Ben Yisrael is an accomplished poet, storyteller, writer, and the co-founder of Mic Check in Texas as well as the founder and curator at Alchemy Poetry Series in Seattle. He is also the 2010 Dallas Poetry Grind Slam Champion, the 2014 NPS Haiku Champion, and the 2017 and 2019 Seattle Poetry Slam Grand Slam Champion.
On July 18, Yisrael will be joining Awful Good Writers for the first time to teach his four-week writing workshop, Poetry as Alchemy. AGW’s Poet Astrid sat down with to discuss his work, his writing, and his course.
“We often focus on the negative things that have happened to us, but there are ways we can take those experiences and turn them into gold,” Ben Yisrael tells AGW.
“I want to equip people with literal words that are helpful in changing the world and the way we think about ourselves. We’ve got to start reprogramming ourselves little by little in every single element,” Yisrael says during a phone interview about his upcoming course Poetry as Alchemy. “You can use poetry in so many different ways so this will help people who are not poets as well.”
The idea that language, music, and poetry are an actual form of technology stems from the early teachings of African and Black history that introduced Yisrael and his family to spirituality as he was growing up.
Everything is spiritual, everything is political, everything is related– Ben Yisrael
“Coming into the modern times of my life, I look at how corporations do branding and hypnotism through all these high levels of language to program people to buy things or to use it in a self-help way for addictions,” he explains. “I want to make people aware of [these things] on a practical and spiritual level because modern and capitalist culture separates everything, when in reality there is no separation. Everything is spiritual, everything is political, everything is related. You can’t untangle these things.”
Ben Yisrael was born and raised in Fortworth, Texas where he and his siblings were raised by his father, a pastor, and his mother, a music director and musician. Even though Yisrael’s upbringing through his family was primarily Christian and conservative, he shares how he was still encouraged to read about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.
“As a person who grew up in the African American community, everything is a contradiction,” Yisrael explains. “We were radical conservatives if that makes any damn sense.”
In 2009, Yisrael pursued a career in politics after he received his P.h.D in Political Science with an emphasis in Public Policy from Texas A&M University. He worked for a U.S. Congressman over the next few years, until he disclosed that he was no longer Christian. Even though Yisrael was still capable of fulfilling his work responsibilities, considering his Christian family background, it turned into a big ordeal that lead to the end of his career in politics.
“These other situations have prepared me. Whether it be trauma, oppression, or obstacles, you can turn that into something positive.”– Ben Yisrael
Being blackballed by his family and colleagues made him realize it was time for a change. Yisrael began traveling to different states with some friends until he eventually moved to Seattle, WA. He now works as a consultant for Healthy King County Coalition, a non-profit organization dedicated to achieving health equity through policy, systems, and environmental change.
“Every situation I’ve been in has made me a better person. I’m now running a non-profit organization and working in other high pressured situations, so while people are freaking out, I’m not because this is nothing compared to what I’ve been through,” Yisrael notes.
“These other situations have prepared me. Whether it be trauma, oppression, or obstacles, you can turn that into something positive.”
Ben Yisrael: Poetry As Alchemy will be held live on Sundays at 11AM PST, starting July 18 and running through August 8. He says students should expect him to tell a lot of jokes and for him to laugh at his own jokes.
Students will have exclusive access to Q&A, coaching/feedback for writing and performance, and private discussion groups. Students are welcome to join at any time; all classes are recorded and available for viewing up to one month after the class end.