Former Heroin Addict Finds Redemption through Spoken Word
by Danny Holcomb
Meeting with slam poet John “Survivor” Blake at the bar inside Richmond’s Tobacco Company, I am struck with the realization that this is a man on a mission. He is finishing up the first half of his shift as a waiter, but make no mistake: John Blake is a missionary for the gospel of the transformative power of poetry.
As he relates the story found in his autobiographical poetry chapbook, Leap from the Cliff: Wings Only Grow When Needed, I can hardly believe that four years ago, he was sitting in a friend’s New York City apartment preparing to take his own life. He had begun to use heroin at age 13, when his brother had shown him how to shoot the drug. By the time Blake was 33, the youngest of nine children had survived his entire family, including his mother and father. Trapped between two cultures, one white and one black, he was firmly enmeshed in another – the drug culture.
Around the time that his mother died in 2005, he had begun “spitting” poetry, a term for the rapid fire, staccato delivery heard in hip-hop and poetry slamming, and made famous by rappers and poets like those on HBO’s Def Poetry. In a desperate attempt to make sense of life, John had also been scratching snippets of rhymes on matchbooks and bar napkins. By this time he had seen his father, siblings and finally his mother succumb to AIDS, overdose, drug-related illness, and violence, he decided it was time to end his pain.
As luck or grace would have it, the friend who owned the apartment he’d gone to end his life, knew of John’s fondness for writing and reciting poetry. She had recorded a program for him, and asked him to watch it. It was Def Poetry. While he loaded a syringe with a lethal dose, he listened as Brooklyn-based slam poet Marty McConnell recited a new poem, “Instructions for a Body.”
no master plans for this anatomy,
with its mobile and evident spark”
He paused to listen: “Praise the veins that river these wrists,” intoned McConnell from the TV. John sat listening as if McConnell were speaking directly to him, ready to fade away until the last stanza rang in his spirit.
your birthright / do not let
this universe regret you.”
“If that wasn’t a burning bush, there never was one,” he tells me. At that, John says he pulled the needle from his arm and never used heroin again. He was born again, clean.
Once his eyes and spirit opened to possibility of a life without heroin, he became associated with the Nuyorican Poets and later with the Louder Arts group, sharpening his slam skills and winning a number of competitions around New York City. He then set out on the road on a series of one way tickets and bummed rides, going from venue to venue booking feature gigs along the way and building his reputation and fan base. He sold CDs and chapbooks, took prize money and donations from supporters to finance his next endeavor in the world of slam poetry.
He soon left New York and settled in Richmond, still drug-free. Few of us are fortunate enough to have a defining moment like that Blake experienced, but for him, living by faith and spirit has presented its own challenges. The path of following one’s passion leads to long hours doing things like waiting tables, and even longer hours pursuing that passion.
For almost a year, Blake’s passion has been SlamRichmond, a popular and growing slam performance group. He has spent the past eight months as the curator, hosting the weekly “Open Minds/Open Mic” events, moderating competitions, conducting and facilitating writing workshops, and bringing in high-powered talent for feature performances.
Open Minds/Open Mic is a weekly forum for poets to air new work and hone their skills in front of an audience. Held Saturday nights at Artspace inside Plant Zero in Manchester, it’s a training ground for aspiring slam poets. Performers can try out new pieces, get feedback, and talk with peers afterward. Some weeks, the evening is set aside for competition, occasionally with cash prizes. Here, poets can accrue points in the ranking system that determines who makes the teams for regional and national slams. This is the third consecutive year that SlamRichmond will send a team to compete, and it marks the first year that Blake will be a member and coach of the SlamRichmond team.
“Slam Richmond is all about raising literary awareness,” Blake enthuses. The writing workshops address the performance aspects of slamming like stage presence and acting techniques, but tend to center on writing topics like engaging the creative process, expressing ideas through the written word, revision, and the mechanics of writing a poem.
“We study the work of others and spend time writing. We explore the difference between slam poetry and literary poetry,” he says. Blake knows that most new poets don’t understand how to communicate to a reader as naturally as when actually reciting a piece. They can steal the show at a slam or make a great recording, but later fall short when the poem is read on the page. The written word becomes an important and additional source of revenue for a poet trying to make a living at his or her craft, as does the ability to communicate the ebb and flow of a piece on the page.
Blake also knows this aspect of it all too well. In the two years since settling in Richmond, he has navigated the hard road to poetry stardom and middle-aged genius status.
According to his Web page, he is required reading for many spoken word, English and poetry programs at a number of universities across the country. He has shared the stage with established poets and mainstream celebrities alike.
John “Survivor” Blake continues his progress along the road of recovery and empowerment through the written word. He speaks at rehabilitation centers and universities and presents poetry workshops in high schools. He shares his experience and strength through the craft of writing, and the art of living well.
About the Author
Danny Holcomb is a professional artist and photographer from Norfolk, Virginia. Currently living and working in Richmond Virginia, he is pursuing an undergraduate degree in sculpture/extended media at Virginia Commonwealth University.
As an artist he uses photography to produce fine-art portraiture, photo-based sculptural objects, photomontage, and documentary photography with a photojournalistic influence that documents and comments on contemporary culture.
He possesses a solid record of showing and selling his artwork in galleries, museums, and outdoor arts festivals. His photography is widely published in newspapers, and magazines, and his artwork has received numerous awards, and has appeared in over fifty juried, and invitational art exhibitions over the last ten years.