Creative Community: Caleb "The Negro Artist" Rainey
On spoken word poetry in the Midwest
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I have two memories that stick out to me from working with Caleb Rainey when I was in college.
Number 1: I’m standing by the bar in the restaurant we work at. The same Blues inspired playlist we hear every shift plays over the speakers. Caleb walks in front of the kitchen line, clapping his hands, hoping to garner some excitement about the music we’ve been campaigning to change for months. Soon, Caleb’s “oh YEAH” rings through the restaurant. Patrons clap along with him, bodies bounce from side to side amidst bites of Carolina-style ribs, the air as sweet as the cornbread waiting to be served.
Number 2: Caleb is talking to a young man sitting at the bar with his mom. The young man tells Caleb he is planning on attending the University of Iowa next year to study creative writing. Caleb is also studying creative writing; standing nearby, I tell Caleb that I, too, and a writer. He later asks me what I write. I answer nonchalantly, dismissing writing as something I sort of do occasionally. He doesn’t accept that, asks me questions about my interests, my goals. This is one of the earliest times I can remember someone outside of my family looking at me as if I am a writer.
Years after Caleb and I worked at that restaurant in Iowa City, we met up at Mainframe Studios in Des Moines during Poetry Palooza (you can read my review here). I had just started my new job at CultureALL, settling into my new life as a Des Moines resident and a Substack writer. Caleb had since published two books of poetry, started a nonprofit teaching poetry writing to youth, and travelled across the country performing his work.
As we chatted, I realized he still looked at me like I was a writer.
He looks at everyone, including himself, as a writer, an artist, a person with a story he longs to hear. As he’s strengthened his own craft, he’s made it his mission to help others find their voice and grow in the power of their art, and firmly established his place as a fire in the Iowa creative community.
A Missouri Boy’s Story
In fifth grade, Caleb made a bold decision. He was going to be a writer.
“I had an assignment in which you had to pick a folktale, and you had to recreate your own version and perform it in front of the class,” he told me. “I remember eating that up. I realized I was a good storyteller.”
Around that same time, Caleb solemnly approached his mom. He had come to the conclusion that he would eventually have to go to jail one day in order to write about it.
At least, that was the experience of all the Black male writers Caleb knew. The struggles, the injustice, the generational trauma. The world told him that there was only one way to be a Black writer.
“Growing up in the Midwest and being black, there’s this relationship to the craft of writing in which there are only certain forms that Black people are allowed to engage with,” he said. “I didn’t identify as a rapper. I thought I was going to write novels. But at that time, I could not have named you a Black novelist. They just weren’t even being fed to me.”
Caleb’s enigmatic gift of storytelling overpowered the idea that he would be consigned to one narrative. He took more advanced classes, enrolled in writing intensive summer camps. His craft began to take on a life, and granted him the opportunity to join the Iowa Young Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. The workshop is a two week program for teens across the country to take classes on the Iowa campus and learn from writers in the Iowa Writers Workshop.
This taste of being a writer at the University of Iowa was too sweet for Caleb. He knew where he’d attend college the next fall, and where he’d eventually grow deep roots as an artist.
An Iowa Man’s Chapter
I feel strangely when I arrive at the question I know I should ask Caleb. It’s a question that I’ve thought about a lot throughout my 20s. It’s a question I find both patronizing and important. It’s a question that sparked the idea for this project.
“Why do you stay in Iowa?”
I think I hate this question because it implies a sense of distaste, as if the idea of staying here is shameful. But I’m not asking because I think it’s ludicrous that we continue to live here.
I ask because I find a kindred spirit in the earnest belief that this place and these people are worth staying for. Especially for people whose identities don’t fit in the dominant culture. But for Caleb, the answer is simple:
“It snuck up on me.”
You know that boy who had the entire restaurant dancing? Yeah, surprisingly, he isn’t shy. Caleb began to connect with other writers and performers around Iowa City. He’d perform his work, celebrate others, find love of all forms in between lines of poetry.
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“I started to build this network pretty organically,” he said. “There were so many people that kept encouraging me to do this work.”
One of those people was Lisa Roberts, the Founding Director of Iowa City Poetry. After a performance, she approached Caleb with an opportunity he’d never considered: teaching.
“I always said, ‘I'm not going to be an English teacher.’ I don't want someone to tell me what I have to teach people. And I don't like most of the books that people are forced to read,” he said. “I never saw myself in my English classes, so I didn't ever really want to be that person teaching other people.”
But Caleb fell in love with teaching the second he got in front of a group of students. He found the opportunity to heal a part of himself, the young boy who needed to hear that anything he created had value, was worthy of an audience. He decided he would be the teacher he needed when he was first finding his love for writing.
He went on to found IC Speaks, a non-profit in Iowa City that provides learning opportunities for young poets. The organization hosts after school poetry programs for local high schoolers and gives them a taste of being a working poet. He’s currently raising money to take a group of young writers to a poetry slam in San Francisco. His face lights up when he speaks of his work.
“When you're a young person, you are actively trying to figure everything out, and everything is so big,” he said. “Having a space like IC Speaks, having poetry that you can write and grapple with and interrogate these ideas, these experiences, is just good for your own personal well being. These students have a space to be themselves. We say, ‘we see you in your entirety, and we're happy that you're sharing it with us. We're in this with you.’
A Midwestern Poet
Caleb is an enigmatic performer. His energy leaps off the stage; his voice has a sweetness and an edge that’s rich and complex. He feels that performance is what makes his poetry feel the most real .
“I’m not a poet who writes a bunch of poems on a notebook and never shares them,” he said. “The moment a poem is done, I want it to live. I want to put it on a stage, I want to share it with people. It feels alive then.”
He’s performed all over the country, and in England, as well. As we talk about performance, a thought starts to form in my head about what a spoken world performance must feel like in the Midwest that I immediately know is rooted in unfair stereotypes.
Are his shows in the Midwest well-attended? Do people understand his type of performance? Are they set in their ways about what poetry “should” feel like, or are they open to the dismantling of the poetic structures that have kept people like Caleb out of the mainstream for so long?
I should have known that of course they are, that the creatives in the Midwest will break out of every box they’ve ever been thought to live inside.
“That external judgment about the Midwest not loving the arts or not being as big of an artistic hub—I think Midwest audiences take that somewhat personally,” he told me. “Some of the most loving audiences I’ve ever had have been in the Midwest. They come up afterwards and want to talk. Midwest people are so friendly, so they want to shake your hand. They want to like your piece. They want to find something that they can walk away from and go, ‘I'm happy I heard that. I'm happy I experienced that.’”
Performance is integral to Caleb’s poetic life. To live out his poems is to feel every emotion, to work through his life in real time and arrive somewhere changed.
“I recognized early on that spoken word poetry performances have almost a level of immediacy, a level of being visceral, being very real and living in that moment,” he said.
But he never plans to live in that moment forever. He wants to explore the depths of the world and himself, to grow wildly and freely, led each and every day by his creativity.
“I'm hoping that every poem I write is distinct enough and different enough from the last poem I wrote,” he said. “I hope that it keeps challenging me. I'm branching into more topics, and I want my creativity to mirror that growth.”
This is an installment of an ongoing series of conversations with artists and creatives based in the Midwest. If you’d like to be featured in this series, or have a recommendation of an artist you’d like to read about, please shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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