Beyond Your Definition has shared their spoken word expertise with DC SCORES poet-athletes since 2019.
Spoken word artist and DC SCORES poetry specialist Beyond Your Definition (BYD) has been in a reflective mood lately. “It was just my birthday, so it’s been a great time to think about growing up and growing into the person I am now,” they explain.
BYD is the artistic moniker of Mariah Barber. The name is an apt one for someone who is not only a professional poet, but who has also worked in various capacities as a diversity, equity, accessiblity, and inclusion (DEAI) consultant; a public health practitioner; an anthropological researcher; and a hip-hop artist and radio personality.
“Beyond your definition” is also a mission statement for an artist whose work challenges the constraints imposed by systems of power upon historically marginalized communities. As a queer, non-binary, Black woman with disabilities, BYD — who uses they and she pronouns — leverages poetry to celebrate their own identities and stories, as well as those of others who are often ignored by those with privilege and authority. “Uplifting unheard voices is at the core of my work,” they say.
As part of this work, BYD is dedicated to providing young people with platforms to share their perspectives on the issues that impact their lives. It’s one of the reasons why she continues to work with new cohorts of DC SCORES poet-athletes every year.
“A lot of adults and policy-makers try to make decisions for young people and I think that’s really dangerous,” BYD stresses. “Young people are very smart and have a lot of ideas. We need to dig in and pull up a seat and listen to what they have to say.”
Poetry From An Early Age
BYD grew up in Matthews, North Carolina, surrounded by poetry and literature. Her aunt, Lillie Lindsay, is also a spoken word poet and special education teacher and introduced BYD to the work of poets such as Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, and Langston Hughes at a young age.
“She would have me memorize different Maya Angelou poems,” BYD recalls. “I’d be this little second grader reciting all these quotes about ‘laughing like I got oil wells between my thighs!’”
During the summers, BYD went to the library almost every day. “I just fell in love with reading,” they say. “I would get lost in books and started making my own books out of folded paper and staples.”
BYD was introduced to poetry by her aunt, Lillie Lindsay, who is also a spoken word poet.
These early years also offered BYD her first taste of performance. Her family attended the local African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and BYD would hone her public speaking, dancing , and oration skills at church services and events. “I would read out poems, give Easter speeches. That’s kind of where I fell in love with being in front of a crowd and feeding off of their energy,” BYD says.
A ninth-grade creative writing class provided BYD with the perfect opportunity to chase that bug. The course was part of Poetry Out Loud, a national arts education program that encourages students to learn more about poetry and participate in recitation competitions in their high schools. “I can still remember the poem I performed!” exclaims BYD, who immediately breaks into the opening verse of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.”
The next year, BYD participated in their first open mic night at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte. “We would slam for a few hundred dollars and, of course, as a high school student I thought that was incredible. The first time I won a slam aganist adults I felt affirmed and rich!” they remember. “It was funny! I was competing with these forty-year-old men and it’s just me, sharing my poems about what life was like from my perspective.”
BYD got their early experience as a teaching artist while they were still a college student at East Carolina University.
“I Love Being Able to See With Fresh Eyes”
As a college student at East Carolina University, BYD continued to hone her spoken word skills as president of the college’s slam team, Word of Mouth. In their spare time, the team volunteered at a community center near the university’s campus in Greenville, teaching weekly poetry classes for kids ranging from first to twelfth grade. “That’s where I fell in love with teaching and being a teaching artist,” BYD says.
Today, BYD works with a variety of organizations in the DMV arts sector. In addition to serving as a DC SCORES poetry specialist, they teach adult poetry classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda and work with high-schoolers through the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ Poetry Out Loud and Words on Fire festival.
“DC SCORES sparked my love for working with the DC school system,” BYD says. They first encountered the nonprofit’s soccer, poetry, and service-learning programs while attending, and then hosting, open mic nights at DC SCORES partner organization Busboys and Poets. “Back in 2019, I started judging the DC SCORES end-of-season slams and I have loved supporting the event every year since,” they share.
BYD performing at the 2022 DC SCORES Middle School Slam. Photo: Cody Cervenka.
“Of all the age groups I work with, the youth are my favorite,” says BYD, who coaches DC SCORES poet-athletes on writing and performance to help them prepare for their poetry slams. “Kids are so creative and so inspiring with the ideas they come up with. It reminds me of why I write,” they add.
As someone who holds numerous intersecting identities, BYD often finds herself serving as a role model for young people who might be exploring their own identities. “Being someone that kids can look up to and say, ‘This person reminds me of myself and I know my voice is valuable’ is really beautiful,” she says.
Making art alongside young people is also inspiring for BYD. “Working with them grounds me in why I started writing,” they say. “I love being able to see with fresh eyes what their experiences are like.”
“When you’ve been living for a long time, you get jaded,” BYD continues. “You don’t look at things as magically as the first time you saw them. Being able to see a person do that for the first time is just so powerful.”
Leveraging Poetry for Justice
In 2021, BYD began volunteering in DC Public Schools for Poetry Out Loud, the program through which she delivered her public spoken word performance. “It’s been great to be able to support something that meant so much to me when I was in high school”,” she says.
Poetry is integral to BYD’s worldview. “It’s a lens that helps me understand things around me and reveal my own feelings about issues to myself,” they explain. “I’m able to turn pain or lessons or transitions in my life into art.”
BYD’s writing is deeply rooted in her experiences of Blackness, sexuality, womanhood, disability, and trauma. “Being able to talk about what that is like for me through art has been very therapeutic,” they share.
Spoken word is a perfect vehicle for this healing. The rhythm of slam poetry connects closely with BYD’s love of hip hop, and slam’s aesthetic — which focuses on oratory and physical performance — creates an art form that is accessible for BYD. “I have lower vision and oftentimes memorizing poetry was something that I had to do because I couldn’t read it,” they share. “Slam helped me find different ways to express myself.”
BYD has used poetry as a form of healing for herself and other people who hold marginalized identities.
The inclusivity of spoken word makes poetry a powerful tool in BYD’s work as a DEAI consultant, too. They hold a Master’s in Public Health from the State University of New York at Albany, and many of the communities BYD serves are impacted by a range of intersecting public health issues, from the human rights abuses of systemic racism and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people of color to the anti-LGBTQ stigma experienced by people with HIV/AIDS.
“I often start a conversation, or a focus group, with a poem,” says BYD. “Even though we’re talking about science and statistics, behind that are stories. It’s important to connect the qualitative with peoples’ stories about what the experience is like.”
“I try to create works of art that call people to think and talk about issues happening in their community and in the world,” explains BYD, who believes that poetry can help people imagine new avenues to create change and pursue justice.
Ultimately, BYD says, poetry enables them to live up to the mission they took on when they embraced the Beyond Your Definiton persona: to move beyond the limitations of what she calls “the isms in the world” — racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of oppression — and embrace liberating practices, identities, and communities.
“Poetry is very powerful,” they conclude. “I’m writing myself into a person my poetry can be proud of.”
BYD uses poetry to explore the world, celebrate diversity, and connect with communities from a range of backgrounds and experiences.