Prentice Powell was the first poet to ever appear on The Arsenio Hall Show and the only one to appear three times. He has made five consecutive appearances on all five seasons of TV One’s Verses and Flow in which he was the behind the scenes host for Season 5. Him and the poetry collective [Fiveology] that he is a part of was the opening act for Grammy award winning Jill Scott on her summer 2013 tour. We caught up with this poet phenom and talked what it means to be a Black man in America, fatherhood and so much more.
Can you give us your credentials. I don’t want to miss anything or discredit you in anyway.
The credentials don’t matter. I hate that part. [laughs] But let’s see, The Arsenio Hall Show three times. Like you said, I’ve been blessed to be on all five seasons of Verses and Flow including being the behind the scenes host for Season 5. I’ve been on a summer tour with Jill Scott with my poetry collective, Fiveology. I travel nationally and internationally extensively, speaking and conducting creative writing workshops and performing, so life is good. I’m blessed to do what I do.
Life definitely sounds good. When did you begin to write and spit poetry? Was there a specific time in your life that lead you to expressing your innermost thoughts and feelings on paper?
You know what it was? I started writing poetry in 2003. I have a cousin by the name of Tyson Amir. He’s a super dope MC and we’re a year apart. So, growing up I did everything he did. So when he started playing football I started playing football. When he started playing basketball— my family is full of athletes, so I wasn’t that —well I was good but I was fragile. I was always getting hurt and injured. So you know sports wasn’t really for me. So in high school I got into what was called forensics, speech, and debate which was public speaking, acting and interp(retation) and I had this immediate success. And in high school because I was so successful I was able to travel extensively all across the country. So when I got a little bit older right after high school, in college my cousin Tyson came and did a poem at the local library and I was like let me try that. Long story short, I went home and wrote a poem. Two months after writing my first poem I came in fourth in the nation on the Open Slam team and thirteenth individually in the nation. And that was two months after writing my first poem. So it kind of was something that I was like let me explore this and something that is really, really, really therapeutic for me.
Could you explain your creative process? And has it changed over the years?
It definitely has changed. Before, I used to write in third person. My first handful of poems were in third person. And I wrote in third person because I wasn’t really confident enough to talk about myself. I mean I was talking about myself but I wasn’t courageous enough to let people know that I was talking about me. It’s hard to get in front of a group of people to say something that you’re not necessarily proud of. And because I have the gift to be able to put words together and stories, I was able to shape it in a way that didn’t seem incriminating. As I went along I started to see people could identify and that was one of the most comforting things about being on stage is realizing that I’m not the only one with these thoughts so it kind of gave me more courage to be more and more brave as time progressed and accept the flaws and the positive attributes and put them together. And now I’m just absolutely fearless. I really don’t care what anybody thinks about what I write and that wasn’t always the case. After awhile once you start getting success and on the TV screen, the pressure that can come with the notoriety and the exposure can be a lot, you know? And people are applauding you for sharing your personal feelings, your thoughts and your emotions, and you can kind of get caught up in that for a minute. I think for a minute I did so I had to kind of re-center myself and re-humble myself and remind myself— I never forgot it — but just remind myself that this could go any day so the things I write should have nothing to do whether or not they’re going to be on the television screen or on a stage. This is how I feel. So I think I’ve matured into my notebook, honestly.
The grind as a poet I’m sure is different from the grind of any other art form or career. Please tell us something we may not know about the grind and the come up of a poet that may often go overlooked or discredited?
I feel like as a poet we’re really working. You’re always at the bottom because the art form doesn’t have that same exposure. I’m not a rapper. Granted I can write just like they can write just not necessarily the same format. But what I do, I cant just go up to people —People don’t assume you’re a poet. I have — I don’t know how many tattoos. I’m covered in tattoos. But if I go outside— and I got a gold grill. If I got my grill on and a wife beater, you can see my tattoos and I got some Jordan’s on somebody’s going to ask me if I’m a rapper. They’re never going to ask you if you’re a poet.
So the grind with being a poet is that the avenues that we use to perform aren’t as typical as other art forms. The notoriety and exposure that we get is not on the same level as other art forms. We’re blessed to have had Def Poetry Jam when I was out back in the day. And thank God for Verses and Flow because it gets us so much exposure. Shout out to Arsenio Hall for putting poets on, and Russell Simmons for putting poets on. It just doesn’t have that notoriety on a world wide scale as some of the other common art forms especially from our culture.
People just don’t understand the work ethic you have to have to get just to this point. And this point is nothing. That’s how I look at it. I’m at the bottom still. But just to get here to the bottom it’s a hustle. You never stop. It never changes.
With you saying you believe you’re at the bottom, what is the ultimate goal or accomplishment for a poet or you in particular that you’re still striving towards?
I can’t talk for a poet. I don’t know. I’m so focused on what is that I want to accomplish that I don’t really pay too much attention to whats going on overall in the poetry world. I’m a fan of it so I listen to it. But I just wish success for everybody.
