By Leslie D. Rose
For 23-year-old spoken word poet Toiryan Milligan, art is more than just creating – it’s life changing.
The young phenom got his start on the mic as a student at McKinley High School and local teen poetry reading Freshhhh Heat, presented by Forward Arts, Inc.
Milligan said he has always enjoyed writing poetry and that it helped him stay away from negative influences in his life, like gang violence and the drug activity happening around him.
But the poems weren’t enough to keep him from cutting classes in school.
After snagging placement on the 2010 McKinley High School poetry slam team to compete in the All City Teen Poetry Festival, Milligan’s English teacher warned that if he continued to cut class, he would be dropped from the team.
“I ignored him, and he put me off the team, and I ended up failing a grade,” Milligan said.
The second time around, Milligan worked hard to keep his spot on team and became more involved with Forward Arts’ Word Play program.
“I went to a lot of Word Play workshops and my biggest takeaway was community building,” he said. “It taught me diversity.”
Milligan said the diversity took him from writing rap-esque poems to understanding poetic devices and delivering topics more removed from his personal standpoint.
Picking up a few lessons from competing in the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam, Milligan waited a year to present his work at the ‘adult’ poetry reading—The Eclectic Truth Poetry Slam. Milligan found himself in direct competition with his mentors, Donney Rose and Chancelier “xero” Skidmore.
“There was an intimidation factor,” Milligan said. “I mean, you look at these guys—xero and Donney—you look at them as your mentors, people who taught you everything you know, and the sudden thought that you will have to get on the stage and go against them, like everything I’m bringing, they know how to handle that.”
Milligan said the day he triumphed over one of his mentors in the weekly slam was exhilarating.
“I had a big head about it; I was pretty egotistical about it. I was going around like, ‘Yeah, I beat the people who taught me.’”
Since consistently ranking high at the weekly slam and growing in his work, Milligan has set his goals higher—including becoming a member of the BR National Poetry Slam Team, a goal tougher than expected.
“I got cut in the first round,” he said of the three-round team selection slam. “It brought me down to that level I need to be, because winning a whole bunch of poetry slams, and actually being with the top nine competitors kind of boosts your ego to a whole new level.”
Milligan said he even took off work for the week of the national competition as he was sure he would be attending as a member of the team.
“I was thinking, I need to focus on my writing more. It was a heart breaking loss, but it fueled me more to try again next year.”
In the meantime, Milligan joined forces with three other poets to create Team Vacay, a pick up slam team for the Southern Fried Regional Poetry Slam Festival, held last month in Little Rock, Ark.
It was there that Milligan was reminded of his skill and determination, as he individually ranked 13 out of 144 poets.
Milligan, a member of the Poetry Alliance will publish a chapbook, “A Table for Two,” later this year with the central theme of coffee conversations. Other than the book, he said he plans to continue building and maintaining the Baton Rouge poetry community, ready to step forward when his mentors are ready to step down.