We Talking About Poetry?! A Chat With Douglas Powell aka Roscoe Burnems aka Richmond’s First Poet Laurette

by | Jan 22, 2023 | COMMUNITY NEWS, FILM & TV, HIP HOP & RAP

Douglas Powell aka Roscoe Burnems is an accomplished author, spoken-word artist, educator, and Richmond, Virginia’s first poet laureate. He has published multiple collections of poetry, been a two-time southern regional team finalist, National Poetry Slam Champion, and Season 1 Screen Time Slam Champion. He is also a poetry slam coach, TEDx speaker, and founder of the poetry based art collective The Writer’s Den. In 2021, he received an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship. Oh, and check out his comedy Tramedy!

We cover a lot in this conversation from his experience as Richmond’s first poet laureate, which began in 2020 — the challenges he faced, the positive impact has been able to make with the position, and the importance of poetry in the community.

ed note: The search for next Richmond Poet Laureate is happening. Check out rvapoetlaureate.org for more information!

Who are you and what do you do?

My mama named me Douglas Powell, but in most artistic spaces, I go by Roscoe Burnem. I got the nickname in high school, it was an inside joke between me and a friend, but it stuck and I’ve been using it ever since. At the time, I was trying to break into the music industry and thought it would be cool to have Burnem as a last name. Even though I’ve tried to go back to using my real name, most people still know me as Roscoe.

Is having a stage name kind of like having on armor, like you can kind of be an alter ego?

It used to be that way. When I first started performing, whether it was music or poetry, I felt like I could be a completely different person on stage. But as I’ve written and performed more, I’ve wanted to be more honest about my experiences. I realized that there’s no real alter ego, it’s all just me. That’s why I’m comfortable with people calling me by either name. But yeah, in the beginning, it definitely felt like a way to shield a part of myself and be something different.

I went through the same process when I started as an artist. I got out of school and joined a gallery here in town, and created a professional name. It kind of put a layer there, if I got criticised for my work. It wasn’t Tony that was getting criticised, it was “R. Anthony Harris” getting criticised. And as you get older, it’s just like, well, there’s nothing really different between you and the persona you made up. Eventually you start to break down your professional persona and over time become more yourself in a way.

Yeah, you’re right, your work really starts to become a reflection of who you are in that moment. But I think there’s a part of us that wants to separate the two for a little while. Because, you know, even if you’re not a poet giving a heart-wrenching story on stage, there’s a part of being vulnerable in your art. When you’re creating something, it’s your baby, and you don’t want to attach yourself to it in that way. You don’t want to feel broken if it isn’t received the same way. But I think the longer you do this and the more comfortable you become, you’re willing to take on whatever it is because you appreciate your art for what it is and what it’s done for you. So you’re just ready to give it to the world, it doesn’t really matter what people think, it’s like this is what I’ve created, it’s beautiful because I created it and I’m giving it to you to hopefully appreciate as well. And if they don’t, that’s okay.

If it’s honest and real then it’s right. So, when was the first time that you went up on stage and performed poetry?

So technically, I first got on stage in high school. I was rapping first and then transitioned into poetry. It’s funny because people always ask me who my favorite poets are and who I’m currently reading. But, I wasn’t really introduced to poetry through poetry. I started out as a hip-hop head, I love music and fell in love with words at a young age. I always wanted to write songs, and that’s what I thought my career would be in. But then I fell in love with hip-hop after hearing my first Heavy D record and that really changed everything for me. It was on the radio and it was different from what I had heard before. He doesn’t get enough credit. [laughs]

But alright, every day, I was like, “Oh snap, you can do this over a beat, this is why.” And so then I fell in love with hip hop after that. And so that’s when the bug bit me, and I was writing all the time. And so it wasn’t quite poetry just yet.

