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Artists Among Us: Seattle poet embraces responsibility to help 'make sense of things'

In Seattle, spoken word and social justice are deeply intertwined. For Ebo Barton, their connection to the form is a historical one, dating back to the oral traditions of many Black, Indigenous and other people of color.
Parker Miles Blohm
In Seattle, spoken word and social justice are deeply intertwined. For Ebo Barton, their connection to the form is a historical one, dating back to the oral traditions of many Black, Indigenous and other people of color.

It’s after 1 a.m. at the Capitol Hill IHOP in Seattle. Ebo Barton is sitting in a corner booth with another poet, both of whom had performed earlier at Re-Bar in South Lake Union, home of the Seattle Poetry Slam. A few of us have stumbled in, closing out another Seattle summer night filled with poetry and juvenilia. It’s the first time I meet Barton.

This is 10 years ago, so I don’t know them all that well — just rolled in to catch the poet they’re with. Having just graduated from the spoken word program, Youth Speaks Seattle, I’m still new to the “adult” world of poetry slam. I think everybody — Barton, especially — is an experienced slam prophet, ready to snatch any mic at any given moment and turn every room into the pile of emotional dust they didn’t know they needed to become.

Seattle’s spoken word scene particularly in that ambiguous transition from youth to adult — is often a series of being mistaken for being more put together than you really are. The people who listen closest to your poems believe in you completely, and after a while, you step into the version of yourself you’d wished to be or had projected in the poems you were writing, becoming the person they thought — or, rather, knew — you were all along. It’s a virtuous cycle of generosity Barton is deeply familiar with.

“It’s all about what people call on us to do, right?” Barton says to me, in a recent phone conversation as they reflect on how poetry and performance became their unlikely profession.

Having grown up in a traditional Filipino household, being a poet was not considered a viable career. So along their journey, they made a go at becoming a professional chef. And when that didn’t work out, they signed up for the military. Despite the various ways Barton’s life evolved, poetry remained a through line.

Barton began their journey to poetry like many young artists: writing in secret, yet certain of their own originality. They made their performance debut on one of the most hallowed slam stages, the longest-running poetry open mic in the country, Da Poetry Lounge in Los Angeles. They’re quick to tell you they didn’t know what they were doing at the time — hands and paper shaking, unaware of the tradition and lineage they’d stepped into. 

A few months later, Barton joined the Navy and found themself stationed in Snohomish County. Later still, as they began returning to civilian life, they sought out spoken word communities in Everett and Seattle, the latter of which had gained a national reputation for sharp writing, compelling performance, and a fierce bent toward social justice.

“I consider Seattle my home, in terms of poetry, and always have,” Barton says. “I walked into that venue and was immediately asked who I was, where’d I come from, what my story was. Not only that, I was asked to do shows!”

By invitation and encouraging support of established and emerging performers like Angela “El Dia” Martinez Dy, Nikkita Oliver, andJack McCarthy, Barton threw themself at their craft. Never before had their identity as a queer person of color been so affirmed and nourished. Telling their story had never been so rewarded.

In Seattle, spoken word and social justice are deeply intertwined. For Barton, their connection to the form is a historical one, dating back to the oral traditions of many Black, Indigenous and other people of color. As those marginalized groups were barred from American civil society and basic human rights, access to written histories and stories was limited. Spoken word survived because the people who needed to remember their histories and stories survived. 

“Poets make sense of things,” Barton says. “There’s a responsibility that comes with that.”

It’s with gratitude to the people who came before us who made spaces like Re-bar, Hidmo, and the long-dead writing circles tucked in random cafes that the tradition of Seattle spoken word survives. Barton’s work is a testament to all those who guided them and all those who listen. Their work takes the lessons of community and — with the poem as a mirror — reflects it on themself.

“In a poem, I can feel safe, loved, and valued,” Barton says.

It was in this context of history, identity and community when Barton’s devotion to their craft started to meet material gain. In 2013, they made their first Seattle Poetry Slam final stage. In 2016, they placed fifth at the Individual World Poetry Slam. Feeling the momentum, they tried different forms. They co-wrote and co-produced the award-winning play, “Rising Up,” in 2017, and they played the role of Invisible One in Anastacia-Reneé's “Queer, Mama. Crossroadsthe following year, reprising it in 2019. The visibility that’s come with their success has brought them to the forefront of King County’s current civil rights movement, emceeing rallies and headlining Black arts performances.

“My story is not the only story,” Barton says. “I want to make room for them all. I always want to be able to tell a different story — even in my introductions or between poems. Right now, in this time, people are looking for an answer, and I don’t think it’s just one of us that has it.”

After years of performing, competing and touring, Barton self-published their first poetry collection “Insubordinate” earlier this year. Across the 14 poems in this volume, Barton grounds us in a post-gentrified Seattle, weaving the quotidian with the fantastical, toggling between love and violence, cleverly balancing a multitude of voices with an always-startling direct address. Wedged between poems about identity and high-stakes familial relationships are poems about nonprofit work life and high-fiving plants, the latter of which uses absurdity to offer a lesson on generosity and attention. These poems are frank when kind and fearless in their reproach.

Barton’s poems know that ambiguity carries with it the threat of harm, so throughout the collection, the act of naming functions as a crucial first step to sense-making and securing a kind of safety. In an early poem, “Freedom Cut Me Loose,” Barton’s speaker names the poet, and in so doing, offers more than a salve — an origin story rooted in resistance and liberation:

I named myself Ebo To worship the slave rebellion That drowned their captors Rose into the sky turned into birds and flew back home

Mistakes,” which comes at the tail-end of the book, offers a refreshing take on the myth of perfection (a quality too quickly associated with poetry). The poem meditates on the idea of mistakes, self-revising in real time misspellings, grammatical errors and stylistic changes so that when we arrive at the heart of the poem — the speaker asking a beloved to “Make a mistake with me” — where there should be darkness, the reader instead offers generosity. It’s a masterful move to train the reader to give kindness in the place of a mistake, and one that could only be pulled off by this particular poet, for whom the intimacy of the beloved is also the love for community.

“In a lot of our movements, we forget that everyone is going to make a mistake. Humility is not a practice humans are very used to. That is so important to me because the communities I've been a part of watched me fall, helped pick me back up again, and were gracious enough to educate me,” Barton says. “We're conditioned by white supremacy to be perfect. It's totally OK, we're not going to be.”

This story is part of the Artists Among Us series of profiles highlighting creatives around the region who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Dujie Tahat is a Filipino-Jordanian immigrant and writer based in Seattle. Their poems have been published or are forthcoming in Poetry, Poetry NW, ZYZZVA, Best New Poets, Asian American Literary Review and elsewhere.