Slam poetry has gotten students who are often bored with how the subject is taught in school excited about the craft.
Alexis Alexander is preachin’ it now, a fist raised to the sky, a head of braided hair swinging to one side. She wears a buttoned-up Che Guevara shirt. A metal-studded belt holds up baggy jeans. It’s a warm Saturday in the Columbia Heights neighborhood in the District of Columbia, and Malcolm X Park is waking up to her poetry.
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I want no more push and shove l no more Crips and Bloods l no more animosities brewing up between us l no more empty love l no one else sent up above by a nigga with his finger on the trigger of a gun l I want to love someone and be loved back l but it seems so hard for y’all to understand all of that.
Her teammates on the D.C. Teen Poetry Slam Team nod approval like a congregation giving witness. Alexis and five other high school students have met since the end of March to prepare to face the best youth poets from around the country. They earned spots on the team by besting more than a dozen poets at a local slam. In three days, the team will fly to San Francisco for the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival. No time for celebrating anymore. There are rhymes to refine. Metaphors to mold.
“You need to slow it down,” Isaac Colon, the team’s 20-year-old coach and mentor, tells Alexis. “The judges will be paying attention to every word that comes out of your mouth.”
A poet and a member of a performance group called Spoken Resistance, Colon works for the D.C. WritersCorps, which sends local poets into public schools and community centers here in the nation’s capital to get young people turned on to writing. The organization is sponsoring the trip to San Francisco, where this year more than 30 teams, and some 300 poets between the ages of 13 and 19, will gather for four days of slams and writing workshops. Teams from New York City, Chicago, Honolulu, and even Leeds, England, will be represented.
The event is a testament to the growth of an art form whose in-your-face style bucks the often-staid conventions of poetry readings. A slam isn’t the place for spectators who sit in respectful silence. Audiences shout, stomp, and boo when they disagree with scores. Poets are scored on both performance and writing quality by judges—often local poets or spectators pulled from the audience—who rate them from zero to 10. Slam borrows heavily from the rhythms and wordplay of rap and hip-hop, as well as the stream of consciousness and metaphysical musings of Beat-generation poets. It’s raw, edgy, and delivered with an attitude that says revolution through words is possible.
Slam was born in the Green Mill Tavern, a one-time Chicago speakeasy where Al Capone imbibed, when a construction worker and poet named Marc Smith revolutionized poetry readings with an Uptown Poetry Slam in 1986. Since then, “spoken word” and slam have been growing at informal “open mikes,” cafes, and schools, according to Marc Eleveld, who edited the book, The Spoken Word Revolution: Slam, Hip Hop & The Poetry of a New Generation.
In 1996, the first national youth poetry slam was held in San Francisco. “Def Poetry Jam” premiered on the cable channel HBO six years later, featuring lineups of the nation’s best adult spoken-word poets. The show catapulted the once-underground genre into the mainstream, complete with poet-celebrities whom young performers now follow as religiously as some teenagers track the dramas of Paris Hilton.
But despite its growing visibility, slam remains at its heart an outsider’s art. It’s home to the bohemian white kid who bemoans suburban life; the black kid from the inner city sick of gang killings; the Latina paying respect to a mother who earns a living scrubbing other people’s floors; the Asian teen struggling with sexual identity.
“The people who are put down, and are not heard, pick up a microphone,” Isaac Colon explains after practice.
That’s just what James Kass had in mind when in 1996 he started Youth Speaks, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that sends spoken-word poets and other writers into schools across the Bay area. The organization also hosts the annual international youth poetry slam. This year’s event in San Francisco marks the festival’s eighth year.
“These young poets are like, ‘Yo, here I am, whether you like it or not,’ ” says Kass, 36, an award-winning writer and poet who has performed around the world. “It has expanded the notion of what poetry is and can be.”
Slam has also gotten students, long bored with how poetry is taught in schools, excited about the craft. Kass says he receives about half a dozen calls a week from teachers wanting information about how to integrate spoken word and slam into classes.
Greg Dimitriadis, an associate professor in the graduate school of education at the State University of New York at Buffalo, understands why.
“Young people turn to hip-hop and slam as a kind of out-of-school curriculum,” says Dimitriadis, the author of Performing Identity/Performing Culture: Hip Hop as Text and Lived Practice. “Schools are becoming so test-driven. A standardized curriculum doesn’t have much to do with their lives. This has opened a space where young people can create.”
