After poets raise questions of bias, Utah Arts Festival says it will work to ‘do a better job’ with spoken-word events

(Photo courtesy Ryan J) Ryan Jones, an Atlanta poet who writes and performs under the name Ryan J, says he had to deal with a racist heckler during his set at the 2018 Utah Arts Festival.

Performance poet Ryan Jones was nearly done with his set at the Utah Arts Festival last month when a white woman in the front row started heckling him.

She was irritated about the N-word, which Jones, who is black, said he uses as “reclamation.” The woman repeated the slur back to him, Jones said, asking him: “If you can say it, why can’t I say it?”

Then she started calling black people lazy, said Millcreek poet RJ Walker, who was in the audience and said he told her to shut up.

The heckling capped a Utah visit that Jones, an Atlanta poet who performs under the name Ryan J., described as “a kind of off-putting experience,” as he and other poets complained about how they were treated by organizers at the summer arts festival at Salt Lake City’s Library Square.

Ashley Finley, a black poet in Salt Lake City, contends the festival underpaid black poets and said organizers cut off the microphones during two women’s poetry sets without warning because of material deemed offensive. Walker said a festival security officer grabbed him by the arm backstage after he won a prize for an essay about racism at the arts festival.

Lisa Sewell, executive director of the Utah Arts Festival, pushed back on the idea that “any other factors aside from merit” determined how performers were paid.

But festival organizers are looking at changes to next year’s poetry exhibitions, including the location of the Big Mouth Stage for literary arts programs and a more specific list of restricted words, said Ashley Babbitt, the festival’s marketing director.

“We work really hard to be a platform for diversity,” she said. “Poetry welcomes controversy — that’s part of the art form — and that’s something we want to celebrate. We want to welcome people and we want to do a better job.”

A question of pay

Jones, Finley and Salt Lake City poet Tanesha Nicole Tyler, who also is black, all told The Tribune they were offered $50 to perform on the Big Mouth Stage. That’s less than in past years, Finley said. They talked to their white poet friends and said many reported they had been offered $85.

Sewell provided a list of poets’ pay, ranging from $50 to $210. She initially said performers are given $50 if they’re local and somewhat more if they come from other states — though still not enough to defray travel expenses. (Most poets, Finley said, augment the small fees by selling “chapbooks,” self-published mini-volumes of poetry.)

But Jones is from Atlanta. Meanwhile, a Salt Lake City poet, Jesse Parent, said he was paid $85.

Sewell later said pay was higher for poets with “featured” sets, like Parent, and that Jones received a low offer because coordinators didn’t know he was from out of state, so he will be paid more. But Jones provided an email exchange before the festival in which he asked for more money to help with travel expenses from Atlanta and an organizer declined.

“It feels like people are trying to cover their tracks or place blame,” Jones said. “I just want somebody to be held accountable or take responsibility, whether it was intentional or they made a mistake. To me it feels very malicious, all in all.”

Calling security

Walker wrote about the poets’ pay in an anti-racism essay titled “White Lake City,” which won the festival’s Iron Pen Ultra award, given by the Salt Lake Community College Writing Center.

He read the essay onstage during a winners’ presentation — and said he was later stopped by a festival security guard when he tried to go onstage for a later poetry slam competition.

It was the second time security was called on Walker at the festival. While Jones was being heckled, a guard appeared — called by festival organizers to confront Walker, not the heckler, Sewell confirmed. Finlay and Jones said they were dismayed.

The literary arts coordinators, Rebeca Mae and Brian Gray, were backstage when the heckling happened, Sewell said. They missed the woman’s diatribe and only saw the tail end of the incident, when Walker confronted her, Sewell said.

Finley felt organizers should have acted sooner on Jones' behalf. “If someone’s screaming the N-word at a black poet, you should probably step in,” she said.

(Jesse Parent | Photo courtesy of Jesse Parent and Ashley Finley) Salt Lake City poet Ashley Finley reads a piece July 12, 2018, at the Watchtower Cafe in Salt Lake City.

Sewell said security was called both times because of previous conflicts between Walker and and festival coordinators.

But Parent and another Salt Lake City poet, Jose Soto, said Mae and Gray told them separately that they believed security was called because Sewell was angry about Walker’s critical essay. Meeting minutes indicate Mae and Gray offered a similar explanation to a local literary group, the Wasatch Wordsmiths.

“I don’t know why [they are] saying that,” Sewell said. “That’s clearly not what happened.”

Mae and Gray declined to comment to The Tribune, deferring to Sewell’s remarks.

One festivalgoer said he was also concerned about how the audience treated poets of color. During performances he watched, white performers received “obviously louder cheers,” Isael Torres of Salt Lake City later said in a Facebook post.

“The majority of these spoken word artists were sharing very powerful messages regarding injustice, regarding the killing of black males, violence against nonbinary-identifying folks, female silence in the name of misogyny,” said Torres, who said he works as a student advocate at the University of Utah.

A white-presenting artist who spoke about gun violence and the Second Amendment received “large support from the crowd,” Torres said. “There were two or three black artists who shared very similar topics but were not as well received. It doesn’t seem to matter unless a white guy is saying it.”

Torres said slights at an arts festival may not be the gravest injustices of racism, but the little things add up.

“It’s very tiring, bracing ourselves,” he said. “It may not matter to you, potential white man who’s rolling your eyes because it doesn’t affect you, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.”

The power of words

Finley also said two women poets had their mics cut while performing. Harper Russet was delivering a poem about an uncle who died of AIDS, while Julia Allegretto Gaskill was performing a poem about reclaiming the power of the word “b----.”

“We had been informed [they] want to keep profanity at a minimum,” Finley said, noting other performers used words that in her opinion were more offensive than those Russet and Gaskill used. “We weren’t told mics would be cut.”

Parent, who has been performing at the festival for about a decade and used to coordinate the literary arts program, said language restrictions have tightened and loosened over the years.

For a while, the stage was near a toddler area and no explicit language was allowed. He recalled, for example, a coordinator running onstage to grab the microphone from a poet who began to recite a poem titled, “I Want To F--- Ron Weasley,” in reference to the Harry Potter character.

Poetry “is meant to be provocative, it’s meant to be thought-provoking,” Parent said. “When you attract a lot of out-of-state talent used to having a wider range of language available to them, they tend to address controversial topics.”

The festival eventually moved the stage away from the toddler area, in part to make the events less restrictive, Parent said.

“We weren’t able to attract talent that didn’t feel stifled,” Parent said. “In the past five or six years those [rules] have been relaxed quite a bit. We’re not just this restrictive Utah environment."

But after a science exhibit geared at teens opened near the Big Mouth Stage, Parent said, coordinators began cutting off poets again. “As of last year it became more of an issue,” he said.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo) RJ Walker of Salt Lake City participates in a poetry slam during the 2014 Utah Book Festival in Salt Lake City.