Columbus performance poet gains national fame

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJune 29, 2014 

Her first name is Italian for "clear" and also connotes "bright" and "famous."

No wonder Chiara Richardson feels she was born to be known for her performance poetry.

"God makes me a message that he wants to send to people," she said, "and I'm just a vessel."

The nation will see and hear Richardson, a Columbus native and 1999 Shaw High School graduate, deliver one of those messages when she appears this fall on an episode of "Verses and Flow" on TV One.

Richardson is among the 24 poets selected for the show's fourth season, said Daune Cummings, who books the talent. More than half of the poets, including Richardson, were chosen from over 1,000 submissions on the "Verses and Flow" website, Cummings said. The others came through recommendations, she said.

Cummings explained why Richardson was picked.

"She just has such a very sweet, happy and genuine face," Cummings said. "It's just very peaceful. You want to know what she's saying. It's her composure, her demeanor, everything. I happen to thoroughly enjoy her. She doesn't feel the need to be aggressive in her delivery, but she definitely is compelling. You want to listen to her."

Jonathan Perkins is co-director with Richardson at the Fountain City Slam, the local performance poetry group with youth and adult programs. They have known each other for more than 20 years.

Perkins said Richardson "is going to leave her heart and soul on the stage," but her performance is full of substance as well as style.

"Chiara is very to-the-point in her approach to writing," he said. "There is no fluff, just a well-constructed story. She is definitely a product of Southern hip-hop. Audiences can certainly hear and enjoy the influences of great rap ensembles like Goodie Mob and Outkast in her work. She is truly a lyricist that knows where she is from and doesn't mind offering up some Southern hospitality on the mic."

Despite her soaring success, Perkins said, Richardson remains grounded.

"She is down to earth and treats people the way she likes to be treated," he said. "She is extremely humble and desires to use her art to help in the community first and foremost. She is not driven by money, fame or accolades."

Richardson, 33, earned her first Screen Actors Guild credit and also was paid for her appearance. She declined to say how much money she earned, but she did express the confidence boost she received after she applied in February, was selected in April, then flew to Los Angeles for filming later that month.

"It's amazing, because I've been doing this for a while now, and I won't lie, it's been a struggle," she said. "Like many artists, you get to a point, 'Do I keep doing this, or do I need to find something else to do?' So it kind of gives you a little affirmation, a little push to keep going. Maybe I'm headed in the right direction after all."

Inspiration

In the fifth and sixth grades at Forrest Road Elementary School, her language arts teachers, Ms. Youmans, encouraged her to enter poetry contests. One of her poems was published in a student anthology

"Everyone was writing about going outside, and my poem was about air pollution," she said with a laugh.

That was her only published poem as a child, but she kept her creativity exercised in a poetry notebook. Meanwhile, she took drama in high school and acted in community theater, but she wasn't focused only on performing as she also cheered and ran track. Then she was chosen as one of her high school graduation speakers after an audition at Shaw and was motivated to seek more chances to be in the spotlight.

Richardson didn't see performance poetry until she got to Georgia Southern. A friend invited her to check out the group in the student union, and without advance notice, she heard, "Next, coming to the stage, is Chiara!"

Fortunately, she literally had a poem in her back pocket.

"And I got a good response," she recalled. "So I kept going to the group and started writing a little more so I could have something to present each time."

Perspiration

Richardson left Georgia Southern in 2005 before earning her degree.

"My family was going through some difficulties," she said, "and it was best for me to come home and help."

She has returned to Georgia Southern via online courses to complete by next spring her bachelor's in general studies with a concentration in writing, business and sociology.

Richardson works with local students in writing workshops while also working temporarily at Blue Cross and Blue Shield. But she plans to move to Atlanta this summer to expand her opportunities as a teaching artist, an actress and a performance poet.

"I had a struggle with saying this is going to be my thing," she said. "Maybe three years ago, I decided to put my best foot forward and try my best.

"Do I need a regular job or do this? But in talking to other friends who are artists, it's the same exact conversation. It's the same exact struggle. Do you go for stability -- which can cause unhappiness if you suppress your career - or do you give 100 percent to it? I know some people try to balance the two, but there comes a point where you just have to decide."

Coaching the youth in the Fountain City Slam has helped hone her craft.

"It's an opportunity that I didn't have," she said. "So to introduce them at an even earlier age to learn to find their own voice, that's an important thing. They matter, what they have to say matters. Giving them that positive outlet, a way to say this is how I'm feeling, this is what I'm going through, somebody can reach out and say, 'Hey, I'm going through it too,' or 'I've experienced that. Let me help you.'"

Richardson tries to write some poetry each day. Sometimes, the words gush; other times, they're clogged.

"I write a little piece here and a little piece there," she said, "and then one day I'm like, 'Oh, I can put these two things together!'"

Validation

"Verses and Flow" is a 30-minute variety show, not a contest. Richardson's episode was filmed in front of a live audience at Siren Studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. She said she will be in one of this season's eight episodes, starting this fall, but she doesn't know when it will air.

"It was really different to see people that you watch on television and that you admire come to you and say, 'Hey, you did an amazing job,' or 'I appreciate your work.' It took me a moment to take it all in. I was a little star-struck."

She met celebrities such as Brandy, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Meagan Good and Kenny Lattimore.

"I was nervous, but it was like the good, calm nerves," she said. "I felt like God did not bring me that far to just drop me off there and not do what I was supposed to do. So I was excited and just very honored to be there."

And she was overjoyed with her performance of 2 minutes and 30 seconds.

"I think they were very responsive," she said. "Afterwards, I got congratulations and hugs and people even recited a few of my lines.

"I hope this opens the door for more opportunities to do what I love to do," she continued, then added with a smile. "Either way, I'm still going to be working with kids and spewing out my poems."

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter

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Not wanting to spoil the show, Chiara Richardson declined to share her poem she performed for the "Verses and Flow" episode, but she did share the video and text of another poetry performance, which you can watch and read by clicking on this story at www.ledger-enquirer.com.TV ONEAccording to its website, TV One launched on Martin Luther King's birthday in January 2004. The cable network now serves 57 million households. Combining sitcoms, movies, reality television and specials, TV One delivers programming from the African-American point of view.

You don't need to receive TV One in your television package to watch "Verses and Flow" episodes. They are available at www.versesandflow.com, beginning the day after they air. The broadcast date for Chiara Richardson's episode this fall hasn't been announced.FOUNTAIN CITY SLAMFountain City Slam conducts an open mike session of performance poetry at 6:30 p.m. most Wednesdays in Fountain City Coffee, 1007 Broadway in downtown Columbus. For more information, call Chiara Richardson 404-673-0265 or Jonathan Perkins at 706-392-0777.

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