Mecca Verdell says she’s at least 30 percent psychic and intended to be an actor instead of a poet. Writing and performing as “Meccamorphosis”, Verdell, who represented Baltimore proudly last year, winning second place in the international Individual World Poetry Slam, is one of the Baltimore poetry scene’s most resounding, resonant voices.
“This is the first place I’ve been homesick about and also the first place when someone says something about I’m gonna say something back,” Verdell said.
We’re sitting at XS in Mount Vernon—it’s a place that means a lot to her. She has done a great deal of writing on its third floor. The last time I’d seen her was just after she’d performed for a standing-room-only Baltimore Queens of Poetry event hosted at The Arena Players, the oldest, historically Black community theater in the city. The youngest in the line-up, Verdell performed with other poets in the Baltimore scene, including the renowned Gayle Danley and Verdell’s mentor, Lady Brion.
Verdell grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey and moved to Baltimore in 2013, where she attended Western High School. She’d been active in theatre in New Jersey—performing in school events and with organizations —and wanted to continue here, but Western didn’t have a theater club. A school friend recommended she join the poetry club. It’s there she met poet Brion “Lady Brion” Gill, who was a teaching artist at the school and ultimately became Verdell’s mentor.
“She’s so smart and intelligent,” Verdell said when Brion came up in conversation, her voicing rising, her smile widening. “She’s everything I wish I would’ve stayed in college for.”
After graduating high school, Verdell attended the Community College of Baltimore County in a program that would allow her to transfer credits to Morgan State University. She didn’t finish the program and fully committed to her art instead.
Moving to Baltimore connected Verdell to Blackness and pride and poetry in a way she had never experienced before. Just two years after moving to the city, Verdell competed with the Baltimore team in Brave New Voices, a global poetry slam competition, helping the city take first place in 2016, and deepening her commitment to poetry. Her performance energizes without entering into the caricature of the “slam poet”—a cliché, predictable approach Verdell is mindful to avoid. Her passion is instead, like that of a trained actor, rather than a spewing tea kettle of words. Each poem becomes its own world and onstage, Verdell radiate self-assurance and confidence even when her work gets reflective.
And when her poetry isn’t deeply personal, it addresses Blackness in its broad complexity. Her poem “Duck You Autocorrect” is an astute, pun-filled piece that critiques the autocorrect function and intertwines notions of erasure and censorship: “Ain’t it to be Black, to look back at a sentence and see something wrong/ something not add up/ poster say 10 days and now you got 10 years in an auto-correctional facility.”
Black womanhood features heavily in her poetry, with many poems inspired by Black women’s struggles and upheavals, including her own.
“A lot of Black women have been…writing about all the shit people ignore about us and I want to write about it too,” Verdell said. “I have no choice but to write from a Black woman’s perspective.”
In a video of Verdell performing her poem “Penny Dreadfuls” at the Texas Grand Slam, she captures the audience with her voice and her eyes as they dart from left to right pulling everybody watching in closer. And she ends the poem by asking “where is the change?”—a pointed play on words illustrating how Black girls are sometimes treated as though they are as worthless as pennies, and at the same time demanding that conditions improve.
At the premiere of her video for “Penny Dreadfuls” at the now closed Annex Theatre in late 2017, the audience seemed inspired by its DIY ethic and tableau—Black women posed in white gowns in the Peale Center—but Verdell admitted she’s no longer a fan of the video, dismissing it, two years after she conceptualized it, as basic—and cliched.
“I hate it. I feel like it’s the standard Black girl video. All we’re missing is some flower crowns,” she said. “I appreciate the step for what it was. I appreciate it because that’s where I made my first mistakes and mistakes I’ll never make again.”
Verdell is always thinking of different ways to improve and incorporate all the pieces of herself into her work. She brings up Beyonce’s work ethic, and slam poetry’s place in the literary community and stresses the amount of detail, and scrutiny she puts into her projects. She has released a chapbook “Things To Unlearn,” was the Youth Poet Ambassador of Baltimore in 2017, completed an east-coast poetry tour from Boston to Virginia alongside friends Katana Carson and Wifty Bangura, and is currently working on a poetry opera.
“I never want to give anyone anything that’s lackluster. I always go back into my poems to see what can I change,” she said. “I just want people to see me for what I am capable of.”
On Saturday, Nov. 16 at 1 p.m., Mecca Verdell performs as part of Poetry Salon: Black Women in Their Splendor at the Reginald Lewis Museum. Other poets include Lady Brion and Hannah V. Sawyer.