At 22 years old, Florida-native Jamal Parker has published his own book of poetry, become an international slam poetry champion and a resident artist at the Painted Bride in Old City, gone on an East Coast poetry tour, created his own poetry collective (Black Boy Fly) — and somehow manages to still be a student at Temple University.
“It’s funny because I hated poetry growing up,” he said.
Parker was introduced to writing through his love of comic books. He was in third grade when one of his teachers noticed that he was good at storytelling. It wasn’t long before his mother signed him up for various art and literary programs.
Parker discovered slam poetry during his junior year of high school. It wasn’t long before he was performing at open mic events and winning competitions. He published his first poem only one year later, in 2014, called “Okinawa Park” in Poetry Nook magazine.
Parker’s work focuses a lot on race.
Because his mother’s ex-husband was in the military, he ended up living in Japan for three years when he was 7 to 10 years old before coming back to Florida.
“There’s anti-blackness everywhere but no one [in Japan] was getting shot by the police,” Parker said. “I came back and lived in Florida when Trayvon Martin got killed. There was a culture shock coming back to America.”
Parker said moving back to the United States made him think critically about his identity for the first time.
“My art always focuses on being a youth of color, blackness, and hypermasculinity,” Parker said. “My work is relatable and makes a statement.”
“Black art has a sense of soul,” Parker added. “You can tell it comes from an authentic place.”
Parker left Florida for Philadelphia to attend Temple University in 2014.
“I wanted to go somewhere with a poetry scene and somewhere I could grow,” he said.
During his freshman year, he got involved with the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, a performing arts groups for teenagers.
Miriam Harris, a social studies teacher and a poetry coach in Philadelphia, says she isn’t surprised by Parker’s success. She was Parker’s teaching assistant in a poetry performance class at Temple. In this class, the students had to present often, so it wasn’t long before Harris recognized his talent.
“I call Jamal my son,” Harris said. “One class I went right up to him and said, ‘I’m going to mentor you.’”
One of Harris’ favorite memories with Parker was when she was a coach for Babel Poetry Collective, Temple’s poetry club. The team came in first place at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) in 2016.
When the results were announced, Jamal was the first person she looked at to see his reaction.
“There was a moment, just the look on Jamal’s face, he did not disappoint,” Harris said. “It was great seeing him work so hard. He was smiling, and jumping up and down. He jumped on me and hugged me, and we were screaming. He was vibrant and radiant. It was the, ‘Oh my god, we did it’ smile.”
That same year, Parker and another poet, Jovan McKoy started performing together and co-founded Black Boy Fly, a poetry group of young black men in Philadelphia. In 2017, the two expanded it into other mediums of art — poetry, hip hop, and photography. The collective was invited to be artists in residence at The Painted Bride. It just wrapped up in January.
A little over a year after expanding Black Boy Fly into a collective, Parker published his first book of poetry, “Bondage,” an experience he describes as “a shot in the dark.”
The online literary journal, L’Éphémère Review held a writing competition offering the winner the chance to publish a book. Parker, who had already been planning to self-publish a poetry book, didn’t think much of it when he entered the contest.
And then he won.
“‘Bondage’ started in the summer of 2017,” Parker said. “I was on a poetry retreat writing in Vermont and it was there I discovered that I had enough to make a book. It was the first time that I thought I could do it.”
Many of his poems in “Bondage” focuses on the black experience in America.
Parker teaches at Treehouse Books in North Philadelphia where he explains the fundamentals of spoken word poetry, performance and literary devices to children.
“My passion is my art and youth development,” Parker said, “I transitioned from a kid on a poetry team winning competitions to doing more education and directing services.”
When he’s not teaching the next generation of writers, he’s working for Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy where he administers grants to artists and organizations around the city.
“I’m only 22,” Parker joked. “At one point, I had four jobs and was a full-time student. Artists often suffer with burnouts. I’ve been doing open-mic poetry since I was 16 and by 21, all my dreams came true.”
What’s next for Parker?
“I think it’s important for artists to take a break,” Parker said. “Right now, I think I’ve earned it.”
Parker sees poetry as something that will always be a part of his life, in whatever form that may be.
“I want to take my time with things, especially since I’ve done a lot,” Parker said. “I want to be in a position where I feel fulfilled as an artist, a community member, and just being happy. I just want to keep that path.”