Black Sheep Poetry

Jess Witkins

Everyone has a story. In Winona, Minnesota, Black Sheep Poetry has created a community of writers, performers and storytellers sharing diverse perspectives at monthly gatherings inside Mid West Music Store.            

Unofficially, Black Sheep Poetry has been around the area for four years, but friends Ben Strand and Bethany Stavran officially founded the group in 2015. The two were sitting around Winona State University’s campus one day, feeling like the black sheep in the room, and Stavran began drawing a few sheep on their posters. The name stuck.

“We thought it fit because poetry is such a niche type,” says Strand, noting that a lot of people get nervous about speaking in public, and even more about speaking on a stage.    

“We consider them the black sheep of our society,” adds group member, Michael Pelley. “They’re the ones kind of in the background. We just want to have a platform that encourages people to say what they want to say. We’re black sheep. You don’t have to be like everyone else, you don’t have to express yourself in the way others do. That’s why the creativity comes through.”          

And creativity is at the heart of what Black Sheep Poetry accomplishes. Strand is a writer who uses the stage name “Nebulous Poet,” and Pelley is also a musician with his own production company, Treedome. He uses the stage name “Pelly” for his projects. As veteran participants and performers, they both know that slam poetry, in particular, can be intimidating. They know this because they thought so, too, at first.  

Ben Strand
Ben Strand

“When I first encountered slam poetry, I thought it was bogus.” Strand says, laughing. “Mostly because I was intimidated by it. I thought, ‘What is this?’ Some people think of slam poetry as really loud and in your face, and while that can be true—it’s good to have that stuff—we also want people to read, and have feeling, and have a place where people can gather.”  

Nicholle Ramsey
Nicholle Ramsey

“Slam is just one element of it, really,” says Pelley. “We started talking, like, ‘How are we going to define this?’ because slam is just one part of it. So we started referring to it as spoken word because its intonations are so different. We have soft-spoken people, we have real-life-poetry-oriented people, where you have more speaking and flow but no rhyme. There’s different branches. We just want people to go up on stage and express themselves. If they want a guitar by their side because that’s what they feel comfortable with, go ahead.” 

Both Strand and Pelley are invested in the future of Black Sheep Poetry, inviting a variety of content and members. Their next reading is a partnership with the Frozen River Film Festival as they present “Frozen Friday.” In addition to their regular open mic, they’re hosting featured writers for the occasion, including Kim Schneider of Winona State University, and former Winona Poet Laureates Emilio DeGrazia, Ken McCullough, and James Armstrong. The reading will take place at Mid West Music Store on February 17. For more info, visit their Facebook page by clicking here.

Check out a sampling of Black Sheep Poetry slams below.

Michael Pelley
Michael Pelley

Black Sheep Poetry: "Home for Fallen Stars" - Keagan Anderson

Black Sheep Poetry: "A Series of Tweets" - Bekah Bailey

Important Note: The following video contains strong language and is not suitable for children.

Jess Witkins  author

Jess Witkins is a writer, blogger, and sometimes funny. Her mission: making pathetic look cool since 1985. She can be found in the Coulee Region's many coffee shops and wordmongering at Jess Witkins's Happiness Project.