We had just finished reporting a story on local poet Ayanna Albertson—who, in early March, won second place at the annual Women of the World Poetry Slam in Texas—when the world turned upside down. 

But if the coronavirus called our attention elsewhere, it didn’t stop Albertson. Soon after the pandemic took root in Durham in March, she was a featured poet in an online open-mic reading hosted by the famed Busboys and Poets cafe in Washington, D.C. 

On April 2, closer to home, she was featured in an online poetry-and-jazz event at The Hayti Heritage Center, and she has upcoming online appearances at Stanford University and a high school in Pennsylvania, where she’ll teach a master class.  

Clearly, this woman’s words matter. We didn’t want to let National Poetry Month slip by without telling you the story of her path to budding poetry stardom. 

“I wrote my first poem in elementary school,” the bespectacled writer with long, thick braids told the INDY

Albertson, 27, is a Durham resident who graduated from Hillside High School in 2011. In early March, she was one of 96 slam poets who performed in venues in downtown Dallas and nearby Deep Ellum, the city’s art and entertainment district.

Albertson grew up in Goldsboro, where her parents divorced. Writing has always been a part of her selfhood.

She moved with her mom to Maryland before settling down in Durham in 2008. While attending Hillside, she became involved with the school’s theater program, headed by influential director Wendell Tabb.

After high school, Albertson went to Oakwood University, a private, historically black Christian university in Huntsville, Alabama. She earned a degree in broadcast journalism and currently works as a communications writer with Community Change, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

Nearly a decade ago, during her sophomore year in college, Albertson joined the poetry and arts collective “Art ’n’ Soul,” which sponsored monthly poetry readings in a small theater in the English department. She says there was always a good turnout, with an open mic before the featured poets would perform.

“The vibe was so good,” Albertson says. “It was, like, so sultry. I felt like it was one of the places on campus where people could be transparent.”

At a private Christian HBCU, those poetry readings allowed students to express themselves, to question authority and the world around them.

“They were strict about things that are religious,” Albertson says. “They didn’t want us to talk about our sexual experiences. They didn’t want us to use the n-word.”

It’s telling that both of the educational institutions where Albertson studied are predominantly black spaces. She had studied cosmetology at Hillside and was big on doing her hair as an expression of black womanist pride.

“I was definitely walking in my blackness unapologetically,” she says. “I wore my puffs and my big Afro.”

One of the first poems Albertson performed at the Oakwood University English department’s Moran Hall was about her father. She was nervous because the event was being recorded and she thought that maybe he would see it one day.

“I talked about how my dad was always around but never present,” she says. “I felt as though my dad gave himself a lot more credit than I experienced. I didn’t know how to express that to him, but I knew I had to get it out some way.”

Ask Albertson if she has influences among major African-American female poets like Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, June Jordan, or Jayne Cortez and she shrugs.

“Honestly? No. I appreciate, but don’t try to emulate,” she says. “Just blackness. … It’s important for me to have my own voice, especially from the black perspective. Different people go through different things.”

Albertson found she was in her element as a freshman standing behind that microphone before her peers. When she started reciting the poem about her father at Moran Hall, her nervousness eased. She was passionate about her words, and by the poem’s end, she felt affirmed.

“They were a vocally responsive crowd, always,” Albertson says. “There was some ums and talk about it. You know black people.”

Albertson kept writing, and themes started to emerge. Poetry became a key to unlock stories about being black and being a woman, anchored by her Christian faith.

After graduating in 2015, Albertson interned at WEUP 103.1, a hip-hop and R&B station in Huntsville. One year later, she returned to Durham.

“I felt like it was stuff I needed to be doing in Durham. It was like a calling,” she says. “I just felt like I needed to be in this community.”

Back home, Albertson began performing at open mics at City Soul Cafe in Raleigh, where she met prominent Triangle poet Dasan Ahanu, who hosts the Jambalaya Soul poetry slam each month at The Hayti Heritage Center. Ahanu, who also manages the Bull City Slam team, encouraged her to participate in the Hayti’s Bull City Poetry Slam. 

She grabbed top honors performing three poems in three rounds. It was her first time even attending a poetry slam.