But then, as I got older, I got introduced to poets like Frost and Angelou, and all the classic poets. And I was writing in English class and everything. And then poetry became this thing, I was like “Oh, this is kind of cool too.” So I was writing, but I wasn’t sharing. So fast forward to high school, in my junior year, I had an English teacher who was super into poetry. And she was like, “This is really good, you should do more of this, you’ve got a lot of talent.” She really encouraged me. And she would do these poetry cafe things that would happen at the high school. And she would push me to get in front and read in front of students and all that kind of stuff. And I didn’t mind being in front of people, I didn’t shy away from the attention.

So that’s really the first time, quote unquote, that I got on stage. But I didn’t really start performing until after I graduated. I was hunting down open mics and that kind of thing. And then a friend of mine told me about this place, I’ll work stage, that was happening monthly, not too far from my house. And then later, the place that really got my feet under me was Tuesday Verses, which was happening every Tuesday in Jackson Ward at the time.

And so when I found Verses everything changed, like Verses was the Mecca, anybody who was anybody was going to Verses because that’s where you proved yourself. They had the best audience, some of the most talented artists came through, rap poets, singers, whatever. And if you rocked it at Verses then you were standing, that was the measure of success in the city. And so that’s where I wanted to be. So I would go, and I started out rapping, and it was cool. But when I would sometimes do poems, the poems were lit, people loved them. And so I was like, “I think I got something here.” And I fell in love with it after that, and that was around 2006.

Photo by Kimberly Frost @kimberlyfrost

So, fast forward to 2014, and you started the Writer’s Den?

Yeah, so I had been slamming with a team in Richmond, with an organization called Slam Richmond. I started competing in 2008, but I was initially against it. I didn’t want anyone putting points on my art. But eventually, I gave in and caught the bug. I loved it. But after a few years, the organization fizzled out. I wanted something like that to be in my city, so I took charge and started the Writer’s Den in December 2014. I had just gotten back from nationals, where I competed with a team representing the DC, Maryland, and Virginia area. We won nationals, and I wanted to bring that experience back to my city. So, we started the Writer’s Den and sent a team to a regional festival and competition in 2015. And we’ve been sending a team every year since then.

I don’t think a lot of people can wrap their heads around the idea that poetry could be a profession. Have you ever had to deal with that when someone’s like what do you do? And I’m a poet, I’m a writer.

Yeah, I’ve been doing this almost 20 years now. My dad explained to my mom and she was like, how do you make money being a poet? Um, so yeah, it’s difficult for people to understand. Sometimes they don’t really know where, where that can take you, but also the lens of what they feel like poetry is is also really narrow as well. So they don’t, they’re not really sure. For some people, the most they’ve been exposed to poetry is the Hallmark card. I mean, so they don’t know where poetry can do, or where it can be. And poetry isn’t often taught as, like the foundation for most writing. But poetic language shows up in damn near everything, right?

It’s definitely in our music, right? Poetry, That’s how that’s how the music starts. It starts with the lyrics and you have this like, this poetic work that you end up putting over a track or over, some type of instrumentation, right. So it’s definitely in our music. But it shows up in keynote speeches, it shows up in commercials and ads, it’s in any play that you’ve ever seen, I mean, there’s poetic language is happening there. And so without poetry in some way, shape, or form, you lose a lot of all the things that we ingest, artistically, or commercially. So poetry and poetry is everywhere.

Where poetry can exist, and that it can exist in damn near all spaces. When I became Poet Laureate, one of the projects that was really important to me was ekphrastic poetry. For context, ekphrastic poetry are just poems written about art, or written to art. So we teamed up with Mending Walls, a nonprofit that put up all these beautiful murals all across the city, all social justice related. We took 11 of those murals, and myself and 10 other poets were assigned a mural, and we had to write an ekphrastic poem centered around whatever that mural was. We recorded it, filmed it and released it on social media. All the videos had thousands of views and it’s also on the Mending Walls website. We’ve found a way to merge these different disciplines and genres, visual art and poetry, so people are able to ingest the art in a different way than they were before. It becomes this multi-layered, multi-sensory experience. And without poetry, we wouldn’t be able to do that. A large project, or rather a project that I’m really proud of, that we did in 2019, prior to being Poet Laureate, was I released a poetry and comedy special. I love comedy and fell in love with it around the same time as poetry. There’s so many parallels, it’s all storytelling. You have to set it up, take people on a journey. We ended up filming this really great special that was centered around mental health. It gets heavy, but then there’s these moments where you’re laughing hysterically, and crying a little bit. A roller coaster of emotions. That was Traumedy and we released it and got it on Amazon Prime. Now people can stream it and see it on their TV.

