Monday, September 15, 2008

OBT: Shannon Leigh

"My drifting ship, I still believe in anchors.
My heart, I still believe in God."

-- Shannon Leigh

this one will take me a minute . . .

the brilliant poet sam skeist, friend of mine, is due in town today, and in searching around for places for us to go in the next couple of weeks, first on my list was the austin poery slam, a venue/group/event i have a long-ago history with, and which was also the first place sam and i went to see performance together. so i'm scrolling through their site, checking out future dates and i stumble across a "memorial tribute" slam for shannon leigh. i have spent the last little while catching up on what was an excruciating moment of realization for me, that another brilliant young poet was gone. the details you'll be able to read for yourself below, but i thought i'd just post a little personal experience. i first saw her read at cafe mundi and at the slam in quick succession in the weeks prior to and post-9/11. it was an active time for me doing readings, and 9/11 was a spark for us both to reclaim our hearts. i was preparing an anthology at the time of student writers, mostly from my locker room writers & thinkers workshop at tivy high school in kerrville, but also from notre dame school, as well as submissions from young poets across the country. shannon had blown me plumb away with her take on the tragedy and i asked if i could publish her piece in the anthology and she agreed. i knew it was a piece that needed to live on, and that she was a poet who was going to rock the slam scene. the anthology helped our writer's group site win a national award from WebDelSol in the top ten student writers' programs in the US, and i've never harbored any illusions that her poem played a major part in that. we were then invited to perform as a group at the texas state capitol for the texas book festival and she read and knocked everyone's socks off. we had another connection. i didn't know when i met her and heard her read that she was only 14. age is generally not my concern. but for her bio in the anthology i asked. blown away. her bio also said she was a student at st. andrews, and it so happens a good friend pf mine was her principal and we had occasion to talk of her -- she was as good a student as amazing poet. so, i'm sitting here right now contemplating loss in its many, many forms, and trying to respond to this without much luck . . . i just know it's a major loss.

Update: Austin poet Shannon Leigh Lewis has died

Update: A spokesman for the Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla. confirms that Shannon Leigh Lewis, the Austin spoken-word poet, died at 9:40 p.m. Monday. The coma she had entered after a June 14 cave diving accident near Ginnie Springs, Fla. turned irreversible earlier that day, which led to conflicting reports about her death. Information about the official time of death was not released by the hospital until Wednesday and an Alachua County, Fla. medical examiner’s report is pending.

Best known under her stage name, Shannon Leigh, she joined Austin’s hyperactive poetry scene at age 14.

“Certainly none of us knew she was 14,” said Slammaster Mike Henry about her first gig at Ego’s on South Congress Avenue, attended with her mother, Sheila Siobhan, an organizer of the Texas Youth Word Collective. “She was fantastic. Her writing and performance fit together as well as anyone else’s on stage.”

Lewis later won the Austin-wide Under 21 poetry slams in 2003 and 2004. Last year, during a sold-out National Poetry Slam show at the Paramount Theatre, Lewis took third place. She was featured on the HBO series, “Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry,” and represented Austin in the Under 21 Slam Team at the national Brave New Voices Youth Festival. She also had finished writing two novels and produced a hip-hop album titled “Sanctuary.”

“Her writing and performance style were an exact mirror of her as a person,” Henry said. “Absolutely fierce, fearless. Her work was incredibly lyrical, hip-hop infused and intensely personal. It was a shining example of what performance poetry can be.”

Lewis said one of her inspirations was the 1998 movie “Slam” about a rapper living in a gang-infested housing project. Her politically informed poetry was performed with unusual intensity. “It hits people much harder because it’s coming from me,” she told the American-Statesman in 2005, calling herself a “sheltered white girl.”

Lewis, 20, was born in Leeds, U.K. and attended St. Andrew’s High School in Austin before moving to Atlanta last year to attend Georgia State University.

Both her Austin-based parents are globe-spanning performers: Sheila Siobhan is an operatic soprano who co-founded the Austrian American Mozart Academy in Salzburg, Austria. She now teaches at Texas A&M-Kingsville. Her father, tenor William Lewis, also performs operatic roles worldwide, including at top opera houses, such as La Scala in Milan, Italy. He teaches at the University of Texas.

According to multiple reports, Lewis, an experienced diver, was swimming with two other divers, returning alone to the entrance of the cave because of an equilibrium problem. A diving instructor from another group discovered her unconscious. She was brought her to the surface with the help of another diver.

“Recreation diving and cave diving are apples and oranges,” said Dan Misiaszek, retired dive recovery commander with San Marcos Area Recovery Team. “Cave diving requires specialized training and equipment. Even with the proper training and equipment, things can still go wrong.”

Lewis had lingered in a coma for days. Monday morning, in Gainesville, Fla. doctors said Lewis showed no brain activity. Wednesday morning, she was taken off the respirator.

After the medical news Monday, dozens of poets had posted memories and tributes on her MySpace page and other poetry sites.

“She was phenomenal person inside and out,” said slam teammate Gator, who works with the performance group Public Offenders. “When we performed together, she blew the crowd away. She had this spirit on her. It had to do with her style of poetry and at the same time as a person.”

Austin Poetry Slam, the city’s primary spoken-word group, had planned several fundraisers over the course of the next month to help defray Lewis’s medical expenses. Henry says those events will continue as planned, with the money going to the family. For updates on those events — check

A memorial service will be held 6 p.m. July 9 at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. Please leave your memories of Lewis in the commentary box and in the guest book.

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