Terance Williams: A Champion of Poetry at 18th & Vine

Terance Williams (foreground) promotes spoken word poetry through his Music & More Foundation. He presents regular Thursday night performances, #PoetryOnTheVine, at Shawniece (right) and Chris Nicholson’s Corner Bar & Grill at 18th and Vine. (photo by Anne Kniggendorf)

“It’s good for the community,” says the founder of the Music & More Foundation, whose spoken word events are helping drive the economy east of Troost.

Terance Williams has championed Kansas City poets for more than a decade. For years, he’s booked venues and rounded up participants to perform in everything from bars to Missouri’s capitol rotunda.

He sticks with it because, he said, it’s good for the community in a variety of ways: It connects people through common experiences and emotions, teaches them about each other, and even acts as an economic driver.

The pandemic threw Williams’ work into a lull for several months, until one day last summer, he was driving through the 18th and Vine District and saw his friends Shawniece and Chris Nicholson. Williams pulled over to talk.

“I didn’t want the momentum of poetry to slack or stop at all. I know that poetry and the spoken word have a lot to offer the community,” Williams said.

Williams explained to the Nicholsons that he envisioned putting on a weekly poetry event and asked if their Corner Bar & Grill on 18th and Vine, which opened in August of 2020, would host. Williams knew he could draw a crowd to listen to poetry, because he’d done it in years past, renting out the Unicorn Theatre and the Atkins Auditorium at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The Nicholsons gave him Thursday nights for #PoetryOnTheVine.

Williams wasn’t booking people to read from books of poetry, as is often the case at coffee houses and at events associated with academic institutions or literary journals. That’s literary poetry.

The genre of poetry Williams is primarily interested in is spoken word, which is highly energized and can both pack a room and bring an audience back for more.

Sheri “Purpose” Hall is a spoken word poet and CEO of Poetry for Personal Power, a community- and arts-based mental health organization. She’s worked with Williams since 2010.

“Spoken word is an amalgamation between literary art and performance art,” Hall explained. “Spoken word can also exist in a book because it is a literary art. Without the literary art, there is no spoken word. Without the performance art, there is no spoken word.”

So, spoken word poetry is written specifically with performance in mind.

Williams said he hadn’t really been into poetry before his coworker at Costco invited him to a spoken word event in 2010. But it wasn’t that he’d been outside of publishing and the arts until then.

He had started KneeDeep Publishing with a friend a decade before; he recently released archived hip-hop tracks from that endeavor on the business’ Facebook page.

After attending that event and enjoying it, he noticed that other types of art seemed to have a lot of community support. And, Williams said, while poetry did enjoy some of that, he “wasn’t seeing a lot of poetry events. Most poets had to go to open mics where there was a mixture of everybody else.”

Supporting Black Poets

So, in 2011 he launched the Music & More Foundation under the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. He found 10 poets to perform and filled every seat at the Unicorn Theatre — on five nights.

He went on to work with then-state representative Brandon Ellington to establish a Malcolm X Day commission and organized an annual poetry event in Jefferson City. He produced poetry-oriented talk shows on KKFI that are now in podcast form on KUAW. He created PoetsEDU to send poets into area schools like the Kauffman School.

One poet Williams works with often is John “Hypocrace” (pronounced “hypocrisy”) Lewis. Lewis said poetry is crucial in a community because it’s humanizing.

Performers lay themselves bare on the stage, he said, expressing what others are afraid to. Hall’s organization, Poetry for Personal Power, has sponsored Lewis’ work since 2017, in part because he spreads a message of resilience.

Lewis has one poem about being afraid to say “I love you” that he starts with an a cappella verse of Billy Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

“It’s strong but it’s simple. If you get that in front of 300 people, you’ve got half of the crowd feeling exactly what you’re feeling and then taking that step and bettering themselves as a person, meaning they’re going to say something or act on that quick rush of adrenaline just because they want to have that human interaction,” Lewis said.

Hall said Williams’ work with various venues, in particular the Nicholsons’ place at 18th and Vine, is also fiscally good for the community.

Troost Avenue, the street that has acted as Kansas City’s socioeconomic dividing line for decades, remains a boundary to breach. An active poetry community has thrived on the east side off and on since at least the 1960s, Hall said, often segregated or siloed from poetry in the white community — partly the result of racial division and partly a genre preference, though plenty of people in the white community perform at poetry slam competitions as well.

But most arts fundraising seems to target artists west of Troost. Williams said he wants his Music & More Foundation to be one of those big foundations that doles out money, rather than an organization supported by grants.

So, each month he transfers a portion of the paycheck he earns as a forklift driver and cashier at Costco into his foundation’s account at the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, which holds and grows his funds until he’s ready to distribute the money.

“Sheri Hall tells me this all the time, ‘Terance, stop using your own money.’ But I can’t help it. If I can’t get donations to come in, I have to personally donate to my foundation to keep my system going,” Williams said.

Shawniece Nicholson worked in banking for 10 years before resigning to focus on her family’s businesses. She said she saw first-hand the systemic racism that keeps people of color from receiving loans from banks and that the same problem exists in the world of grant applications.

She said that’s part of what’s behind Williams’ idea to be the arts funder for the spoken word poets, a group of around 100 that he’s done his best to bolster.

Nicholson added, “This is why we always depend on ourselves and pull together to really help one another and push to be able to grow our businesses.”

One of her goals that aligns with Williams’ is to find ways to drive the economy east of Troost — she wants to see 18th and Vine become a hub for Black entrepreneurs as it once was. Popular poetry events drive the economy when they bring people into an area where they can not only see a performance, but shop and dine as well.

Hall and Nicholson agree that this strategy is good for everyone.

Williams vows that one day the Music & More Foundation will have millions of dollars to support local poets, but until then, he said the work he does feels like a blessing.

For more information, visit facebook.com/themusicandmorefoundation

Anne Kniggendorf

Anne Kniggendorf is a writer and editor at the Kansas City Public Library, author of Secret Kansas City, and co-author of Kansas City Scavenger. She has local, national, and international bylines, and produces the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast for Literary Hub.

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