We were watching it earlier. Looks great. Very smart. 

Yeah, I’m really proud of that. And then we’ve gone on to do some similar work. I got invited to a comedy festival just last year, and it’s different. I mean, it’s a different experience than what people are used to. And I think that’s another thing that artists just in general, regardless of the genre of art you’re in, you have to be experimental a little bit, you have to try different things and put things in different places and see what sticks. You just never know where your art is going to take you.

And so to the original question, yeah, it’s a little difficult sometimes to explain to people what poetry can do, but I think some of that is about changing the narrative, right? Changing how we view poetry, or what poetry can look like, from what we were taught in schools, for example, versus what’s actually happening in the world.

Douglas Powell / Roscoe Burnems photo by Kimberly Frost
Photo by Kimberly Frost @kimberlyfrost

Switching gears, and I’ll come back to the poet laureate question, but how do you pick your subject matter for your poetry now? Like, where does that come from?

So before, I think it was just whatever inspired me at the time. It’s like, there’s a section of my life or section of my art where I’m talking about spirituality a lot, right? But that’s where I was kind of just in my own journey. I was really focused on that.

And that comes from your family background. You had mentioned gospel.

Yeah, my family’s super religious, and I am not anymore. It’s just not something I subscribe to.

Because you’re questioning things?

Yeah, yeah, it is. Or as you get older, you start asking more questions. And I have a lot more access to the world around me than my mom or grandmother did via the internet or just the circles that we’re in. And so you get to see life and spirituality from other people’s perspectives, and you get different points of view. And it does challenge how you think. And I think it’s important to ask questions too. I was always the “why” kid, you couldn’t just tell me something and I would accept it. I needed to know how it worked, why it was the way it is and how we got here. I’ve always been that kid.

So I think it’s important to ask those questions. And the more questions I asked, the more I changed or broaden my view on what spirituality can look like. That was a large part of my journey, especially after graduating high school and then coming out of college. A lot of my work reflected that I was questioning and reflected the ups and downs I was having with growing up Christian and then not always feeling that way at the time, or at least just feeling a little less connected to church in a way. And that shows up in a lot of my early work.

And then when I became a father, a lot of my work started being about parenting. Like when my mom got sick, I was writing often about life and death and what the human experience looks like as an observer watching her deal with her health issues.

And now I talk a lot about mental health. It took me a while to really be vocal about dealing with depression and being suicidal as a youth and having to deal with all these obstacles emotionally and mentally that you have to overcome, especially coming from a black household where mental health isn’t even a thing that comes up. But now I’m an age where I’m like, no, we need to address it. And that’s how “Traumedy” was born. I wanted to talk about mental health in a way that’s different and a little disarming for people so they can come into it without any preconceived notions and have some honest internal dialogue about it. So it’s really just wherever I am. And now I’m a little more cognizant about what I want to put on paper, but I’m also a little more seasoned now, nearing 40, and I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years. So I’m very aware of the direction I want to go in with my art as opposed to just being struck with inspiration and writing whatever comes to mind. So I’m a little more calculated nowadays.

What would you say to someone that maybe is interested in going to a slam poetry event or a poetry event, but has reservations on how they’re supposed to act? Or how they’re supposed to interact with what you’re doing?

