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Meet Marlena Johns of Zen Ase Poetry in North

Today we’d like to introduce you to Marlena Johns.

Marlena, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I received my first award for writing in elementary school and have been hooked ever since. In college, I won other awards and wrote and directed a sold-out stage play for a community organization. After graduation, I focused on married life, parenting twin boys, and teaching high school English classes. In the last eight years, I have been the teacher of the year twice, runner-up four times, a Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction ( an award received by less than two percent of American educators) and a University of Chicago Outstanding Educator. The last two national awards originated from student nominations. After my divorce and my sons’ graduation from high school, I returned to poetry and essay writing and have dozens of published pieces in magazines and anthologies worldwide.

In 2017, stressed out and contemplating early retirement from teaching ( which could have been financially disastrous), I began performing as Zen at the Sugar Hill Lounge on Poetry Lounge Sundays. Dubbed Zen by coworkers in my waitressing days for being calm and unfrazzled on even the worst of shifts, ZEN became my goal, my focus, and my purpose as an artist. After Sugar Hill closed, I concentrated on writing and re-emerged in 2018 as Zen Ase. Ase in Yoruba means words have the power to shape reality; they are transformation, force, and energy. Since June 2018, Zen Ase has performed hundreds of times at dozens of venues including the Alley Cat Jazz Cafe, Brasil, Avant Garden, The Last Concert Cafe, Showtime Bar and Grill, Front Deck Bar and Grill, The Improv, Capones and Peace, Paint and Poetry. In September 2018, she created a platform for artists of many flavors – Laughz and Lyrics.

Art is laughter and healing. And storytelling (the basis of rap, music lyrics, and poetry) is one of the most ancient of man’s past times.

Gathering at night to unwind, eat, drink, sing, and tell stories was the glue of the community. And we need that glue more than ever. So

Laughz and Lyrics promotes the mantra – Get Zenned. Stay Zenned. Spread Zen.

Get Zenned- find peace, calm, centeredness, focus, motivation- get your heart and mind right.

Stay Zenned- enact rituals, build relationships, create a healthy, fulfilling, happy lifestyle.

Spread Zen- share what you have with others, impact your circle of influence with positivity.

Since September 2018, Laughz and Lyrics promoted by Zen Ase Poetry, co-hosted by Kaye Jones Harts and DJ Koala Khool, has had 25 live music, comedy and poetry shows. Besides entertainment, LAL has also held coat and toy drives around Christmas, a book signing, a single release, an album release, sign up for a free criminal record review with a legal clinic, a fashion show and most recently The Luminary Awards for community nominated male and female activists, entrepreneurs, artists, and educators. We are currently planning a back to school drive and mental health awareness in partnership with The I Am A Survivor seminar.

Zen Ase has also recently become the Assistant Director of the Houston Poetry Summit, and will thus liaison with 25 known poetry groups in Houston. She is also organizing the September installment of 100,000 poets for change.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
It has not been a smooth road. Raising two black males in America, even with two parents and a middle-class upbringing is challenging, add to that racial profiling, and trying to keep them away from gangs and drugs, and it becomes even more challenging. The last decade of my life has had multiple losses, two of my sons’ friends were killed, one in a very publicized stabbing at Spring High School. I also lost my in-laws, both sets ( two marriages), my grandparents, and my parents ( both of whom suffered months, in the case of my dad- years- of hospitalizations,

Education has also become politicized, and teachers are now portrayed as the sole reason a student fails or succeeds, which has drastically increased the paperwork of tracking systems, the emphasis on test scores and education as a business mentality that results in endless meetings, emails, and data analysis and re-analysis.

Being an artist also can be stressful. I’ve run into promoters who want performers to pay to perform- you would think it would be the other way around. Customers can also expect to get in free, not considering that the dj costs, the fliers cost, getting a flier created costs, etc. They’ll willingly pay $8 for a small popcorn at the movie theater but sometimes balk at that same sticker price to see live music, comedy or poetry, which is more likely to leave an impact.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Zen Ase Poetry – tell our readers more, for example, what you’re most proud of and what sets you apart from others.
I am most proud of the diversity of the show. Take a visit to www.laughzandlyrics.com. There you can see show fliers and artists. Every show is different. You could come to every single show and have a totally new experience each time. Laughz and Lyrics has worked with over 120 different artists. Artists have been seen and offered gigs, auditions, and even jobs. LAL is known for being a haven for artists and fans. People feel comfortable. They want to hang out even after the show and talk. They feel uplifted, refreshed, and inspired. I feel it is the first show to say- art is art- verbal, written, painted. It’s all art.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
For the immediate future, I am a Survivor seminar and 100,000 poets for change. Further on, working on a documentary with poet Siraj Rakeem titled For the Love of Poetry, bringing more unity to Houston poetry.

Pricing:

  • Laughz and Lyrics shows at the Pocket Bar and Showtime Bar and Lounge ( next show July 7th) generally range from $12 and up
  • Laughz and Lyrics has a clothing brand Awakened Verses, with 6 current designs in various colors. Shirts are $15 at a show. $20 + shipping online.

Contact Info:

Getting in touch: VoyageHouston is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition, please let us know here.

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