Albertson didn’t realize her victory meant she would represent the Bull City team at the 2017 Women of the World Poetry Slam in Dallas. The three-day event, sponsored by Poetry Slam, Inc., was first held in Detroit, Michigan in 2008. According to its website, it’s open to “women-identifying” and “gender non-conforming poets” who travel internationally to vie for the title.

Albertson also had no idea that the competition was a pretty big deal. She would compete against women poets who she describes as “YouTube famous,” and she was a little intimidated, but she managed to place 18 out of 96. She left the competition feeling vindicated as a poet.

“The big takeaway was that I could hang,” she says. “As far as my craft, I learned that performance is just as important as content. You can have good content on paper, but you have to sell it for people to believe it.”

Albertson thought 2018 was going to be her year because she had done so well the year before, but she was disappointed by her showing. She began to have second thoughts about competing. Was she willing to subject herself to that disappointment again?

By 2019, Albertson was a stalwart member of the Bull City Slam Team. While the Women of the World Poetry Slam did not take place that year, she wrote new poems that she tried out at different venues, including a stint as a featured poet at City Soul Cafe and a signature performance at Busboys and Poets. She says the one poem that “got everybody going” that night was the one she ended with, “What That Mouth Do,” which is about the way a man approached her in a social setting at Alabama A&M State University.

“He asked me, ‘What that mouth do?’ Literally. And the poem was born,” she says. “The poem says, ‘Here’s what I can do with my mouth.’ There’s sexual innuendo. But I want to educate you that this mouth is really smart. All of my poems are about my experiences.”

This year, Albertson again won the Bull City Slam competition and a third trip to Dallas. After twice finishing in the top 20, she was confident. 

The competition took place on March 5–7. On the first night, she performed at a winery. The highlight was the wordplay of “Mourning People”—“Each morning black people wake up to something new to grieve about and in the same moment they figure out how to overcome new grief.”

She advanced and read “A Funny Way of Feeling,” about people’s willingness to make a joke out of anything as a coping mechanism, in the second round. The third round took her back to the same bookstore where she first performed in 2017. Her standout poem was “Lineage.” The work is about black people making sure their homes are tidy when people are coming over and the larger effort to make sure that others don’t see the messes in black folks’ lives. 

She advanced again and read “Gun Control & Vaginas.” Ranking eighth overall, she moved into the finals, where the top 14 performers would compete at the Black Academy of Arts and Letters downtown.

She went to a nearby mall before the finals and found a black-and-white bohemian-style top. She wore gladiator sandals and her hair was in braids. There were more than 200 people in the audience, including artists who were finalists in years past. 

Albertson did “Gun Control & Vaginas,” her “go-to,” for the first round. It got her into the second, where she read “When I Saved My Ex from Suicide,” a reflection about an ex-boyfriend who tried to commit suicide in her presence. She was hesitant about doing that piece, pointing to a culture in poetry-slam competition “where people talk about traumatic things, but they haven’t healed yet” and “score high because the judges are sympathetic. Someone will break down crying. But why do the poem if you’re not in a place of healing?”

Albertson advanced to the final round. A new rule prohibited her from reciting work from the earlier rounds, so she unveiled a new poem, “Sacrificial Offering.” It pays homage to civil rights leaders who were a voice for their people even in the face of controversy and death, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She started the poem by singing “Oh Freedom,” an old Negro spiritual.

At night’s end, Albertson was one of four finalists on stage vying for the title of best woman slam poet in the world. After Carolyn Newhouse and Lady Brion took third and fourth places, she was giddy with anticipation.

“I was thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’ I might win this thing, yeah!’” she says. “I was like, ohhhhh snap!’”

The audience was silent. Albertson looked into the crowd, but she couldn’t see anyone because of the glare of the stage lights. Then her name was called. Imani Cezanne, a spoken-word veteran, took home top honors. 

Still, the Bull City Slam team member felt like a winner. Her mother caught a flight to Dallas and was in the audience to see her perform in the finals. She got a trophy and a $1,000 prize. But she took home more than accolades and cash. 

“Your story matters,” she says. “Sometimes I get feedback from people in the audience who are crying. They hug me. One person told me, ‘Damn, you told my life.’”

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

DEAR READERS, WE NEED YOUR HELP NOW MORE THAN EVER. Support independent local journalism by joining the INDY Press Club today. Your contributions will keep our fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle, coronavirus be damned.