photo by Will Crooks

“I’ve been waiting for this moment to tell you,” Moody Black says as he begins to deliver his poem “8 Letters,” staring directly into a camera. The Spartanburg spoken word poet hesitates ever so slightly, like a man building up his courage: “I’ve been rehearsing my lines like a poet preparing to perform. So here I am, presenting you with your favorite dish, candlelight bliss, as we exchange eye gazes and I’m gulping anxiety… so I can say those eight letters that transform into three words: I love you.”

As Black speaks, he visibly moves from nervous to overwhelmed to glowing, his hands illustrating his words through the air. It’s a fantastic example of the difference between a written poem and a spoken one, performed like a scene in a play or a film.

This is what Moody Black, aka Robert Mullins Jr., has been doing for a couple of decades now — standing on stages around the Upstate and around the country, delivering his words with passion and intelligence at open mics and poetry slams, baring his soul while perfecting a performance style.

And the style is important. In the world of spoken-word performances, it’s not just about the words, it’s about how they’re delivered. It demands the skill of a writer and the timing of an actor, and Black, along with the Greenville slam team he coaches, Say What?!, have become masters of it.

The team has made the semifinals for the last two years in the National Poetry Slam competition, which is typically made up of 70 to 80 teams of four to five poets. As an individual performer, Black was named the National Male Poet of the Year by the Gifted Artists Neo Soul & Poetry Awards (GANSPA).

Black’s love of poetry began when he was a child, though he didn’t take to it right away.

“My mom made my sister and I read poetry,” he says with a laugh. “She worked during the day and took college classes at night, and she would bring home books.”

“We’d have to read some of the poetry and literature greats like Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes, but there was this particular book my mom had called ‘This Time Called Life,’ by a poet named Walter Rinder. It really captivated me at 11 or 12 years old, because he was talking about being young and free, and every young person wants to be free.”

As he began to write Black own poems, he also nurtured an interest in acting and began performing his poems at school or in church. Once he graduated college, he became a regular on the Upstate’s open-mic scene.

“I discovered this slam hosted by my friend Kim Simms [founder of the nonprofit Wits End Poetry] at Coffee Underground,” he says. “I had one poem memorized, and I won the first round with it, even though at the time I didn’t know there were rounds. It was intriguing, because I’d had a theater background in high school, and when I figured out it was performance-based poetry, I realized I could put acting and what I wrote together.” Wits End promotes local spoken-word events and educates the public about poetry.

By 2004, he was on his first slam team, representing the Upstate in the Southern Fried Poetry Slam, a prestigious regional competition.

“I saw all these poets and finally felt like there was a place for me,” he says of that experience. “So I just started studying the crowd and getting better at writing and performing, and started attending national events, and in 2008, Kim turned the SayWhat?! team over to me to start coaching it, and I’ve been running it since.”

Black, whose moniker comes from an ex-girlfriend who said he had mood swings, continues to host a weekly open-mic night at Coffee Underground. He says that even with his team’s achievements, it’s been difficult for poetry and spoken-word performances to get the attention that other parts of Greenville’s arts scene have.

“When I try to promote our events, a lot of people are like, ‘Poetry?’” he says. “There a lot of people who don’t understand how it can be performed. For what we put on, for how we compete nationally, for the art we create, we deserve to be highlighted more for what we do. We’ve created a culture.”

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