For 17-year-old Morgan Varnado, poetry isn’t just ink on paper. It’s a “fist fight” between the contradictions he faces daily. His statement of purpose as an artist continues: Poetry, Varnado writes, expresses the duality “between my ever apparent blackness and my overpoweringly white surroundings.”
“I was in fifth grade when Trayvon Martin was killed,” says the Oak Park River Forest High School senior. His voice trails off as he describes the impact of Martin’s fatal shooting in 2012. Martin was 17 when he was shot by George Zimmerman. Martin was unarmed. Zimmerman was acquitted. Varnado describes his early poems as expressions on the intersection of race and murder.
“At the beginning of my poetry career, I talked a lot about black death,” Varnado said. “That was the lens I looked through for years. I’ve changed. My poetry has changed. I’m tired of believing I might die. I’m tired of writing about that. ”
Varnado is weary of some themes. His poetry is anything but tired. His poem “Dung Beetle” took first place in the 2018 Rider University High School Poetry contest, selected from entries from across the country.
A veteran of more open mic and poetry slams than he can count, Varnado has unleashed his poems at venues ranging from the cavernous Auditorium Theatre to intimate black-box spaces way Off Loop. His words have earned him a spot at the Sept. 22 Chicago Youth Art Showcase Festival (YAS! Fest), a daylong festival spotlighting of the city’s most promising young artists. The full day of performances by poets, dancers, singers and musicians will culminate in a Millennium Park concert by 19-year-old hip-hop star Desiigner.
For Varnado the power of words hit early. “You know how in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’ when Charlie walks into the factory for the first time? And everything is just like, wow? That’s how poetry felt to me when I first started learning about it,” he said.
Varnado doesn’t come from the dead poets society school of poetry. His poet heroes are very much alive. His mentors and role models include National Youth Poet Laureate Patricia Frazier (“Graphite”); OPRF alum and Chicago Poet Laureate Kara Jackson (“On Beating Your Ass”); South Side native and recording artist Jamila Woods (“the big chop”) and Chicago slam poet lion Kevin Coval (“A People’s History of Chicago.”)
“Chicago is home to so many amazing poets,” Varnado said. “Last year, I wouldn’t have been able to confidently say that poetry is something you can actually have a career or a job in. But I’m watching others make it their career, opening up opportunities. It makes me want to follow in their footsteps.”
Varnado regularly wields the microphone, delivering his poems at Young Chicago Authors and Louder than a Bomb events. For six weeks over the summer, he headed into the city daily for an apprenticeship with YCA’s “Louder Than a Bomb Squad,” a program designed to initiate young writers into the life of an artist. He and his peers explored the city in search of inspiration, meeting up later with mentors to discuss their work.
YCA marketing manager Jose Olivarez noticed Varnado during July’s Write to the City five-day intensive for young writers and activists. “Morgan would be dancing around greeting everyone while the teaching artists were just getting amped to start teaching. He has boundless energy,” Olivarez said. “As a writer, I’ve been impressed by his unique approach to entering poems. His poem at Louder Than a Bomb this past year began with a lighthearted look at ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.’ It takes a turn and becomes an anti-violence anthem,” he said.
Violence was a theme for Varnado for years. “When Trayvon died, I got ‘the talk,’ “ he said. “Your parents sit you down. They’re like ‘You’re young. You’re black. You’re a man. People are going to see you a certain way.’ I felt like my whole worldview changed. So I wrote about that. But I don’t want to write about that anymore. I should not be afraid of dying.”
Varnado’s award-winning “Dung Beetle” is a vivid swerve from his earlier themes. It describes the titular insect, drawing an intricate and unexpected metaphor. The final lines create an image that speaks to taking pride in aspects of yourself that aren’t necessarily pretty or wholly acceptable:
I just wanna know how to push my disgusting with pride instead of mulling around with it seeping, hidden in my pockets.
“I was thinking about dung beetles, and how they literally push their s— around in front of them,” Varnado said of the poem’s genesis. “I started thinking I wanted to emulate that. I want to able to take the things of me that are hidden and just roll them out in front of me. And be proud, not secretive.“
Varnado is exploring where he’ll go to college and what he’ll study. He knows poetry will be part of it.
“Every day I’ll see something and I’ll be like, ‘That’s a poem. That’s a metaphor. That’s inspiring,’ ” he said. “I come from a long line of storytellers. Always people telling stories at family reunions or barbecues or whatever. I want to be part of that.”
For information about the YAS! Fest, visit the event website.
Here is Dung Beetle, in its entirety: I want to smell, somewhere, the rancid earth I’ll call home, the skunk soup I’ll use as bath water, the trash stuck under my back, the gook that I will become used to pushing as my occupation. To roll the mess that accumulates under my shoes, till it becomes twice my height and three times my weight and looks more statue than a wall Of s—. Than me A dung beetle walks into a room with its mudball first and itself tagging along behind, it lets the gross take up the most space on the page, lets the dung become the most recognizable thing about it. I just wanna know how to push my disgusting with pride instead of mulling around with it seeping, hidden in my pockets.
This profile is part of a series underwritten by Allstate as part of its commitment to support young artists in Chicago and to empower the next generation of rising stars.