Y-O’s Poetic Peace Arts poetry slams give a voice to unheard Macon artists

Poet and community organizer Y-O left her native Macon, Georgia to attend Georgia College in 1991. It was here that she “officially” became a poet, writing her first poem at the age of 17. From there, it was a fast progression from Georgia College to performing live at the iconic Apollo Theatre in Harlem, where she performed at amateur nights in 1996 and ’97 and won twice. During that time she also lived in Atlanta and attended Georgia State University, living the big city life with its endless options for entertainment and cultural enrichment. She thrived as a poet, living in an environment that embraced and encouraged the arts.

But in 2000, Y-O, born Yolanda Latimore, lost a younger brother. She returned to her family and her hometown, and has stayed there ever since.

“I missed a lot of things that happened in the [Atlanta] metro area,” she says. “There were so many pockets of arts and entertainment in Atlanta, in all the city neighborhoods and suburbs. There were so many cultural activities that embraced the arts. I wanted to see that happen in Macon.”

She founded Poetic Peace Arts in Macon in 2003, a grassroots organization designed to support and promote poets and spoken word artists in Macon. “Most organizations and open mics are for musicians and comedians,” Y-O says, noting that those same opportunities were not available to poets and spoken word performers. Poetic Peace Arts started out as an open mic night but has grown over the last decade to include creative writing workshops, theatre, and academic outreach, helping schools produce open mics and poetry slams for their students.

When Y-O formed Poetic Peace Arts, she felt that the local arts scene in Macon was pretty much one of two things – the stereotypical stuffiness of the symphony on one end of the extreme, and hardcore rap on the other. “There was no in-between,” she says. “Now Macon has come a long way and I’m proud of that. It’s not just me – there are other individuals, traditional museums, grassroots arts organizations, all kinds of [efforts being made]. It takes a whole village to make creative placemaking happen.”

Now, instead of people driving to Athens or Atlanta or Columbus for their cultural experiences, they have it in their own backyard. “Overall it’s a win-win,” she says. “It has a huge impact on the economy,” even if it’s something as simple as concert-goers having dinner at a local restaurant before the show and grabbing drinks in the area afterwards. It might not sound like much, but these things add up, and do a lot to support local businesses.

Over the last 10 years, Poetic Peace Arts has been held at 10 different venues. It has been held at jazz clubs, supper clubs, churches, colleges, comedy clubs, and daiquiri bars. For many club owners, the organization brought in niche programming that attracted a new audience on nights they weren’t typically busy. Y-O has been able to attract some big-name talent to these events, too – everyone from R&B singer-songwriter Anthony David to Queen Sheba and other HBO Def Poetry Jam poets. “In this market they understand that they may not get what they usually ask for for an appearance, but the trade-off is media coverage and their main thing is to create a new fan base they don’t already have.”

Poetic Peace Arts is now back at Midtown Key Club, but it will move again this fall to the brand-new Tattnall Square Center for the Arts, currently under construction. Located in an old church that is currently being renovated, the Tattnall Square Center for the Arts will be used by the Mercer University Theatre Department, made possible in part by a $425,000 ArtPlace America Grant that Y-O helped secure. Poetic Peace Arts will also be using the space.

For the most part, Poetic Peace Arts is an entirely self-funded grassroots organization. Venues typically do not charge the group to host their events, some donations have helped to fund slams and other projects, and occasionally a sponsor has stepped up for a particular performer. Otherwise it has been Y-O using her own money to make things happen because it is her passion, with money from the door covering the cost of feature performers and DJs. But in 2011, that all changed when Y-O became the recipient of a Knight Foundation grant, and again in 2012. “That really helped put us on another level,” she says. She now has a documentary in the works and has been able to expand the organization’s activities and involvement to “help brand the movement.” She also used one-third of the funding to support artists honorarium “to show them they can actually request per diem and make a living from this, for something that’s just fun.”

Y-O is also now the Macon representative on the Knight Foundation’s National Arts Advisory Committee. “Our job is to cross-pollinate some of the events and activities [with other cities], and also to recognize organizations in Macon to receive Knight funding,” other grassroots efforts like the Macon Film Festival and the Tubman African American Museum. Y-O also utilizes Poetic Peace Arts to partner with like-minded organizations in different markets, like another Georgia-based group called Poetic Notions. “You partner with people you can feature, artists in other disciplines. It’s very essential to partner with them so we can all get our goals accomplished.”

In the time since she started Poetic Peace Arts, Y-O feels she has grown more as a writer, not just writing poetry but also writing columns for Macon Telegraph and Macon Food and Culture Magazine, blogging for the Knight Arts website, and launching her own media company Like Water Publicity. She is also a local radio personality and is an activist involved with many other philanthropic arts organizations. “I don’t perform as much as I used to but I have been writing so much more than before,” she says. “I’ve grown more to help others realize their talent and hone their skills.” She enjoys watching young poets come through the organization and venture out on their own. And with her position in the arts community, she tries to help them establish funding for their own projects. “That’s really satisfying.”