Rough is the word Christian Wills chose to describe his childhood. As a kid, he said, he was awkward. He felt he didn’t have a voice and was a victim of choices he had no control over. Once he discovered his love for rap and poetry, he finally found a way to communicate and bring others together.
Years later, these same passions are the driving force behind the Poetry Slam and Open Mic Nights Wills created at the University of Delaware’s UDairy Creamery Market in Wilmington, where he works. Once a month, the narrow entrance of the ice cream shop is transformed into a mini theatre where anyone can come up and share his or her talents.
Wills’ goal is to create an atmosphere where people can get anything off their chest — the same opportunity poetry and rap provided him.
“It was my one way of communicating with people and just showing that I have a voice and I have something to say,” said Wills. “I believe everyone should have a chance to hear it and open mic is a perfect way of relaying what you have stuck in your heart that you just want to get to the world.”
An undeclared UD sophomore, Wills is part of the Associate in Arts program. He’s considering majors in English or visual communications and has yet to settle on a career path. In addition to songwriter and lyricist, Wills said he might follow in his parents’ footsteps and become a teacher.
The poetry nights started in October. Store manager LeeAnne Ahamad first approached Wills with the idea and asked if he would be interested in putting it together. She was aware of his interest after Wills won a poetry contest for the store’s grand opening last May.
“Christian was always just passionate about everything that he does,” Ahamad said. “I had met one of his professors as well who spoke highly of him.”
She also said this was an opportunity to fulfill one of the store’s goals.
“One of our goals is to really engage with the community,” Ahamad said. “Not only to let people know that UD is there in Wilmington, but also to continue building those relationships beyond campus.”
On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon in February, the Wilmington UDairy location quickly filled with people waiting for the event to begin. The crowd was a mix of Wills’ friends, family, classmates and others from the community. Wills stood in front of the gathered crowd, thanked them for attending and kicked off the show by reading his poem titled Community Building.
“Look around. Look at how beautiful it is. The progress around the stress that we create. I must confess that I’m truly blessed within my space,” Wills began.
As he read, a wave of confidence took over his body. He stood taller and his normally soft voice projected. His words flowed effortlessly. Other people have noticed, including his poetry professor, David Teague.
“I don’t have anything to teach that guy,” Teague said. “I sort of help him find the pieces to organize — you know what professors do — and he did the rest.”
Teague said he was genuinely surprised the first time he heard Wills’ work. For the first month and a half, Wills did not speak in his class. Then one day he did.
The title of his poem is no coincidence. Wills talks a lot about community building. Now 19, Wills spent the better part of his life in Maryland, and moved to Wilmington right before his senior year of high school. Over those three years, he has made an effort to get to know many of the people around him and connect others where he can. Many of those present at the poetry event share this objective of connecting and building up Wilmington.
“We’ve struggled for years and years to build community,” Teague said. He explained that for many there’s a frustration with Wilmington’s reputation with violence, which is not all the city is about.
“This is a city with a lot of challenges,” Teague said. “Downtown was struggling for years, but I think it’s probably doing better than it’s done since I’ve been here and there’s a lot of energy. There’s a lot of support.”
That night, roughly a dozen people performed including Wills’ mother. While most read poetry, a couple decided to sing. Given the diverse range of speakers — young, older, different races and experience levels — an unexpected focus emerged on Black History Month.
Wills expectations for each night are high. While each iteration has had its challenges, he admits each time it gets better.
One of Wills’ favorite poems is To the Notebook Kid, by Eve L. Ewing. He once performed it at a Poetry Out Loud competition. The first stanza reads:
yo chocolate milk for breakfast kid.
one leg of your sweatpants rolled up
scrounging at the bottom of your mama’s purse
for bus fare and gum
pen broke and you got ink on your thumb kid
It goes on to describe a mostly average kid with big dreams who finds solace from his life in the pages of his notebook. But he hides it from the world. Wills described it as powerful.
“I like the word choices in it. I like how it’s not very traditional,” Wills said. “It can be placed in many different ways, it can mean many different things.”
He knows the poem by heart.
“In a way I kind of did that with my poetry,” Wills said. “Not a lot of people really knew about it until later on.”
However rough Wills’ childhood, the arts have been a constant part of his life. His mother sparked his love of poetry by enrolling him in classes as a kid.
“My mom was a big influence in my life, as you can tell,” said Wills, whose mother, Theresa, read her original poetry at the open mic event. “She also pushed me to do poetry. She’s like, ‘My son is an amazing poet and amazing songwriter.’ So that also pushed me.”
Article by Carlett Spike
Photo by Evan Krape
This article can also be viewed on UDaily.