Meet Gabby Elvessie: Dallas Youth Poets leader and ‘poetry mom’
Editor’s note: As the pandemic continues, KERA and The Dallas Morning News are collaborating to document its impact on North Texas’ arts and culture scene. The News’ Julianna Morano talks to three Dallas artists about how their work has evolved since COVID hit. This is the second in the series.
On Gabby Elvessie’s left upper arm is a large tattoo of the Dallas Youth Poets logo. This is not the only way the group has become a part of her.
Just six years ago, Elvessie was a 16-year-old poet and member of the youth spoken word organization. Now, at 22, she’s its executive director.
She coaches teenagers in the art of slam and using spoken word as a way to heal from traumas old and new.
The pandemic has taken away some of the magic — Dallas Youth Poets’ programs have been virtual since March 2020. While Elvessie says it’s a struggle to mimic the energy of being together, there were silver linings, too.
This story is the second in our series asking local artists how, over 18 months, the pandemic has changed their work — for worse and for better.
Our previous profile featured how Dallas improv comedian Sydney Plant launched a T-shirt line. In our last profile, we’ll hear from Dallas multimedia artist Nitashia Johnson on how the pandemic provided an opportunity to slow down.
A silver lining
Elvessie calls the young poets her “kids,” and they call her their “poetry mom.”
Aeris “Orange” Jennings — a recent alum of Dallas Youth Poets — says Elvessie doesn’t just coach the young slam poets. She takes care of them.
“If we had something going on, she was there in her car waiting to pick you up, take you out to get some pizza,” Jennings says. “She was [the] kind of person to just be there.”
Yet the pandemic made it more difficult for Elvessie to be there — physically — for the kids.
In addition to holding their open mics and writing workshops virtually, the group decided not to participate in Brave New Voices — an annual international youth poetry slam competition — until it returns to being in-person.
But going remote does have a silver lining, Elvessie says.
“A lot of our kids are from the outskirts of Dallas,” Elvessie says, adding that they struggle to find rides to in-person workshops. But over Zoom, those kids have the opportunity to join.
Even when they return to in-person gatherings, Elvessie says virtual workshops will stay — a legacy of the pandemic.
Healing power that persists
There are also some rewards of writing poetry that not even the pandemic could take away, Elvessie says.
Chief among them is healing. Over the years, Elvessie herself has channeled her frustration and pain into the stories she tells in her own work, and she coaches the young poets to find the same catharsis in their work.
One of Elvessie’s poems, called “Healing,” addresses this. It starts:
My kids ask me, ‘How do I heal?’
They come to me
Pens ready to suture their scars
Healing starts on the page
Moves to the stage
But ends with yourself
I’m still learning to grasp that concept
Elvessie calls this “the crazy thing” about poets: that they reopen their wounds each time they “spit” or perform a poem.
But she’s careful to remind the young poets that poems are only the beginning of the healing process.
As she says, it’s something she’s still coming to terms with herself — and she hopes the young poets see her as living proof of that.
A version of Gabby Elvessie’s interview produced by freelancer Jeff Whittington aired on KERA-FM (90.1). This story also appears on dallasnews.com and will be published in the Sept. 26 Arts & Life section.