Meghan Harrigan sits in the airport finishing the final pages of The Great Gatsby. It’s two hours before takeoff to San Francisco, and the junior at Washington’s Duke Ellington School for the Arts has a stomach full of butterflies.
“I’m pretty afraid,” she says. “I didn’t even know slam was this big. I don’t care about winning. I just like people hearing what I’m saying.”
She first got hooked on spoken word when a friend told her about a slam in Austin, Texas. Meghan, 17, listened in over the Internet. “I thought this was some of the most amazing stuff I had ever heard,” she says.
When Meghan won a spot on the local team, her friends were impressed. “My boyfriend thinks he has such a cool girlfriend now,” she says with a laugh. Dad is a harder sell: “He says it’s not poetry. He doesn’t get it.”
The quiet one, and the only white student on a team of African-Americans, Meghan fits in well with her teammates, who joke with her about her shyness and deadpan expression. Her poetry is a departure from her teammates’ more serious social commentary about race and politics. Her “Ode to Dial Soap” is delivered in a singsong, tongue-in-cheek tone.
Women’s soap l soap for women l soap de women l no matter how you put it, soap is no longer unisex anymore l because if a man were to prefer moisturized soap then he wouldn’t be half the man a regular man might be who chooses the dry soap l the soap that hotels use l the soap that seems to leave you with calluses l the soap that people tend to ask …“Did you get sunburned?” l And you guys get to say “No, man l I used Best Western soap.”
Tony Denis is one of the team’s best writers, a serious guy with glasses who has a sharp wit that keeps his fellow poets laughing. A student at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Md., the 17-year-old wrote his first poem in 6th grade, and attended his first open mike as an 8th grader. “I was terrified and shaking, but ever since then, I had a passion for performance,” he says. He was selected to represent the Washington area after impressing the judges with “Godchild,” a poem about a prostitute that he dedicated to a friend.
She sways l one hip after the other l switching up and down backwards alleys l dying fast but still alive l dead chick walking l no attention with regular clothes l so this day she gives her privates a chance to breathe l as high expectations from men hoeing gets her in six feet deep l no strength to stand l she’s found l crawling on her knees l I said no strength to stand l she’s found crawling on her knees.
After a five-hour flight, the team members pull up in a van at the hotel in San Francisco’s Union Square. A quick bite at a Chinese restaurant, and the team is off to a local arts center for the festival’s opening-night welcome on April 20. Poets and coaches fill the auditorium with a buzzing energy.
“All the strong ladies in the house, make some noise!” the emcee shouts, as a DJ at his turntable spins hip-hop grooves all the young poets from around the country know by heart. The poets are dancing, pumping fists in the air, shouting out the names of their cities.
But the time difference is catching up with the D.C. team. Most of them look beat after a long day. Chiston Bacon, a lanky 19-year-old on the team, is still wired, though. He’s a DJ—“Christylez” is his performance name—who is trying to make the jump into the slam-poetry scene.
“A lot of people told me rappin’ is a form of poetry as far as the expressive quality,” he says. He prefers underground rappers to famous ones, who he says rap about a flamboyant lifestyle. “I can’t relate to them,” he says. “I ride the bus every day, and my phone at home doesn’t have call waiting.” Some lines from his poem/rap, “Money Gives You Options,” say it all:
Now once upon a paycheck assigned to me l for two weeks of hard labor making $5.15 l there lived federal, state, and these FICA cats l but I’m breakin’ them off l it’s like sex on first date and never call you tomorrow l so I live with my mom and my status is poor.
Team D.C. is hurrying past funky cafes and Latino grocers in San Francisco’s eclectic Mission District. It’s the first day of slams, which are being held at five venues throughout the city.
Inside the Intersection for the Arts, a local studio, seats are filling up with teams from Chapel Hill, N.C., and San Jose, Calif. Other teams that will compete in the afternoon session are here to check out the competition.
Dominic Geinoski, an Advanced Placement English teacher, coaches the St. Louis team. He started a slam-poetry club at University City High School after students came to him with the idea.
“We are trying to make poetry cool,” Geinoski says. “The kids have a lot to say, and they are told too many times in school to be quiet. We’re creating a community of writers.”
