(Photo by Collin Richie: Chancelier Xero Skidmore)
Spoken word poet and percussionist
Annual income: Up to $30,000
The career endgame, says Chancelier Xero Skidmore, is simply to “keep creating art.”
A spoken word poet, Skidmore admits his chosen medium is one of the most difficult art forms in which to earn a living. Edgy poetry delivered live is a relatively new phenomenon; it was introduced in the mid-1980s in Chicago. And while poetry “slams,” or staged competitions among spoken word poets, have gained popularity among teen writers nationwide, there’s little precedent on how to convert a talent with performed poetry into a viable career.
“For spoken word artists, there’s a lot of grinding it out for years before you get a big break,” Skidmore says. “The world Scrabble champ is better known than the top spoken word poet.”
Skidmore is, in fact, a top spoken word poet. A Plaquemine native, Skidmore says he always loved writing. After becoming a father as a young man, he dropped out of college to work in a warehouse. He began writing poetry on the side.
Skidmore got involved in Baton Rouge’s small spoken word scene through the nonprofit youth organization Big Buddy, and he began working with children through the WordPlay project. He also wrote poems and began competing in poetry slams.
Over the last several years, Skidmore has placed high in several national poetry challenges, including tying for first place in the 2013 Individual World Poetry Slam. Earning a living primarily from live poetry and musical performances between 2006 and 2014, Skidmore got accustomed to cobbling together an annual income from varied sources. He marketed himself by word of mouth and through video clips on YouTube, which helped him land spoken word gigs on a few college campuses around the country. At home, he supplements his income by performing as a percussionist with such regional bands as the Michael Foster Project.
A couple of years ago, Skidmore developed a one-man show called “Beaten,” which featured original poetry, singing, percussion and acting. Like most of his work, it addresses issues of race and religion. Skidmore earned fees for performing the show.
Last fall, Skidmore also began earning a salary as the executive director of Forward Arts, a nonprofit situated in the Manship Theatre that places poets-in-residence in local schools where they teach workshops about poetry—both modern spoken word poetry and classic poetry by Edgar Allen Poe and other poets and writers.
Performance artists, says Skidmore, are wise to keep something in mind when they hit the stage.
“You have to over-impress,” he says. “When someone hands over money for art, they’re expecting a certain level of quality. If they pay $10 to get in, I better give them a $20 show. People expect to be wowed. They want to be moved.”