A World of Words

Local performance artist uses slam poetry to raise awareness within LGBT community and beyond

By Hana Khalyleh - Feb. 12, 2015

Photo by Molly Bilker

Like most great things, it started in a coffee shop.

It was 2012 and Joy Young was not yet the celebrated performer she is today, but a quiet person amidst the scent of mocha, buried in a book and reluctantly contemplating the urges of her sister to get out and meet new people.

It was then, according to Young, that a crazed man wearing a top hat and a cape ran to approach her.

“What are you doing?” he asked her frantically, Young recalled.

“This,” Young replied, undaunted, gesturing to the book before her.

The mystery man then whisked her away to a poetry venue where the National Poetry Slam team was being selected. This was Young’s introduction to the world of slam poetry and spoken word, and it changed her life forever.

And just like that, Young’s guide into this world of words – the whimsical top hat man – disappeared, never to be seen again.

Taking the Stage

Since that fateful day, Young has become a champion for LGBT youth, travelling the country to recite poetry and, in some cases, incorporating her juggling and fire-breathing talents as well.

Young, originally from California, has lived in Phoenix for four years, and has been performing poetry for only two. But you wouldn’t know that to see her on stage.

“I took a poetry course in college, once,” she said, regarding her experience prior to the top-hat incident. “I hated it.”

This fact would come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen her in action. By tapping into the issues that she’s harbored passion for over the years, Young was able to find her voice as an artist and an activist.

Young’s performances, doused in truth and renowned for their gripping nature, are emotional accounts of her experiences as a genderqueer-identified individual and her long-time grapple with labels.

“Life has felt like I’m doing the hokey-pokey while everyone else just dances to the tune of what it means to be a man or a woman,” Young said in a performance of her poem “Unbuttoning My Boy-Shirt.”

According to Young, most of her work revolves around LGBTQ issues and the complications surrounding labels, topics that are not always easy in the art of slam poetry.

“What people can expect most from me is authenticity. I think that’s what has made me stand out. I tell stories from my perspective as honestly as possible,” Young said. “Most of the people I know who perform nationally who identify under the trans umbrella are afraid to perform poetry on that.”

Poetic Justice

Photo courtesy of Joy Young

Last year Young put her poetry to work politically by performing at a local protest opposing the legislation of Arizona’s Senate Bill 1045, which would grant businesses the power to force members of the trans community to use public restrooms that correspond to their birth-assigned gender.

In a poem, Young said, “This is not necessarily about safety. It is about civil rights.”

While Young respects the goal of legalizing same-sex marriage, she said she believes she can do more by focusing on assisting queer youth and tackling homelessness in the LGBT youth community.

Many of Young’s fans are LGBT youth, who often reach out to her after finding her inspiration poetry online. And, in recent years, she’s taught poetry and writing as a means of expression in workshops for LGBT youth at one n ten.

“I wasn’t even out in high school because the climate didn’t feel safe,” she said, regarding her focus on helping youth. “Cultivating change at that level and stage in people’s lives is critical to creating substantive change.”

Through her poetry, Young hopes to reach beyond the LGBT community, to evoke action among members of the straight community.

“I aim to open a conversation,” Young said. “What I urge adults to do is create or urge the creation of safe spaces. I [have] a friend, who’s a teacher, who inserted LGBTQ history into the curriculum. That’s creating a safe space early on. Just do what you can.”

The call to action, according to Young, is needed from within the LGBT community as well, for the sake of continuous and

consistent progress.

“We’ve always allowed ourselves to be weighed down by our successes, subscribing to a progressive narrative; like progress will keep appearing like magazines in our mailboxes each month, without us ever needing to do anything,” Young said in a performance of her poem “It Gets Better.”

A Champion of Words

Young’s slam performances have won her numerous awards including first place in the Individual Contest in the 2012 and 2014 Phoenix Festival of Arts Poetry Slams and a spot among the top 25 poets in the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam (IWPS). Young was also a finalist for the 2014 Phoenix Mayor’s Arts Award in Creative Writing.

All four of Young’s videos on the Button Poetry’s YouTube channel, an organization dedicated to promoting exceptional spoken poetry performances (youtube.com/user/buttonpoetry), have more than 45,000 views.

Despite all of the notoriety, Young said her priorities lie with the issues that she feels need addressing, and in finding a voice for marginalized groups to tell the stories that need to be heard.

“I’m an activist first. I only got involved in slam because I saw it first as a means to hone my ability to be an accessible theorist,” Young said.

“It’s such a viable platform to use to amplify yourself in pursuit of social justice. I have a hard time on stage, but it’s worth it because people’s stories have the power to transform the world around us if we learn to use them properly.”

Writing a New Chapter

Photo courtesy of Joy Young

Currently, Young is in the process of launching a new outlet for slam poets that will kick off Feb. 26 at Fair Trade Cafe at Civic Space Park.

The event, anticipated to take place on a biweekly schedule, is a collaborative effort by Young, with participants from Mujeres Del Sol, an art group that aims to provide voices to women across a wide variety of cultures; members of Black Poet Ventures, a poetry group focused on promoting and supporting poetry and spoken word movements in the African Diaspora; a writing group of students from Arizona State University’s downtown campus; and many others.

“I’m really looking forward to this,” Young said of the endeavor, which she hopes will maintain a line-up of diverse genders, races, orientations and ethnicities.

Not only is it Young’s goal to shed light on LGBT causes, but also on the causes of all minorities fighting for representation and visibility.

“I think that the LGBTQ community would be remiss to not think of those struggles as our own,” she said, “to not do so is basically to abandon an intersectional approach to social justice.”

Young’s work can also be experienced on May 1 as part of The Soul Justice Project, an event that will feature a fusion of politics and activism with various performance arts, such as spoken word poetry, dance and soul music, to give a voice to marginalized communities.

The Convergent Arts Poetry Slam

Beginning Feb. 26

Fair Trade Café at Civic Space Park

1020 N. First Ave., Phoenix

Free admission

facebook.com/groups/ConvergentArts or


The Soul Justice Project

7:30 p.m. May 1

Mesa Arts Center

1 E. Main St. Mesa

Tickets: $22; 480-644-6500


Photo by Margo Amala on Unsplash

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