Growing up in Orange County, local Iranian-American poet Sheila J. Sadr could not find a well-established open mic in her community. There was little to no poetry scene, making it challenging to evolve her love of writing into a career.
“When I left, I was able to have that special time to pursue things I wanted without judgment,” she explained as she moved to the city to get her bachelor’s degree at California State University, Long Beach. “Long Beach is where I became a person.”
Sheila joined the slam poetry team on campus, where she ran the open mic and searched for other poetry communities to join outside of the university. She was lucky enough to come across The Definitive Soapbox, one of the longest open mics in Long Beach that takes place every last Friday of the month at Fox Coffee House.
The founder of the open mic, Antonio Cortez Appling, reached out to her saying he was in need a new staff member to manage any social media platforms. After doing so for a couple years, she became the talent coordinator, scouting new talent and booking all of the events.
“I got into the community because Antonio saw something in me,” she said. “Also, with running the open mic at Long Beach State, I think he saw this is what I wanted to do.”
She had the experience running open mics and creatively knew how to get people at the doors of the coffeehouse. When The Definitive Soapbox moved to Fox Coffee House, she took the “millennial approach” and used the dating app OkCupid to attract people.
“It was really cool because so many people came and once they realized what I was doing, they stayed at the open mic,” she said. “And sometimes I still see them around, and they even bring in their girlfriends.”
Because of The Definitive Soapbox, she has also been able to connect with many local and national poets.
“I came across so many poets I saw on YouTube,” she said. “All the poets I always goggled over were there and I was able to connect with them.”
Despite the growing poetry scene, it is still an intimate community that wants everyone to succeed. When Sheila first met these poets, they insisted in exchanging numbers and welcomed her with open arms. Now, she works under their wing and having their respect means the world to her.
“There so many local poets...great local poets,” she recognized. “We are going to be in the history books one day. I believe it.”
She also emphasized that she does not want anyone in Long Beach to think she took them for granted or saw them as a stepping stone.
“Long Beach gave me the career and helped me shape who I am,” she said. “All I ever want to do is give back as much as I can.”
However, it wasn’t until this past year that she started making money, even a dollar, for poetry by selling mini DIY poetry books.
“It was $1 per poem,” she said. “I would hand-select each poem after asking what topic is preferred, such as family and culture.”
She recalls one of the first poems she wrote for herself was in eighth grade. “It was all about growing up and I had a rhyme scheme,” she said. “My mom still says it’s her favorite poem.”
Many poets use their culture as a way of getting into the poetry scene, and Sheila found herself doing the same. She saw herself using her ethnicity in poems for popularity rather than something that is genuinely a part of her. Now, Sheila has come to realize she does not need to write about being Persian in order for her work to be Persian.
“I don’t want to tokenize my own culture,” Sheila said. “Or use it as a mechanism to promote my career,” she said. “I want it to be a genuine process of me interacting and engaging with my art.”
She describes herself as a poet who does not like getting caught in patterns. She likes changing the topics from family and culture to navigating abusive relationships, processing abusive cycles, and now, girlhood and empowerment.
“Now, a lot of poems start off with ‘Worthy girl, Tired girl,’” she said. “It’s about addressing this experience or identity they are having.”
For her, it depends on the season and she writes about various topics depending on what she is processing, experiencing or going through. But despite it not being a full-time paid career, she is still astonished to have a career in writing and reciting poems.
“I truly believe I am married to poetry...in a very real, ‘I am in a relationship’ type of way,” Sheila said. “And so you get kind of nostalgic thinking of the time you met that person, when you fell in love, or when I first held your hand.”
To read her poetry or to contact her directly, please visit sheilajsadr.com.