Kane Smego calls himself NovaKane, but he's anything but numb—especially as he prepares to leave the Triangle for a new adventure. He's crammed his books in a car and is about to motor off to Los Angeles, into the unknown. "I'll be on the road for about 10 days," Smego says. "It's like the metaphor of 'the path,' just riding out by myself, you know?"
The restless performer, writer and educator has rocked major poetry slams and inspired countless Triangle students through Sacrificial Poets, an educational spoken-word nonprofit he helped start in 2005.
He's also been a poet-correspondent from the Arab Spring, a turning point when five Chapel Hill High School buddies running a slam team dedicated themselves to a more serious social-justice mission.
In the summer of 2011, Smego, fellow Sacrificial Poets founder Will McInerney and N.C. State students Mohammad Moussa and Sameer Abdel-Khalek spent two months in Egypt and Tunisia, collecting oral histories and writing poems from the midst of the revolutionary wave.
Although the big protests happened earlier in the year, the countries were dealing with their much dicier aftermaths. Sacrificial Poets captured the faces and voices of this social and political uncertainty in a project called "Poetic Portraits of a Revolution," producing a weekly audio segment that aired on WUNC program The State of Things and earning a 2011 INDY Arts Award in the process.
"It was eye-opening for us, as artists, trying to synthesize all of that and create a piece every week that we had to write, script and record huddled under a blanket," Smego says. "Every Tuesday, we were up until 7 a.m. producing that piece [for a Wednesday deadline]."
Smego wasn't just making documentary art; he was meeting activists and artists who were transforming their country. He and McInerney knew they couldn't just return to the slam circuit once they came home.
"The Sacrificial Poets didn't become a nonprofit until we came back," Smego says, noting that cofounders CJ Suitt, George "G" Yamazawa and Jake Jacoby had also been thinking along revolutionary lines. "Egypt and Tunisia was the impetus behind thinking, 'Yeah, I think we can do it. We can take this to the next level and develop a strategy so we can reach way more kids.'"
Fast-forward to the present. Smego is now an experienced teacher who has conducted high-energy spoken-word workshops and led powerful youth slam performances in 17 states as well as every corner of the Triangle.
He's developed Sacrificial Poets's "YouTh ink" curriculum and founded an afterschool program called Poetic Justice for underserved Durham youth.
Sacrificial Poets is well integrated into the educational landscape here, and the organization's name commands respect in big slam scenes around the country.
Smego himself has serious spoken-word mettle. A Bull City Slam Team mainstay, he was part of the 2010 squad that finished third at the National Poetry Slam in St. Paul, Minnesota. That same year, he won the Southern Fried Poetry Slam Regional Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee.
In 2008, he claimed the Lake Eden Arts Festival slam title over several national champions and placed 14th in an international field at the Individual World Poetry Slam.
But despite his full trophy case, he hasn't participated in slams since 2010. It's a common situation for people who excel in their fields. You work hard, hone your skills and garner attention.
To make a living, you parlay that success into some teaching gigs, which are such a revelation for arts-starved students that your workshops become high-demand. You find yourself writing lesson plans, grant applications and curricula—but not many poems.
After helping Sacrificial Poets grow into an influential pedagogical platform, Smego craves new students, different racial dynamics, communities with different issues and, most of all, a lot more poetry.
"Right now I live literally a block away from the apartments I grew up in [on Morreene Road in Durham]," he says. "So a lot of the things I talk about, like my childhood and my perspectives on race and class and gender as it relates to growing up in a single-mother household, all that has formed my voice. I'm excited to see how that changes once I'm in a new place."
Smego will continue to teach in Los Angeles, but he's looking forward to teaching less in order to do more creative work. He's writing a one-person show and admits that he would love to dabble in front of a camera, too.
Sacrificial Poets as a local institution will go on as usual—insofar as that's possible without Smego, whose departure marks an organizational turn into middle age.
With hordes more artists, filmmakers, poets and performers than the Triangle, Los Angeles represents infinite possibility to Smego.
"I've had some amazing mentors and I'm feeling like I'm ready for the next stage of learning," Smego says. "I want to grow more as an educator. And as a solo artist, I'm excited about spreading my wings to see what I can do."
"And," he adds, laughing, "no polar vortex for me this winter."
I guess you know now
what to do when I speak
when my hands unlatch and hatch
two empty guitar cases at your feet
I just hope my blessings sell
and pray that you will make them
look more like wishing wells
so when you drop a coin in
wrap it in a prayer
faith always feels better pressed between palms than money does
and music always sounds sweeter in the air
than cooped up in these lungs
—from "Street Musicians" by Kane Smego
This article appeared in print with the headline "The righteous path."