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At the top of his game - artist gives insight on how he makes a living through poetry

Ed Mabrey hosting the first Gods and Goddesses Poetry Slam: A National Competition. Sheri (Purpose) Hall on the left.
Yvonne Boose
Ed Mabrey hosting the first Gods and Goddesses Poetry Slam: A National Competition. Sheri (Purpose) Hall on the left.

A national poetry slam champion came to Rockford a few years ago to host Rockford’s first slam competition. WNIJ’s Yvonne Boose spotted him during the FLYPOET Spoken Word and Music Showcase in California this February. He agreed to give her a peek into his world.

Ed Mabrey has won over 500 slam competitions, four world championships and six regionals. He’s won several of other types of awards and has appeared on networks like HBO, TV ONE and CNN.

Mabrey hosted the first Gods and Goddesses Poetry Slam in 2021. That event was created by Rockford’s Goddess Warrior the Poet also known as Dianna Tyler.

Mabrey said that is the time that he learned that Rockford is not Chicago.

“I have a fan base in Chicago. I have friends in Chicago,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Hey, Chicago, you know, I'm going to have a show and like, ‘Oh, hey, we want to come, where are you at?' Yeah, I'm going to be right there in Rockford, right down the street. And the record scratched.”

Mabrey started writing poetry when he was a child and said he didn’t realize it. He won a speech contest in grade school and wrote poetry back then. His mom reminded him of that when he started to receive more accolades.

“I grew up in the era, I'm just old enough to be around just before hip-hop came in. So, poetry was still cool. And then all of a sudden, hip-hop happened. And it was - - poetry is for girls, you got to be a rapper. And I immediately left poetry alone.”

Mabrey said he did write a few poems for his friends that they in turn gave to their girls. Then poetry helped him get through a major heartache and he said he developed a new community. He said he thought that was the last time he would perform poetry, but it wasn’t. He went back again and from there things started to flow. He said the elders in the community told him that there was something special about him.

“I had this one sister hand me a book," he said, "called The Black Poets Anthology. She said, ‘hey, I want you to read this. And don't do another poem until you read the entire book cover to cover.’ And I was like, ‘you’re not my momma, I don't know you. I'm not in school. Why would I listen to you,’ being very thuggish about it, and foolish and manly.”

Mabrey gave in and read the book. He said that book changed the trajectory of his life. The book includes poets like Nikki Giovanni and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar was from Dayton, Ohio, and that’s where Mabery grew up. He said when he read one of his poems, he realized that he knew the lines.

“Is my ancestor speaking to me right now? — it's kind of scary," he recalled thinking. "And told my mom, she said, ‘no that’s what you did in the contest.’ So, she found a certificate from me winning and the whole nine yards.”

Mabrey kept writing and performing and today it is something he does regularly. He said this happened when he went to a statewide poetry competition, then he went to a regional event. Next, he was invited to come to Chicago to perform. This was 24 years ago. He won that competition, and he said at the end of the night, someone handed him some money. He continued to do shows in the Midwest and when he went back home, other cities wanted him to come perform for money.

“And then the second third year I did it, there were too many cities for me to keep working my job,” he said. “And I'd sit down [and say to] myself and go 'okay, well, do I keep the job and never do have this experience? Or do I get this experience because I can always come back and get a job at a bank.’”

He was working at a credit card company at the time. Mabrey said since then, he hasn’t had to go and work a job that he must clock in and out for.

When Mabrey first started out, he travelled 25 days a month for about 10 months out of the year. Now he does fewer shows, but they pay more. He said he’s been in contests where the prize was a car and some of the slams pay thousands of dollars for the win.

“There's a $10,000 contest coming up. I won't be in it, but it's a $10,000 contest,” he said. “Outside of the United States is $100,000 contest. And there's even one million [dollar contest] that happens every few years.”

Mabrey said that last one is also outside of the United States.

Mabrey also made money by selling books and CD’s. The demand for CD’s dwindled as technology changed. He said he started selling t-shirts and that blossomed into a clothing line. In addition to that he makes jewelry and has his own bath and body line.

Mabrey is the ambassador for a company called Poetry for Personal Power. In addition to that, he offers writing, performance, business etiquette and financial workshops for artists. He said the most important of all are his mental health workshops. Mabrey said most artists overlook taking care of their mental well-being.

He said those who want to grow their poetry should read works by others twice as much as they write and should write twice as much as they speak. He also wants people, who live in Chicago, to get out of their comfort zone and check out what’s going on in Rockford.

In the meantime, Mabrey is letting his words flow into all the spaces that they can fit. He’s creating choreopoems, a form that combines dance and music and he’s turning some of his poems into short scripts -- all while continuing to be at the top of the game in the world of slam poetry.

Yvonne covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This could include how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities. Boose is a recent graduate of the Illinois Media School and returns to journalism after a career in the corporate world.