The space for Poetry on Main may seem sparse for now, but the owner’s dreams of what it will become are limitless.
As owner Michaëlle Martial, a Haitian poet, imagines it: The new space in an apartment building at 702 S. Main in Salt Lake City will become a hub of creativity and community — a gathering place for everyone, but especially Black women artists and immigrants like herself.
“The idea has started to form in my mind, I want to say, since 2013,” Martial said. “My kids and I drew up a plan one day of a space where I can share my poetry and also invite other local poets and artists who share the space to share their work.”
Martial arrived in Utah in 2000, and has been sharing her poetry in the Salt Lake area since 2012. She had been working a lot with other poets in the community, but realized there was a lack of a physical space where they could all gather regularly. (She registered her LLC, Caribbean Nightingale, in 2020.)
With her three, soon to be four, collections of poetry, it’s an understatement to say that words mean a lot to Martial.
“I wanted the word ‘poetry’ to show in the space, to emphasize it because poetry’s not dead,” Martial said. “We don’t realize how important and influential the word or words are around people.”
Martial speaks from experience, as a survivor of domestic violence. “[I] was mostly affected through psychological and emotional abuse,” she said, “So I know the power of words.”
‘You belong here’
The space is scheduled to have its official ribbon cutting sometime in June, with the Utah Black Chamber. Even before that, the storefront is filled with tokens of love, legacy and culture.
Photos of Martial’s mother, Gladys, who is a fashion designer. A letter board sign on a shelf in the kitchen reads “You belong here,” and sits next to a Haitian spice grinder Gladys gave Martial when she left for college. The wall decor includes a lime-green plate with a map of the departments and states of Haiti. On a table sits a black water bottle, designed by Martial, with the motto, “Resilience is my secret power.”
Martial said she plans to add bookshelves, where she will highlight other Afro-Caribbean authors, with an emphasis on local authors. The store has room for Afro-Caribbean accessories for sale, such as earrings and other handmade goods. Eventually, Martial plans to set up a stage for slam poetry and open-mic performances.
Martial said she has three programs in mind already: “Relaxation Through Verse”, a poetry salon that will be offered the second Saturday of every month; “Cupcakes for Breakfast,” a book-signing event that will offer sweet treats; and a platform for Utah writers of African descent.
Another idea in the works is “Dinner and a Show,” which Martial is devising with Yvonne Nsabimana, from the nonprofit Ngoma Y’Africa cultural center. Nsabimana is from Rwanda, by way of Belgium, and first came to Utah in 2005.
The pair originally came up with the idea of “Taste the Culture,” a venture where several African American and Black women would come together to share cultural food, during the NBA All-Star Weekend in February. (Instead, they ended up losing thousands of dollars.)
In some ways, Poetry on Main will be a chance at redemption for some of the vendors affected from the failed All-Star Bazaar, Martial said. Many of the vendors will sell their goods at Poetry on Main, such as Karicka Soul, which sells hair oils.
The concept, Msabimana said, is to foster “this idea of looking for women chefs and entrepreneurs — women wanting to move forward their lives and provide for themselves and their families.”
The menu for “Dinner and a Show” includes beignets, Haitian pikliz, jollof rice with chicken and more.
The women also are playing around with the idea of having a permanent food truck open outside the Poetry on Main space.
Giving back to the community
Marital and Nsabimana said they plan to give back to community resources in Utah that have helped them over the years. A portion of all of the proceeds made at the poetry salon will be donated to local women shelters.
As a mother — two of her four children were born in Utah — and a domestic violence survivor, Martial said, “I’ve utilized resources in the community, whether it’s therapy for me, my children or group therapy.” She referenced the YWCA as a great resource.
“I may be many things, but ungrateful is not one of them,” Martial said, with a laugh. “Going around in those spaces, I found out that I was not alone. Those organizations need support. … We have an opportunity to make a difference.”
Nsabimana added that “community thrives because of nonprofit organizations.”
Nsabimana said she also has been on the receiving end of aid in Utah. Nsabimana has been a refugee twice in her life — first from Rwanda, and second when she and her husband fled from Hurricane Katrina to Utah.
She said the most powerful service she’s ever seen in her life happened when they came to Utah. “People in the community who didn’t know us were willing to give either a sheet for the bed, help pay rent, or different things. There’s nowhere else I’ve ever seen this than Utah,” she said.
At times, Nsabimana said, Utah isn’t perfect — but it is welcoming, and the people here have a good heart.
“It’s the least we can do if we’re able to give back,” she said.
Poetry on Main is dedicated to one of Martial’s mentors: Poet, painter and musician Benjamin Cabey, a resident of Salt Lake City and a pioneer in uplifting Black artists in Utah. He coached Martial on how to organize events and perform her poetry, she said. He also encouraged her, she said, to let her real self show to the world.
For Nsabimana, having a space for other entrepreneurs and immigrants to get advice feels like a much-needed breath of fresh air. Having a space to belong makes things feel more concrete, more recognizable, she said.
“This is actually the first space ever open to Afro-Caribbean women in Salt Lake City, in Utah in general,” she said. “We know a lot of these women because we’ve been here for a while.”
Black and African women, Nsabimana said, are very strong. It’s a product of their cultures.
“We both have very strong mothers,” she said, “and we believe a lot of women are that way, especially in our community. … It’s a culture that doesn’t give you mercy. You have to stay on top of things, do what you have to do, you feed your family, you take care of your husbands [and] you are an entrepreneur at the same time.”