I mean, you definitely gotta have the capacity for it. In a capacity for empathy, or listening maybe or capacity to hear some of the stories because the stories can be intense. Especially at a poetry slam, it gets very intense. Like, the poets are not holding back. So, it could be about spirituality and religion, but it could also be poems about sexual assault because that’s what they need to get off their chest. And so you never know what is going to take stage. And so if you don’t have the capacity to emotionally to hear these things, because it can be triggering or it can be uncomfortable then you have to decide if that’s even a space you want to be in. But I encourage everyone to come and listen because the poets when they’re getting up on stage and revealing this part of themselves, they’re doing it because it’s therapeutic, it’s cathartic. And this is a part of their process for shedding a lot of the weight they’ve been carrying. And when you share these things and there are people in the audience that can connect with it or at least understand or empathize, you’re building connections. You’re bringing us all closer as a species, as humans, understanding other humans.

And so if you’re a person who wants to build more connections, I say come. You don’t have to behave in a particular kind of way. There are people who come to the poetry slams and they are fully invested, snapping, yelling, and screaming and stomping because it resonates with them and they’re vocal about it. And there are people who come and sit in the back and just listen. And they don’t say a word and that’s okay too. They come to be a part of the experience, to soak it all in. There’s no right or wrong way to be a part of the experience, as long as you’re not being disrespectful.

So the beauty of live theatre in general, and I feel like live theatre is under appreciated in Richmond, in that there’s a lot of theatre folks out here putting themselves out there all the time. 

Let’s switch gears. So you are Richmond’s first poet laureate. There is currently an application for whoever wants to be the next Richmond Poet Laureate. How has this experience been for you? Like, what was it? I guess you were told kind of early on that you were in the running for this? And then once that happened to you, did anything really change?

It was towards the end of 2020 when they decided to do this. The summer was when they really decided to put a little word out there to allow the poets in the area that this was going to be happening. The City of Richmond put up the position for Poet Laureate. With any Poet Laureate position, there’s a committee, so organizations partnered with the city, city hall and the mayor to put this thing together. They took applications, and I didn’t know I was a runner-up until I got the call, because I didn’t know what the process looked like before then.

So I was really, really grateful to be the first. There’s definitely a learning curve that comes with it. The city had never done this before, and neither did I. We just knew that we wanted to create a positive impact in the city using this art that means so much to me and can have a large effect on a population.

And so with that, we were able to get a mural project done. We were able to grant funding to make that happen and then we were able to do Richmond public schools’ first city-wide poetry slam. All the high schools put together a poetry team. We got poets in the city to be coaches for those teams, to help the kids write and perform and kind of understand the world of spoken word a little better. And then they all competed against each other in a tournament-style competition.

That has to be amazing. It’s like full circle then?

Yeah, it’s full circle. I fell in love with this as a youth and that’s been a large part of my mission statement as an artist – to get this to a younger generation so they can also learn to express themselves in this really vulnerable way. At the tournament, the poetry touched on everything from bullying, to racism, to being an immigrant, to assaults and just wanting to be an individual and wanting to be appreciated for who you are as a person. It was so important. We put no restrictions on these kids when they were writing and performing.

And parents and teachers didn’t know what to expect. Some of these poems really just floored people. But I think the parents walked away with a different perspective of what it’s like being a youth right now. Because they’re hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth, right in front of them. And so when you think about what their experiences are or when you get to hear what their experiences are, you can’t deny what’s happening or what they’re feeling. It changes people’s minds.

This is why poetry is necessary. Those kids learned a lot about themselves. They were so eager, but nervous at first. On the first day, they didn’t want to do it. They were like, “I don’t know, I’m not getting on stage, I’m not going to do that. I don’t want to share that part.” But then they worked through it. We didn’t push anybody too hard. They got to share what they want and not share what they don’t want. But they brought some very vulnerable and powerful poems to an audience and they felt accepted. They found new friends. These were kids who would have never normally interacted with each other. And now, these kids are like fam following each other on Instagram, and they now have this connection through poetry. That’s something that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t brought this medium to them.

Brought another question to my mind about, with all the unrest in 2020, the need and the power of not only photography for video, but also the spoken word is that when you were creating work in 2020, and when all that was happening down here on Monument and Broad Street, like, did you feel a responsibility to express how you were feeling and how your community was feeling?

