Inside Track: Price empowers through poetry

The Diatribe co-founder helped launch a new curriculum for seventh and eighth grades to teach students about mental health, wellness, self-care and healing.
Inside Track: Price empowers through poetry
Marcel Price’s early struggles with family conflict eventually led him to seek solace in the spoken and written word. <strong> Courtesy the Diatribe </strong>

Marcel Price is passing the crown of poet laureate for Grand Rapids in 2021, but the artist known as Fable is leaving behind a legacy steeped in storytelling as a source of self-discovery and self-care.

A self-styled non-traditional creative, the young Price struggled in school and didn’t pursue higher education later on in life. 

“I had a really complex childhood,” Price said. “I had a really dynamic single mother who worked multiple jobs to put shoes on my feet and clothes on my back. At about age 5, my little brother’s dad came into the picture. He’s somebody who was a product of trauma … he had a family that was rooted in alcoholism and abuse, and he brought that into our lives.”

As a consequence, Price grew up in a home that had violence, alcohol and drug abuse. Poetry became the place where he felt safe and heard, he said.

Price really discovered his love for the spoken word in high school when he went to the King-Chavez-Parks Camp. The program was intended to inspire young people of color to pursue higher education, but for Price, the experience inspired him to pursue creative writing.

Through the camp, the young Price was introduced to some poets from the Neutral Zone, another youth development organization in Ann Arbor, which inspired him to use creative writing to eventually inspire young people to do the same.

“I was in this class, and in this workshop, they brought me (out) through writing,” Price said. “They had me get out my story. And they were like, ‘all right now that you have your story on paper, add images, add sounds, add animals, add something.’”

The Diatribe
Position: Executive Director
Age: 32
Birthplace: Lansing
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Married to Nika Price
Business/Community Involvement: Nonprofit: arts/education/advocacy; for profit: entertainment/performing arts
Biggest Career Break: “Becoming poet laureate, becoming executive director of The Diatribe, and going on my second national tour as a performing artist.”

Price started talking about his home life, using animals in the place of people to make it more abstract. If he wasn’t talking about it too much, then maybe it wouldn’t become as real as it was, he thought to himself.

His poems became a hit with everybody else in the class, and his style of using animal characters in the place of people — like with traditional fables — earned him the nickname “Fable.”

Price later found more affirmation in what he was doing when he started going to open-mic nights and venting about his struggles through spoken word.

“Even though I was writing for myself, people came up to me and said, ‘Yo, me too. I also went thought that,’” Price said, “or, ‘I haven’t found a way to talk about my mental health the way you just did.’ Understanding I wasn’t alone made it cathartic. It made me continue to gravitate toward it.” 

In 2013, Price co-founded the Diatribe, which started with the first blind-deaf-friendly ArtPrize exhibit — the first that they knew of at least.

“What we didn’t know is that ArtPrize brings a ton of kids and students downtown, so we had a ton of kids and students come to this exhibit that was rooted in poetry, and before we knew it teachers were like, ‘Hey, have you thought about bringing your poetry into schools?’” Price said.

Being nightlife entertainers, and big drinkers, Price didn’t consider the Diatribe very school-friendly. But a teacher by the name of Rick Jackson at Kelloggsville Alternative High School pulled Price aside and said many of his students didn’t have a plan for the future. Some of them, like Price, were not pursuing higher education, and some were not likely to even graduate high school.

Jackson told Price seeing the Diatribe in action would hopefully inspire his students to aim higher in life.

“We did just that,” Price said. “We came to the school. We talked about why we do what we do and how we fell in love with it, and all the kids wrote us letters and asked us to come back, and we ended up coming back for free, for, like, three years. We were in that school for every single week almost.”

Afterward, the Diatribe got more inquiries from area schools wanting the organization to share its story with students. By 2019, the group was visiting 20 schools, Price said.

Price also co-founded and for a time co-hosted the Drunken Retort, a performance art network hosted at Stella’s Lounge on Monday nights.

The Drunken Retort is a kind of “church” for people who want to be heard and share their stories and listen to other people’s stories in an authentic way, Price said.

“It’s church because people come to testify. People give their sermons,” Price said. “People are baptized on the microphone. People believe in something bigger there, whatever that means.”

His involvement in the project, however, turned out to be tough on him as he carried problems with alcohol abuse from his early home life.

“Probably 10 years ago, I was the worst me I could be,” Price said. “I don’t think I had healthy boundaries when it came to drinking, especially while hosting the show. I think it was working my way until I realized I needed to be sober, and that happened way later in my life than it should have, but hosting a show called the Drunken Retort did not make stopping drinking easy.”

Through his work, Price earned the distinction of poet laureate for the greater Grand Rapids area in 2017. The Grand Rapids poet laureate is a program of the Grand Rapids Public Library and is funded through a grant from the Grand Rapids Public Library Foundation, Dyer-Ives Foundation Poetry Fund.

The poet laureate is selected by a committee, which selects two candidates from a pool of applicants. The title comes with the responsibility of being an ambassador for poetry and bringing awareness to the poetry community in Grand Rapids. For Price, the title legitimizes his standing as a poet in the greater community.

“Grand Rapids is a city that really likes titles,” Price said. “If you’re an executive director, a CFO, a poet laureate, then people put value on that. If I’m just a poet who used to be an alcoholic and struggled with substances, I can’t be valuable until someone puts a title on that.”

Prior to COVID-19, Price spoke at universities and other institutions, inspiring others to share their own stories through creative writing. He recently was succeeded by Ericka “Kyd Kane” Thompson, who will begin her term as poet laureate in January.

The pandemic also exacerbated an extant issue for career artists. Although Price and the Diatribe have found ways to continue working, gig artists who traditionally found work in bars and venues discovered shifting to doing virtual events doesn’t offer the same connection with the audience.

“We don’t live in a city that loves artists,” Price said. “We live in a city that likes art but doesn’t appreciate artists. There was no artist emergency support fund to make sure gig workers are continuing to be taken care of. There weren’t a lot of policy makers pushing to support our venues that are all in really compromising situations … but the good thing about being artists is a lot of us have been poor, and poor people know how to survive, and we’re always going to find ways to drink during the drought.”

Recently, the Diatribe launched a new curriculum in response to COVID-19, titled “Poetry Empowered: Mental Health and Wellness.” The course meets seventh and eighth grade learning standards and features poems from 10 different West Michigan-based artists, including Price, to teach students about mental health, wellness, self-care and healing.

“Almost all of the creatives who are being compensated to make this work possible live on the margins,” Price said. “A lot of them are Black, brown, LGBTQ creatives. We’ve been able to put tens of thousands of dollars into the creative economy by making this content possible.”

The curriculum is free to download thanks to sponsors like the Heart of West Michigan United Way, the Meijer Foundation and Michigan Humanities.

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