Art & Soul’s Chantel Massey wants to provide a language to cope using poetry

When Chantel Massey was about 8 years old, her aunt gave her a black and blue notebook with folders, a pen and a velcro flap to keep it closed. Maybe one day you’ll turn it into a book, her aunt told her. Massey doubted that.

But still, she wrote. About a boy who broke her heart in school — a poem she read in front of the whole school audience, boy included. And then she won second place at a poetry competition and later, when she attended the College of Wooster in Ohio, pioneered an open mic night. Massey continued her craft when she returned to Indianapolis. And she published a book.

Her momentum keeps going now, propelling the storyteller, poet and teaching artist to perform Sunday for Art & Soul, an annual celebration of Black artists organized by the Arts Council of Indianapolis. She’ll thread a series of poems together on topics including Blackness, intersectionality, Black joy and wellness. 

Chantel Massey is one of four featured artists for Art & Soul in 2022.

“Being in the midst of a pandemic and being in the midst of so much social injustice, it just leaves you feeling heavy a lot of times,” Massey said. “I believe that art and community will be the two ways that we make it through this. It’ll help give us language that we don’t have right now for a lot of the things we’re experiencing.”

Massey is the third of four featured artists — including singer Marrialle Sellars, choreographer Karome Walker and artist Shayla Williams — who are part of this year’s Art & Soul.

For Massey, writing and her willingness to share her vulnerability on stage gives provides a language for her and others to cope with what they’re going through. Growing up, she lived with her mom, who worked multiple jobs to provide, and sometimes with her aunt and uncle. When loneliness hit, writing helped.

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“It was private and I felt I could fully express myself,” Massey said. “I loved that poetry did not ask much of me and I could be as creative and as expressive as I needed to be even if that included adding out art forms to my poetry or written pieces.”

Def Poetry Jam, the spoken word poetry TV series that aired in the early 2000s, captured Massey with its poets’ variety of self expression. She’s performed around the city, in New York and at universities. Publications with her work include “The Indianapolis Review” and “Turnpike Magazine.” 

Massey’s poetry style plays with form, capitalization and punctuation, but her concepts determine how she’ll employ the tools. She often writes about Blackness, Black joy and Afrofuturism. One of her favorite works is “Black Sheep,” which is an ode to the women in her life.

The poet also hopes that people see the evolution in her craft. In 2018, she published “Bursting at the Seams,” a coming-of-age book that explores family, love, gossip, what it means to be Black and other themes of womanhood.

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After that, Massey looked for a way to grow, and the roots of UnLearn Arts were born. Her workshop for Black women writers grew into more of them, and now Massey is focused on creating a space for writers who are queer and of color in Indianapolis. The mission is growing.

“The Black diaspora is so big. There’s Afro-Latina writers, Afro-Asian writers — it’s forever expanding,” Massey said. “As I’ve grown, I’ve met people from around the world who talk about these intersecting identities and experiences. … It’s focused on the African diaspora and then it’s like: What would it look like if we opened it up to BIPOC writers and queer writers, and what does that mean?”

2022 Art & Soul: If you go

The third installment, called Black Theater/Poetry Day, will run from noon-5 p.m. Sunday at Warren Performing Arts Center, 9500 E. 16th St. Admission is free.

The event will celebrate fathers, freedom and family. Along with Massey, performers include Congo Square with drumming and dance, Lasana Kazembe, Manon Voice, AshLee Baskin, Deborah Asante, the Asante Art Institute and Fay Williams. Witherspoon Presbyterian Church will host a call to action in the closing ceremony, called “In Search of Hope and Restoration.”

Find more information and the full schedule at indyarts.org/about/art-soul.

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Contact IndyStar reporter Domenica Bongiovanni at 317-444-7339 or d.bongiovanni@indystar.com. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter: @domenicareports.

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