The lights go down, and it’s time to slam. Nina Miller, 16, who carries herself with a quiet intensity, is called up first. “DeeeeeC, DeeeeeC,” her teammates shout as she walks to the stage. The student at St. John’s College High School holds the microphone for a few seconds, head down, silent. Then she looks straight ahead.
I am so much more than a nigger l I said I am SO MUCH MORE than a nigger l my blood streams flow back to African kings and queens l by ways of boroughs west of Queens l where tragedies rip seams l I mean 9’s cause screams that cause the end of our forefathers’ forgotten dreams …
Nina finishes up as strong as she started, and the audience gives her a standing ovation. “Oh, that was sick!” one poet in the audience shouts with respect. The three judges give her a total score of 25.6 out of 30. Up next for the D.C. team is Adell Coleman, 18, a senior at Duke Ellington. She wrote “Deacon Roberts” through tears and bad memories. Now she shares it with strangers.
Telling me to choose the right path as he walks down the wrong one l breath heavy he smiles l he’s like an uncle I’m told l my path to Sunday school l I’m the chosen one l fluffy pink dress l legs dangle as my polished black shoes don’t touch the floor l I love you, he tells me l I love you too, Deacon Roberts l my legs stick to the leather seat l as I try and move closer to the window l the bus hits a bump and he’s already closer l bigger, looking down on me l I don’t love him ...
The room is silent. When she finishes, her teammates embrace Adell with hugs. A few people in the audience wipe away tears. The judges award her a 27.7.
Washington’s Alexis Alexander is up next, and she’s ready with a poem called “What Happened to Church?”
Oh, the spirit of the Lord is here, I feel it in the atmosphere … Ya’ll may think so but I’m sorry to inform you the spirit of the Lord has left the building l Now can I get an Amen! Amen! And an Amen l Amen! … Aye, man … what happened to church? …
The audience is converted. “Bring it!” “Go ’head, girl!” The emcee waits for the judges to tally a score. “For the preacher from D.C. we have a … 29.0!”
At the end of the slam, the D.C. team has higher scores than San Jose and the Chapel Hill team from North Carolina. The Washington students will face San Francisco tomorrow in the semifinals.
“Y’all are so tight,” De’Von Douglass, a 16-year-old on the St. Louis team, tells the D.C. poets after the slam. Lisa Pegram, the program director for the D.C. WritersCorps, who has been helping the team over the past month, is pumped.
“I want you to take how you feel today, bottle it, and tomorrow step up to the microphone and let it out,” she tells the group. “Tomorrow, you battle San Francisco. You’re in their town. Do what you do!”
The next day, D.C. performs well—Tony kills them with “Godchild,” and Meghan has the judges rollin’ with “Ode to Dial Soap”—but San Francisco rides a surge of energy from the crowd to a place in the finals, where its team joins New York City; Chico, Calif.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Ann Arbor, Mich. Nearly 3,000 people pack into the Masonic Auditorium for the finals.
The Chico Speaks Out team has been impressing crowds all week. Tonight, members slam about patriarchy and government crackdowns on peaceful dissidents. And, on this Passover night, they move the crowd with an emotional poem about the Holocaust.
But the Urban Word team from New York comes on strong with a soulful piece about how rappers have sold out and disrespect women. The Youth Speaks San Francisco team has the crowd on its feet railing about California building more prisons than schools. When the numbers are added up after four rounds, New York is the winner. All the poets rush the stage to join in the celebration.
Back at the hotel, Adell, Nina, Tony, Meghan, Christon, and Alexis are disappointed they didn’t reach the finals. But they are happy with how they performed and savoring the moments they have shared. They remember staying up past 2 a.m. reciting their poetry with poets from around the country, amazed at being able to hear poetry everywhere—leaking out of hotel elevators and rooms, floating down hallways, outside on city sidewalks in the cool night air.
It’s been a trip few had dreamed of back home.
“When you live in the city, that’s your whole life,” Adell says. “But when you leave your haven and travel across the country, you see there is more to the world. You see everyone has a story. And everyone’s story is the same, and everyone’s is different.”
Vol. 24, Issue 37, Pages 25-29Published in Print: May 18, 2005, as Outsiders’Art