I know for me because of what I’ve been exposed to its totally changed my outlook on what I want to accomplish. After going on tour with Jill Scott, like a real tour—like a different state, different city every day and performing at Radio City Music Hall on New Year’s Eve and being in Chicago in front of hundreds of thousands of people I want more. I’m hungry. After the television opportunities I want more. So my goal essentially, what I’m working on this year is getting involved in branding as far as a major corporation. So I want to be a writer and as a face for a Sprint, a Verizon, a T-Mobile and to actually write for them and to actually showcase it. So thinking beyond the coffee shop now. I go back because that’s where I started but I want to go beyond. There’s no glass ceiling to this because we’re artist and we’re writers. I could be writing for a record company. I could be writing for a movie script. When you’re a writer there’s so many avenues and I just use spoken word poetry as mine.
..and people don’t realize the abundance of opportunities as a writer.
They don’t and its crazy. Even as writers we don’t realize it. It just dawned on me last year when I was given the opportunity to write for some Emmy award winning actors. And I was like, “What? You want me to do what”? They were like “Yea we want you to write for us.” It’s a blessing. It’s a gift. And sometimes we don’t realize what we can do with that gift. You can do anything you want as a writer.
Any advice for up and coming poets that are trying to be where you are?
You have to be willing to be disappointed. You have to have a reason, in my opinion that’s bigger than yourself for why you’re doing it. You’re going to get disappointed. There aren’t as many opportunities and the grind is hard and there are a lot of talented people out there. I think the thing separates certain poets from another is their work ethic. I think that’s it really. How far are you willing to go? How hard are you willing to work for what you want? Because somebody that’s not as good as a writer as you or a performance artist— if they have a work ethic, don’t get mad when you see them where you want to be. It’s just their work ethic is harder than yours.
I would always say hit as many stages as possible. I don’t care if it’s churches or on a street corner or at a old folks home — it does not matter. You never know who’s in the audience and thats one thing I’ve learned. It could be three people there but you better perform like it’s your last performance.
I know in one of your poems you state, “A loner with a hundred best friends all of them name adversity.” What was the biggest form of adversity you’ve had to face in your lifetime? How did you overcome that?
It can sound cliché to some people but its not if you’re living it— but being Black. What bigger adversity is there if you live in America and you’re Black? l don’t care if you’re a woman or man, being Black.
What does it mean to you to be a Black man in America? What are the key essentials to being a successful Black man in America?
I wrote that poem called Being A Black Man in America and in my opinion it means that there is something in you that nobody can take from you and because the world recognizes it they try to. They try to make you silent.
Being born Black is a gift, for real! I truly believe that. Not taking anything away from any other culture. When it comes to being Black, if you are born Black you are automatically born gifted. You are automatically blessed because you are born into a culture that has exuded so much strength over time. We originate. All we do is overcome and originate. The key now— in the 21st century we have to learn how to keep what we create. Stop giving it away, stop selling it, recognize the value of us. Recognize the power that we have. Being a Black man in America means living, means being successful and growing and persevering everyday.
Being from the Bay area, there’s a lot of things that could of deterred you from the path of success. What would you honestly have been if you didn’t succeed as a poet?
You know what’s crazy, I have a full time job like a career. I have two full time careers which is poetry and I work with at risk youth in the county that I live in. I work with the top three percent most troubled teens in the county that I live in. They suffer from mental addictions, drug addictions, they’re all in foster and juvenile care and I’m really really good at what I do. I think the blessing with me is that I’ve realized that there’s a couple things that I’m really really good at so if I was not successful with poetry— and to tell you the truth I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anywhere near what I want to. So the label of successful poet for me, I don’t really embrace because I feel like if I do that I’m stagnant. I look at it like there’s always so much more room to be successful. When my kids tuition is paid for already and I’m in that exact house that I want my family in then I can say I’m successful. But that’s not the case right now. I feel like I’m working towards success—the success that I desire as a poet. But outside of being a poet, I think the other part of what I’m doing I’m successful at. Fortunately, I don’t feel like I have to rely on the poetry to be successful.
For your son(s), what’s one thing you definitely want him to know that maybe you had to learn the hard way?
Don’t procrastinate. Procrastination has been my biggest road block in life. Also, truly learn how to see inside yourself the motivation. I was somebody most of my life who has looked for acceptance in other people because I actually had kind of low self esteem. And I’m an introvert too. If I’m not on stage I’m a really private and personal person. I want them to have the same confidence I have publicly as far as presenting yourself in front of people. But when it comes to hard times and struggle I want them to learn how to look inside themselves and not need anybody else for encouragement. That’s what I really want from my boys. You need to learn how to motivate yourself. lt took me awhile to learn how to do that.
Top 3 favorite hip hop and or R&B artists?
1) Stevie Wonder
2) Black Thought from The Roots for his writing and delivery ability.
I feel like I would be disrespectful if I didn’t say both Prince and Michael Jackson just because they’re geniuses. I respect geniuses.
You can follow Prentice Powell on IG: @prenticepowell1906