Empowered by poetry: Ceez Liive teaches, performs on Martha’s Vineyard

"I used to not eat any food at all and saved up all the money my mother and my father gave me and that I earned to do open mics," said Ceez Liiv on starting her slam poetry career. — Photo courtesy of Ceez Liiv

Something fresh and exciting happened at The Pit Stop this past weekend – a performance that was sure to inspire some buzz around the Island.

Spoken-word artist, actress, and teacher Ceez Liive presented a power performance of her poetry and host an afternoon workshop this Saturday, May 19.

Ceez Liive (pronounced “seize live”) is a 21-year-old from the Bronx who has already sparked a good deal of attention from the media for her words and stage presence. Despite her age, hers is the talent of a seasoned poet, and she delivers her works with a mature and compelling performance style, with none of the awkward posturing of youth.

At 18, Ceez won second place in the annual Knicks Poetry Slam. She has gone on to perform throughout the U.S. at venues as prestigious as the Nuyorican Poet’s Café on New York’s Lower East Side, The Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, Philadelphia’s historic Freedom Theater, and the landmark Chicago Theater. She’s made appearances on WQHT Hot 97 and Kiss FM in New York City and been featured in The New York Times and The Daily News. Ceez, who had a small part in the 2011 film “Gun Hill Road,” performed at the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. She has written a one-woman show, which she has performed in New York, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia.

The accomplished poet also teaches workshops at a shelter and several middle and high schools. In 2010 she founded a nonprofit, Wordplay Poetry and Hip Hop for teens. Currently she is a junior at Fordham University at Lincoln Center, Manhattan, majoring in English with a minor in theater. Although Ceez hopes to eventually pursue more work as an actor, for now she’s committed to finishing school. “Anything you’re passionate about you have to keep as a focus,” she said.

From basketball to poetry

Ceez’s first passion was for basketball. She attended the Academy for Careers in Sports in the South Bronx and pursued basketball with the drive and dedication that she has shown in all of her endeavors. However, when an injury sidelined her for two years, she turned her talents elsewhere. Ceez started out as a rapper, but influenced by a teacher, she learned a love of poetry and switched to written word and slam poetry performance.

Once she started taking her craft seriously, Ceez sought out open mic nights and other platforms for performance. “I went any place they told me I could say a poem at,” she recalled. “I used to not eat any food at all and saved up all the money my mother and my father gave me and that I earned to do open mics.”

While still in high school, Ceez travelled regularly to Boston and Philadelphia to perform. At 18 she moved to Philly. “I told my mom, ‘I need something. I don’t know what it is but I’ve got to find it.'” In Philadelphia she had discovered a community of burgeoning young poets and quickly made her mark there.

However, she kept up her commitment to the kids she had been working with in the Bronx, taking a bus back to New York three times a week. “I knew their dreams, the goals that I had helped them set up,” she said. “I saw them getting into the wrong crowds because they didn’t have positive role models. The only reason that people do negative things is that they don’t have positive influences.”

Of her teaching method, Ceez said, “I have a program that teaches hip hop. The way that a school would introduce Shakespeare, I use Tupac. I would find a link between Tupac and Shakespeare.

“I use hip hop as a tool to get people into poetry and get kids into something. For me, what I see it does for kids is it builds a mold for each of my children so they know where they want to go.”

After three years, Ceez moved back to New York when her younger half-brother’s mother died. That was a time of rediscovery for her. Fixing up her brother’s old apartment, which was in need of major repairs, she says was a metaphor for her life at the time. “It’s all about rebuilding. I’ve been rebuilding and making use of the rubble. There’s a lot of bad that comes back from coming back.” But also a lot of good. Ceez reenrolled at Fordham and completed her autobiographical one-woman show, called “Ma Heels,” which she is hoping to bring to new audiences this year.

Ceez has mined the tragedy and hardships of her life for material. She has written about a murdered friend and lost love. However, she is primarily a social and political commentator. In addressing issues such as war and environmental tragedy, Ceez manages to find the sweet spot between insipid sensitivity and angry ranting.

Her fluid movements when she recites (or, in the lingo of slam poetry, “spits”) her poems never appear artificial or stiff; rather she performs the agile dance of a basketball player, displaying both power and finesse.

Her unfeigned humility is very engaging, and she never resorts to an in-your-face approach. Even when spouting condemnation, Ceez is never abrasive. She scores her point with strong imagery, positive energy, and a message of hope.

Ceez strives to share her experiences with the kids that she mentors. “I want to show them the doors that basketball and poetry and music have opened up for me,” she said. “I have seen so much of the world and what it has to offer. The beauty and the negative has made me the person I am today.

“For me rap has such a negative image. I’m an MC – master creator. I live hip hop. You’re never going to hear negativity from me. That’s not natural. I write about the things that people actually see but that aren’t necessarily brought to light. It’s all about positivity and keeping your head up. I like to write smiles onto everyone’s faces.”

Ceez Liive was a featured guest on Carolyn Schmidtke’s “That Radio Show”, May 17, at 5 pm.

Workshop with Ceez Liive, 2 pm, Saturday, May 19, The Pit Stop, Oak Bluffs. $10; $5 for members. All ages welcome.

Ceez Liive Performance, 8 pm, Saturday, May 19, The Pit Stop, Oak Bluffs. Doors open at 7 pm. $10; $5 for members.

Excerpt from “I Want My Life Back” about the Exxon Valdez oil spill:

Where do we go when the bottom of the food chain falls? Eleven of your workers will never get their lives back. Their wives will cry on the shoulders of Polaroids. The children will seek favors of their fathers that will never come home. But you will go home to your three million dollar home, your one million dollar wife. She will kiss you and feel nothing – stare and see nothing, but a child with a detonator in his mouth and eleven oil slicks on his hands.