Glenis Redmond laughs when she talks about it.
But, yes, the Ku Klux Klan gave the acclaimed poet a considerable career boost.
In 1999, the group marched in Asheville, North Carolina, where Redmond lived.
A group of Asheville citizens responded with a multiracial unity rally where Redmond, then a struggling poet, read some of her inspirational writings.
Booking agents happened to be present at the anti-KKK meeting, and they offered Redmond a contract on the spot.
“I literally signed up that next week to speak at schools and universities,” Redmond said. “And I was pretty much booked solid for two years straight.”
Redmond relishes the poetic irony — and poetic justice — of the experience.
“People ask me, ‘How did you get your start?’ and I facetiously say, ‘It was the Ku Klux Klan,’” she said with a laugh.
“It’s an odd intersection but that’s what motivated me to be at that venue,” she said. “It was where my life shifted from being below the poverty level to being able to pay the bills and buy a house.”
Redmond’s subsequent career as a poet has taken her everywhere from schools and Ivy League universities to women’s centers, prisons and homeless shelters.
“I walk into a lot of doors of people who don’t necessarily know they need poetry,” she said. “Many have never even considered poetry before.”
Redmond, whose uplifting work often focuses on the black experience, doesn’t justread her poetry. She performs her poems with an emotive, stirring voice and gestures that reflect both grace and strength. (Several of her poetic performances can be seen on YouTube.)
Redmond also teaches students, young and old, how to put their feelings into concentrated, rhythmic and powerful verse.
“They’re learning how to reflect deeply as a human being and how to write about that experience,” Redmond said.
Redmond believes in the transformative power of poetry as an antidote to a fast-paced, competitive society that seems to have little time for self-reflection.
“We don’t take time to listen to the world and to ourselves,” Redmond said. “That’s the role of the poet, to say, ‘Yes, there’s struggle here but there’s also beauty.’”
Most recently, she mentored five young people from around the country who had been chosen, from among 20,000 entrants, to recite their poetry at the White House for an audience of dignitaries that included first lady Michelle Obama.
Redmond held workshops with the young writers online before meeting them in Washington, D.C. and taking them to the White House.
“It was exciting,” Redmond said. “In addition to Michelle Obama, there were representatives of the top poetry organizations in the world. These five students were reading for the elite even though they had never done a reading before. Michelle Obama is such a supporter of the arts and was a wonderful host for our young people. She really put them at their ease.”
Redmond encourages young talent but cautions aspiring poets that it’s not an easy life.
“I tell them that if you can be anything else, do that,” Redmond said. “When you work for yourself, the work is 24-7.”
As a poet, Redmond is also an entrepreneur. Like any contractor, she often has to juggle several jobs at the same time. Right now, she has at least four.
She’s poet-in-residence at Greenville’s Peace Center and at the New Jersey State Theatre. She’s a teaching artist at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center. She also maintains a lively free-lance career that keeps her booked a year in advance.
All of her affiliations involve performing her own work and mentoring young people.
At the Peace Center, where Redmond spends about five months every year, she conducts poetry workshops and public readings with young people and adults. The sessions are free and open to any aspiring poet.
She also hosts a series called Poetic Conversations in the Peace Center’s Ramsaur Studio. On Jan. 27, as a part of events honoring the life of Martin Luther King Jr., Redmond and blues musician Scott Ainslie will perform their piece “Southern Voices: Black, White and Blues,” followed by a conversation with the audience. (The 7 p.m. event is free and open to the public but reservations are required by emailing Taryn Zira at email@example.com.)
On Feb. 18, Redmond hosts a Black History Month Conversation with performance poet Joshua Bennett in the Peace Center’s Gunter Theatre. (Tickets are free and reservations can be made by calling 864-467-3000 or visiting the Peace Center website at www.peacecenter.org.)
Redmond, 52, has had to grapple with some of the usual challenges that an entrepreneur faces: dealing with contracts and taxes, purchasing health insurance, identifying her niche and then marketing her product, which happens to be herself.
“The poetry is always the thing I’ve focused on, but at the same time I’ve had to make a living doing this, so I’ve had to figure out the business side of it,” Redmond said.
“Even before I signed with an agent, I thought about how I might fashion myself so that a school district would be interested in me as a teaching artist,” Redmond said.
There’s considerable travel involved in being a performance poet as well. She calls herself a “road warrior for poetry,” alternating between homes in three cities: Greenville, Charlotte and New Brunswick, New Jersey.
“My present car, which I just put out to pasture, had 360,000 miles on it,” Redmond said. “All of those are poetry miles.”
Redmond had an office manager for 14 years to help with scheduling and other administrative matters. Now, the Peace Center and New Jersey State Theatre assist her on many of those responsibilities.
“They keep my calendar straight because I’m in so many places during the year,” she said.
Early on, Redmond embraced entrepreneurial risk. She gave up a job as a counselor in the early 1990s to take what she called “a vow of poetry”: She would make her living only by poetry. Or bust.
“I poured my life into poetry,” Redmond said. “I took that vow seriously. There were a couple of years where I was living below the poverty level but I was dedicated to being a poet. The work was volatile. It was often feast or famine.”
Learning the business of poetry involved mostly on-the-job training.
“I’ve had a lot of mentors and good fortune in terms of people who believed in what I do,” Redmond said.
A love of words
Redmond, who was born in Sumter, knew by age 11 that she wanted to be a poet.
“I knew in middle school that I loved poetry and loved writing,” Redmond said. “But now that I look back in hindsight, I think I was a poet all along, even before I could write because I was cataloging. I was taking snapshots of memories. I was holding on to them. I was also a voracious reader and I loved words and I loved story.”
Redmond came from an artistic family. Her father, who was in the Air Force, was a blues, jazz and gospel pianist. Her siblings sang in choirs.
During her teen years, Redmond wrote occasional poetry for her Baptist church.
“If someone died, I wrote the obituary poem,” she said. “If someone got married, I wrote a marriage poem.”
Later, Redmond graduated from Erskine College with a degree in psychology and worked as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor in Greenville for seven years.
It was in 1993 that Redmond took her “vow of poetry.” In some ways, it was merely an extension of her work as a counselor.
“I don’t see poetry as therapy but I do see it as therapeutic,” Redmond said.
In 1994, she created the first Poetry Slam in Greenville, featuring dynamic performance poetry.
Later, she was appointed a teaching artist with the South Carolina Arts Commission. She traveled the country also with “Poetry Alive!” — taking classic and contemporary poetry into schools.
She became a teaching artist with the Peace Center before being appointed poet-in-residence at the performing arts venue three years ago.
Along the way, Redmond got married, had twin girls, got divorced and earned her master’s degree of fine arts in poetry from Warren Wilson College.
“It was an unconventional life,” Redmond said. “I was a single mom with twin girls who made her living by being on the road. In order to survive, I had to leave home.”
Her girls, now 26, “were raised on poetry,” she said, “and they’re doing really well.”
For the latest in local arts news and reviews, follow Paul Hyde on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.
YOU CAN GO
What: Poet Glenis Redmond and blues musician Scott Ainslie perform “Southern Voices: Black, White and Blues,” followed by a conversation with the audience; the event honors the life of Martin Luther King Jr.
When: 7 p.m. Jan. 27
Where: Peace Center’s Ramsaur Studio
Tickets: Admission-free but reservations should be made by emailing Taryn Zira at firstname.lastname@example.org