Yeah, I ended up putting a piece together that was published through a library. They end up doing this kind of like poem a day kind of thing, which was a project that the state poet laureate organised. It was a pumped for the anthem for removal. And it was centred around the unrest and the feelings around the monuments being taken down. It was a wild time in the city. With the introduction of Marcus David-Peters Circle Park and getting these Confederate statues down and all that kind of stuff. And so it was a lot of pushback coming from one side, it was a lot of unrest, and a lot of protests coming from another side. And it was a lot of feelings.

I’m a firm believer that poets are somewhat like the historians a little bit. Writers in general are where they capture what’s happening in the moment. Poetry just kind of does it in this eloquent, artsy kind of way. So, yeah, I definitely felt charged to capture at least a part of this. I’ve written poems about Richmond before, not as heavy, but just how Richmond has this dark history that we have to recognise. But it’s also become this beautiful city that’s full of art. And I want to show that to you. Richmond as a city as a gallery. There’s art everywhere. And that’s just something that you gotta love, man. It makes the city look beautiful.

When the city made you Poet Laureate, I’m sure you met the mayor. What was that like? There’s an interesting duplicity there, in a way, because what the mayor was doing and trying to do during 2020, and then what you were doing on the streets, and then for the youth to come together. For the city to recognize your importance as an artist and your documentation of what did happen. Was the mayor welcoming to you as you were getting this position and trying to understand the artists and the community conversation that was happening? Because I think there’s a learning curve when introducing a Poet Laureate idea. I think that there needed to be a conversation between everybody.

Yeah, definitely. And I think that having this position was the mayor’s office’s way for them to say, “Okay, we want things to change. How do we get things to change? How do we capitalize on how art does change things in a community? How it does inspire people? How it empowers people? How it encourages people.” And I think this was another way for them to try to do that.

To their credit, they’ve been more proactive and trying to help. I’m sure not every artist in town would say this, but trying to help promote more conversations and more artistic things happening. I feel like there’s more initiatives coming from the top down.

There’s definitely more initiatives for an appreciation of art right now.

Douglas Powell / Roscoe Burnems photo by Kimberly Frost
Photo by Kimberly Frost @kimberlyfrost

My last question. What advice do you have for the next Richmond Poet Laureate?

Get out?! Don’t do it?! [laughs]  Be patient. Understand the charge of a Poet Laureate. You have to figure out how to use this art form to make a positive impact on an entire city or the Greater Richmond area. So like Henrico, Chesterfield, all the counties, in addition to being downtown. It’s a huge thing, it can be a little scary at first. But you take on one project at a time, you talk to one person at a time. And I think if you come in with the right intentions, no matter what you’re able to get done tangibly by the end of your term, you’ll walk away knowing that you made the city a little better than it was.

So it’s not just about your work, it’s about having a platform to connect the city with not only other poets, but other artists.

Yeah, other artists, other organizations, youth, it’s an opportunity for you to definitely reach further than what your platform might have been before. A lot of the projects I ended up getting done during my time, or projects I was working on way beforehand, but didn’t have the resources or the network. Didn’t have the funding. And so we were able to push things a little faster and move things a little better with the position I was awarded. I think sometimes people need that legitimization of their work, and that’s okay.

Anything you need to add or want me to add?

I want people to come to the slams. I still do monthly slams, the first Sunday of the month. Just keep supporting the craft. Artists need it. If people don’t support it, then art dies. If people want to continue to see art flourish, then they’ve got to come out to the events, go to the galleries, and come to the open mics and slams. They also got to do it for hip hop shows or indie bands. They got to be there to support it. Otherwise, if it disappears, everyone’s gonna be like “Why isn’t there more art? Why isn’t there more music?”

Because we became NOVA right? [laughs]

[laughs] Shots fired!

Follow Douglas Powell aka Roscoe Burnems @roscoeburnems
Check out The Writer’s Den @thewritersdenrva
Apply to be next Richmond Poet Laurette HERE

Photos by Kimberly Frost @kimberlyfrost

R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work: www.majormajor.me

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