With a gravesite for a stage, three local creatives share their poetry in front of a live audience for the first time in over a year. Audience members’ soft snaps and hums float beneath the towering trees of Evergreen Cemetery in response to the poems. A few attendees can be seen with their eyes closed, eyebrows furrowed in a deep concentration, while gently nodding their heads.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) hosted its second “Beyond the Grave” event, a three weekend series that connects the county’s past with the present. With National Poetry Month coming to an end, the MAH invited local poets to do spoken word performances at Evergreen Cemetery on April 24 and 25. 

Wyatt Young, the archives and library coordinator at the MAH, hosted the event, opening with some historical background of the graveyard before introducing each artist.

“Spaces like these historic sites, don’t have to just be old relics that people think about or look up, they can be active places for community engagement,” Young said. “History is not passive, it’s active. Anytime we’re on Facebook looking at pictures of old family members or ancestors we’re doing history, and that’s one thing that the MAH has striven to do— being active in the community and doing history and amplifying different historical voices.”

Each artist shared a poem inspired by the cemetery and their emotional responses to the area. The first performance was done by Jamey Williams, or ‘Jamey the Poet,’ who encouraged audience members to sit with the feeling of discomfort, if that was their reaction to his reflections on being Black in America. 

Jamey Williams, aka “Jamey the Poet,” recites his poem about the systemic oppression of Black people. Photo by Gabriela Levy.

With veins popping out of his neck and tears forming behind his eyes, Williams spoke in his first poem about the pain he feels when playing a theater role that is centered on Black trauma. His second poem discussed centuries of systemic injustice toward Black people in America. He spoke about plantation owners from the 1700s going out into the woods with their hunting dogs and firearms to harm or murder Black people. He compared this to the actions of law enforcement today that oppress BIPOC people through police brutality and imprisonment. 

When asked about the inspiration behind these verses, Williams said he is fueled by exploring his own artistic talents through the creative process. Both a writer and actor, he aims to refine his page voice while on stage. 

“I think it’s all about having fun with words, and being able to express myself,” Williams said in an interview. “I love just talking about the things that are on my mind whether it be love, whether it be about being Black, whether it be about anime, stuff like that.”

Page poems gain their essence from being written for the page and are typically for people to read silently in their heads.
Stage poetry is a part of a more theatrical genre of poetry and refers to poems that are written primarily for being spoken aloud and performed.

The second poet to perform was Jasmine Schlaftke, or Queen Jasmeen, who shared a poem called ‘Black Everything,’ inspired by George Chester, an individual who is buried at the cemetery. While walking through the site to look for inspiration, Queen Jasmeen noticed a gravestone that said “Mother,” with no other date or information on the deceased resident. 

Reflecting on this tombstone, Queen Jasmeen noted the discrimination that took place at the cemetery over a century ago, with mainly white people buried at the main points of the site and BIPOC people at the peripheries. 

Throughout writing ‘Black Everything,” Queen Jasmeen aimed to uplift and honor the spirit of George Chester.The poem went on about Chester having big dreams while being a barber in Philadelphia, and his journey to California in hopes of finding gold.

Bene’t Benton, a second year theater major at UC Santa Cruz also performed. Having first visited the cemetery recently, Benton’s first poem was inspired by the Glory Path that traveled up the hill of the cemetery. They found it interesting that a graveyard can be full of life, with tombstone cracks and concrete walkways being overgrown with both weeds and blossoming flowers. 

The other poem Benton shared was a reflection of dealing with mental health issues during the pandemic, alluding to the importance of going on in life despite not knowing what the future holds. 

“I got to sit with myself and realized that if I can’t live with myself, then that’s not living, that’s surviving. I really worked on myself over the time of the pandemic because that’s what it was allowing me to do,” Benton said. “I realized that now I can give so much more of myself, because I have so much more to give.”

MAH archives and library coordinator Wyatt Young encouraged audience members to stroll through the cemetery, as he feels there is so much to see and feel through the 163-year-old resting place.

“When we’re performing events like this and kind of connecting ourselves to the past, we’re doing a little bit more than just thinking about the past,” Young said. “We’re really sort of displacing time, and this space has been set aside, and sort of removed from the timestream in a certain way, it’s something that we want to we want to think about and commemorate and share.”

CHP is publishing this story during the week of June 7 as part of a backlog on unpublished content from spring 2021. The article was originally written on April 28.