Naki Yates, a professed lover of all things beautiful, meets troubled times head-on: with lyrical beauty. As founder of Benton Harbor-based P.O.E.Ttree, she and her group of community poets engage a divisive political climate with unification by story.
“We focus on community and service — bringing people of all walks of life together and inspiring people to do whatever they choose to do,” Yates said.
“Not every member of P.O.E.Ttree recites, or even writes, poetry. But they do something special, or have something special about them, that brings wholeness to the group. Our meetings are more than poetry. They’re family and therapy.”
P.O.E.Ttree (People Organizing Empowerment Together) is twofold: a select group of seven Benton Harbor-based poets, as well as a recurring poetry event that occurs a handful of times per year at the Citadel Dance & Music Center in Benton Harbor.
The first segment of each event is an open mic for newcomer-poets to gain experience, followed by a featured-poet segment where P.O.E.Ttree members perform original sets. P.O.E.Ttree will meet for its next event at 7 p.m. on July 13 at the Citadel, 91 Hinkley Street, Benton Harbor.
Yates, a Benton Harbor native who performs under the moniker ReaLady, had no intention of reciting her work for others when she discovered poetry as a creative outlet at the age of nine. She produced a notebook filled with poetry after years of writing, but had no idea of what to do with her work.
When in 2009 she discovered a regular open mic event at the Livery, a Benton Harbor microbrewery, the mother of two learned to memorize and perform her poems on stage. The Livery open mic sessions exposed Yates to a variety of poetry and storytelling forms, which helped her find her own style.
“I finally found a place to express myself live,” Yates said. “I started working on my craft by meeting other poets at the Livery. Seeing people perform poetry in different manners helped me broaden my horizons.”
Yates joined a virtual poetry group to diversify her experience, and after some encouragement by the group’s president, she established P.O.E.Ttree in 2013 to grow the poetry community in Benton Harbor.
She continues to use poetry to process her emotions and channel her lived experience into something others can relate to and learn from.
“Poetry is a form of therapy,” Yates said. “I don’t always feel like talking, but I always feel like writing. So if I have something on my mind — good, bad, indifferent — I’m always able to write about it.”
At her job as a cosmetologist, Yates is exposed to a variety of stories which sometimes inspire her poetry. She likes to use her platform as a poet to empower others by amplifying their stories, and by exchanging relatable stories with others who may feel alone in their experience.
“It’s hard in some ways to write about stories that I haven’t experienced, because I haven’t been through it,” Yates said. “But there’s always a benefit that comes out of it. For example, I have a poem about domestic violence, which I have never personally experienced. But every time I finish that poem, somebody comes up to thank me for reciting it and says they’re glad that I could relate to a difficult experience that they’ve had.
“People I know who have experienced domestic violence have drawn me into their life and inspired me to tell their story. That gives me an opportunity to relate to other people in a way that I wouldn’t normally be able to.”
Yates doesn’t have to look far for inspiration.
“I know you’d probably expect me to say something like Langston Hughes, but it’s my poetry group that inspires me,” Yates said. “Their stories inspire me because they’re so different and so full of substance. We’re all so different and have walked different paths, but we all come from the same community and we have a lot in common too.”
Yates has drawn inspiration from her community since the very beginning, crediting her early creative development to friends, family and school teachers in Benton Harbor. “This area gave me the creative space to grow as a young person,” Yates said. “I’m a proud product of Benton Harbor High School and it’s heart-wrenching that they want to close the school. I’m praying that it doesn’t have to happen.”
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced plans in late May to close Benton Harbor High School, saying the school district is $18.4 million in debt. She said closing the nearly 100-year-old high school will save money and keep the entire district from dissolving.
“Benton Harbor High School is one of our landmarks and I feel like we have to save it,” Yates said. “A lot of good has come out of it, like me. And I think I’m awesome.”