Top, from left: Jennifer Pena, Shane Koyczan and Jericho Brown. Center: Andrea Gibson. Bottom, from left: Kealoha, Robin Sanders and PJ Sorem.

Top, from left: Jennifer Pena, Shane Koyczan and Jericho Brown. Center: Andrea Gibson. Bottom, from left: Kealoha, Robin Sanders and PJ Sorem.

We Speak: A virtual festival of poetry and storytelling

The winners of the Youth Poetry Slam Competition will perform live at the Edmonds Center for the Arts on Dec. 3.

EDMONDS — When we look back on 2020, we’ll remember that we spoke out about a number of issues.

The Edmonds Center for the Arts is hosting the first-ever We Speak Festival on Dec. 3 via Livestream.

Edmonds’ virtual festival of spoken word poetry and storytelling features the talents of Jericho Brown, Andrea Gibson, Kealoha, Shane Koyczan and Robin Sanders, as well as the winners of the festival’s Youth Poetry Slam Competition.

“These are artists we’ve been wanting to bring to the stage,” said Gillian Jones, programming director for the arts center. “They’ve been on our radar — but there just never been the right opportunity. With this project, we were finally able to work with those artists.”

Along with the student finalists of the Youth Poetry Slam Competition, “we’ve got a great lineup,” Jones said.

All of the We Speak artists have been invited to explore the themes of the year 2020. Through performance, they’ll respond to issues including, but not limited to, the global health crisis, the racial justice movement and experiences of disabled, indigenous and LGBTQ+ communities.

The We Speak Youth Poetry Slam Competition finalists are Jennifer Pena and PJ Sorem, who will perform their work live from the Edmonds Center for the Arts stage.

In addition to an open call for video submissions, Hawaiian slam poet Kealoha led virtual spoken word workshops for students of Mukilteo’s Leadership Launch and Scriber Lake High School in Edmonds.

Pena, 19, is a freshman at Everett Community College. Her poem, titled “It’s Time,” was inspired by the Bible.

“It’s time to recognize the situation that we’re in,” Pena said. “We need to figure out that love and life is more important than all these things around us.”

She said 2020 has been an unexpected ride — one that gave her an opportunity to share her poetry.

“Her piece was so personal and vulnerable, speaking to what she’s been experiencing during this time, which has been so hard for everyone, but especially for young people,” Jones said. “She has so much raw potential.”

Sorem, 17, is a junior at the Tacoma Science and Math Institute. In addition to the Edmonds contest, they have competed twice in Write 253’s Louder Than A Bomb poetry slam in Tacoma.

Although untitled, Sorem’s poem about identity repeats the line “I am no stranger to wearing a mask.” It borrows the COVID-19 mask as a metaphor for their experiences surrounding the self: how they see themselves, how they present themselves and how they are seen.

“It’s so polished,” Jones said of Sorem’s work. “They have this great personal style and presentation in their video that was very impressive.”

Sorem said reciting their poem from memory will be a challenge. “I’ve never memorized a poem before, even the ones that I’ve written. The competitions I’ve done, it’s never been a requirement. Luckily my poem is pretty short.”

As the winners, Pena and Sorem each worked one-on-one with Kealoha, also virtually, to prepare for their Dec. 3 performance.

These five award-winning poets and storytellers from the United States and Canada have prerecorded their performance for the We Speak Festival in Edmonds:

Jericho Brown is the author of “Please” (2008), which won the American Book Award; “The New Testament” (2014), winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award; and of the poetry collection “The Tradition” (2019), a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Also a recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, Brown’s poems have appeared in The Nation, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Time, The Pushcart Prize Anthology and The Best American Poetry. He is an associate professor and director of creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta.

Andrea Gibson has written six books. “Lord of the Butterflies” (2018), was the winner of the Independent Publisher’s Award and a Goodreads Choice Awards finalist. “Take Me With You” (2017), an illustrated collection of Gibson’s most memorable quotes, also was a Goodreads finalist. They also co-authored “How Poetry Can Change Your Heart” in 2019.

In addition, Gibson has released seven albums, combining their spoken word with musical collaborations. They are the winner of the 2018 Women’s World Poetry Slam Championship and a frequent World Poetry Slam finalist.

Kealoha is the first Poet Laureate of Hawaii. He has performed at the White House, the Iolani Palace in Honolulu, the Schiffbau in Switzerland, the Bienal do Ibirapuera in Brazil, as well as for the NFL Pro Bowl Halftime Show and the National Storytelling Network Conference.

He was honored as a National Poetry Slam Legend in 2010, having represented Hawaii at the National Poetry Slam seven times, and making it to the finals four times. His self-titled spoken word album “Kealoha” was released by Hawaii Slam Records in 2004.

Shane Koyczan’s albums combine his spoken word with the folk instrumentation of his band The Short Story Long: “Debris” (2015) “Silence Is A Song I Know All The Words To” (2014) and “Remembrance Year” (2012). He is the author of the poetry collections “Visiting Hours” (2005), “Our Deathbeds Will Be Thirsty” (2011), “A Bruise On Light” (2014) and the novel “Stickboy” (2011).

Koyczan has won of the U.S. Slam Poetry Championship, the Canadian Spoken Word Olympics and the CBC National Poetry Face Off.

Robin “Bino” Sanders has toured the U.S. with “Love Heals All Wounds,” a dance performance featuring spoken word and original song. Her performances include “Ode to Hip Hop” and “The Elements” for Control Freakz, an appearance on Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” “See What I’m Sayin’” and “At the Geffen” live from the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, “Honor Thy Mother” for the TED International Conference and “New Ancients” for a short film on Hulu’s “May I Have Your Attention Please.”

She is producing “Love Is the New Black,” a spoken word performance featuring dance and music, and is writing the script for the Broadway version of “Love Heals All Wounds.” She is the creative arts director for the Movement Church in Florida.

The We Speak Festival and Youth Poetry Slam Competition are sponsored by Rick and Charlotte Canning, Leslie and Mike Foley, and Jan and Benny Teal, as well as the Hazel Miller Foundation and the Edmonds Arts Commission.

Courtney Wooten, of Suburbia Rising/Stories of Self & Solidarity; Annie Carl, owner of The Neverending Bookshop in Edmonds; and Mariko Nagashima of TeenTix made up the jury for the Youth Poetry Slam Competition. Wooten will also serve as emcee of the event.

Can’t watch on Dec. 3? No problem. The Livestream link to the We Speak Festival expires 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7.

Sara Bruestle: 425-339-3046;; @sarabruestle.

If you stream

The Edmonds Center for the Arts presents the first-ever We Speak Festival — a virtual celebration of spoken word poetry and storytelling — 7:30 to 9 p.m. Dec. 3 via Livestream. Featuring the talents of Jericho Brown, Andrea Gibson, Kealoha, Shane Koyczan and Robin Sanders, as well as the winners of the We Speak Youth Poetry Slam Competition. Tickets, which are pay what you can, are $5-$45. You will receive a Livestream link via email 24 hours prior to the event. More at

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