westerholm say they’re surprised by how popular the event has been, even from the beginning. More than 60 people showed up just from an announcement on Facebook and the event just keeps growing.

Would-be performers can ask to be put on the set list ahead of time through Outlet’s Facebook page. There’s also an open mic for people who decide to perform in the spur of the moment.

There are no rules about what to perform or how to perform. There are also no age restrictions, but sometimes the language used is not family friendly.

“We don’t want to tell people how to express themselves,” Westerholm said.

At the same time, if crass language is used, she asks that it’s necessary and not just for effect.

Performers are limited to two poems so everyone who wants to take the stage has a chance to do so.

“Everyone talks about the energy and the vibe of the room,” Westerholm said. “People are so accepting. It’s a very positive, loving environment with complete strangers.”

If You Go

WHAT: Outlet spoken word poetry

WHEN: 7 to 9 p.m. first Thursday of the month

WHERE: Red Raven Espresso Parlor, 916 Main Ave., Fargo


• To watch a video of Outlet spoken-word poetry, go to inforum.com.

• Facebook page: http://goo.gl/efMj2Q

• redravenespressoparlor.com

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526