When Jason Reynolds's mother asked him to draw a sketch to honor a grandmother who had just died, he composed his first poem. Reynolds didn't think he could do her justice with a picture, so the 10-year-old wrote down some words instead.
Those words were the beginning of a journey that has occupied half his life and given him a recognized name in the Washington and Baltimore spoken-word community. Reynolds, 20, recently published his second collection of poetry, "Jacob's Ladder," and will perform at the Black Family Reunion in Washington on Sept. 11.
Although the Oxon Hill native had been performing his poetry for several years in front of classmates at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, it wasn't until he sneaked into downtown poetry clubs that he heard the term "spoken word."
Even now, although the term is often used to categorize the heartfelt form of poetic storytelling he does regularly, Reynolds considers himself a writer first and foremost.
"For me it wasn't even a performance thing. It was never about me trying to wow the crowd with my performance, but about me trying to wow the crowd with something that is still important to me -- good writing -- and to help somebody. I do not write in vain," he said.
"I realized spoken word was just a branch of writing. A lot of performers do a cappella rap, and that's okay. That's their art," he said. "I'm a writer at heart. That's how I started, that's what I like."
No matter how he thinks of himself, Reynolds is still a natural performer. An extrovert who is at ease in front of an audience and gesticulates often, he is visibly moved by the words he carefully utters. His emotions have much to do with his subjects, which vary from his adoration of his mother to HIV.
As Reynolds grew from a young poet who wrote for relatives' funerals to a young man whose words and voice excite and inspire audiences around the region, he came to view his work not only as a form of self-expression but also as a form of activism.
In "Jacob's Ladder," Reynolds's poetry addresses people or entities that have influenced him, including his grandmother, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Marvin Gaye, Malcolm X and even the Ku Klux Klan.
"The Ku Klux Klan is not necessarily a hero, but it's influenced my life. I pay respect to all of these people because I know they've made me a better person. I know that I am a better person because of racism. It's an informal thanks [to the Ku Klux Klan]. 'You can't hurt me. You helped me,' " he said.
He wrote his first poetry collection, "Let Me Speak," in high school to reflect his feelings as a black teenager. His subjects included love, spirituality, encouragement and social problems.
Using his poetry to talk about issues that he thinks are not discussed enough, such as racism, injustice, poverty, rape and spirituality, is also a nod to Reynolds' poetic idols, who include Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, Gil Scott-Heron and William Shakespeare.
In his poem "Africa," included in the recent book, Reynolds writes, "I often wonder/ if I bathed in the Nile/ would my ankles and toes/ wrinkle, crack and dry up/ like they usually do/ when I take baths/ Or will the water/ recognize me?"
When he performs, which he does often around town at places such as Sipp'ss Cafe in Fort Washington and the University of Maryland in College Park -- where he is a senior English major -- Reynolds bares himself to the crowd.
"I'm very vulnerable onstage because I talk about my own personal experiences, because that's all I've got to talk about. A lot of poets are brilliant when it comes to wordplay or cadences, but I don't think that was my gift. My gift was empathy. You're able to hear my pain, my concern. When you hear my work, you're going to hear my heart," he said.
After he graduates in December, Reynolds plans to focus on his art and a new book. He hopes to teach eventually, but in the meantime he'll use his poetry to reach as many people as he can.
"I take this talent as a responsibility," Reynolds said. "If I have a voice and the opportunity to say something to a lot of people, I need to say something that's going to help somebody."
Reynolds's books are available by contacting him via his Web site, www.jasonreynoldsonline.com. On Sept. 11, he will perform in the Children's Pavilion at the Black Family Reunion on the Mall. For information on the reunion, visit www.ncnw.org/blackfamily.htm or call 202-737-0120.