On a recent rainy afternoon, Ben Miller stood in front of a Capital Transit bus at the Downtown Transit Center, scrolling through his phone.
He was looking for a poem — one he wrote — that transforms self-doubt and insecurity into encouragement for someone to keep moving forward.
Face downturned with a slight smile, the 17-year-old took a deep breath in and read:
“Insecurity is the basis of my artistry and yet people insist on my artistic mastery. So I guess I’m the master of anxiety…”
For a self-described insecure teenager, he is excited and confident to perform his poetry. The words come out of his mouth clear and fast, and he looks up from time to time while reciting his poem. The feeling is as if he wrote this poem for anyone who is listening. Miller’s slam poetry comes alive when he’s performing it, and the crowds that hear him hoot and holler their appreciation for his poems.
I recently saw Miller perform this same poem on stage at the 2017 Woosh Kinaadeiyí Grand Slam poetry competition, where groups of people gathered on a Friday night to see five poets wordsmith their way to victory for the grand slam poetry title.
Miller — one of the youngest performers there — inspired the audience with laughter as he introduced himself on stage.
“My name is Benjamin Malcolm Miller and I am the habit that dies hard,” he said, adding a hint of theatrical doubt at the end by saying with a shake of his head “I don’t know.” Ben is familiar with self-doubt, but he channels it through poetry and stage performance in a way that makes an audience both receptive and comfortable to hear his words. As a Juneau youth, Ben shares insights into some of the difficult situations he is facing. Since he started regularly writing poetry in 2016, Ben has completed about two dozen poems covering life in foster care, his transgender identity and mental health, getting out of Juneau and difficulties with family.
“My peer group — gay and transgender teenagers — we deal with a lot of things on a daily basis that a lot of people don’t know they even take for granted,” Miller said. “The same thing with foster kids.”
This December, Ben will be presenting his poetry at a foster youth conference in Anchorage to share his experience being in foster care to a broader audience.
“A lot of people look at me and they say ‘oh you’re in foster care, that must be so hard,’ but so many things happen in the foster system that go over people’s heads,” Miller said. “Being able to communicate that and have other people hear it — we should be able to do something in response to that.”
It’s remarkable to have such a young performer seize the local slam poetry scene in the way Miller has. Speaking his truth through poetry, Miller has won back-to-back community slam poetry competitions in 2016 and now 2017, which qualified him to compete in both of the Woosh Kinaadeiyí Grand Slams.
“The more you write about yourself, the more easily you are going to be able to point to what you’re talking about and have a better grasp on your emotions,” Miller said.
“When I think of Ben Miller, I think of a poet who has grown tremendously over the last couple of years I’ve seen him perform,” said Bill Merk, Woosh Kinaadeiyí’s vice president. Over the course of hearing Ben perform for the last two years, Merk said Miller’s confidence reciting his poetry on stage has improved along with his ability to win over the audience in slam poetry competitions.
Someone had anonymously nominated Miller to be our next “People of Juneau” profile, but I was already interested in learning more about him after hearing his poem about family at this year’s Grand Slam. As a board member of Woosh Kinaadeiyí, I had seen Miller’s performances already reach those in his peer group and this time, it reached me too.
I caught up with him on Thursday, in the places where one can often find him — the coffee shop and the bus stop.
“Bus culture is just so fascinating to me,” Miller said as we walked to the bus station. “Riding the bus all day, you’ll see stuff that you wouldn’t see anywhere else.”
Miller has been riding the bus since he was 11 years old, around the same time he began performing poetry.
Poems, he says, help him process his emotions. If he didn’t have poetry as an outlet, he said he wouldn’t know what he would do. “Even if you’re writing just to vent, that’s one of the better coping mechanisms,” Miller said. “There’re a lot of ways to act out that aren’t as positive as a poetry slam.”
Since 2016, Miller has performed in public many times at Woosh Kinaadeiyí events. He’s gotten better and better, and more comfortable on stage, all eyes on him.
“My writing is an extension of my own thoughts,” Miller said. “My poems are a series of my own thoughts that I go back on later and make more coherent because I’m the least coherent person that I know.”
I did not find this articulate young person incoherent. Quite the opposite: I was grateful to see a teenager clearly staking out the emotional world for himself in a thoughtful, intentional way, each word carefully chosen to communicate a moment in his life. Many more words and poems will come in his bright future. In the words of Ben Miller:
“If you know that better cannot
And still endeavor with effort
To never be taken for lesser
Then your place on Earth will
SIDEBAR: Interested in giving slam poetry or an open mic reading a try? The next Woosh Kinaadeiyí open mic is Nov. 17 at the Walter Soboleff building with the UAS student group Wooch.Een. Woosh Kinaadeiyí is a local nonprofit committed to diversity, inclusive community and empowering voice. The organization hosts monthly poetry slams and open mics throughout the community. Learn more at www.facebook.com/wooshpoetry.
• Ray Friedlander is a freelance writer in Douglas, Alaska. She also serves as secretary to Juneau’s poetry nonprofit Woosh Kinaadeiyí.