Slamming poets pit their wits against one another
by Nancy Drew
It's 7 on a Tuesday night, and the third floor room above a Milwaukee Avenue storefront is pulsing with energy. A young man dances robot-like to a blasting hip- hop beat; inches away, another boy stares into space and recites something to himself. An eighth-grade girl, seemingly deaf to the noise, studies a paper in her hand, while her mother sits next to her, stuffing cotton into her ears. Across the room, a poet who calls himself Seymour Perspective writes verses on posterboard. As teens and a smattering of adults fill up rows of folding chairs, an emcee takes the mic, and the cavernous room hushes. Another Young Chicago Authors' "WordWide" session of performance poetry is about to begin.
Like other evenings, this one will feature soul-baring, witheringly critical or wildly funny verses shared with sympathetic peers. But there's an edge to the proceedings tonight. This open-mic event is a slam, a judged contest that pits poet against poet for a prize. And every person taking the microphone tonight wants one thing: to win a spot on the WordWide team that will compete against some 20 other school teams in the 3rd Annual Chicago Teen Poetry Slam in February.
A young man named Mike (nearly everyone here goes by first name or pseudonym) approaches the microphone and the room falls silent. He reads an angry poem about an urban child's lost hopes. But there is something defiantly hopeful in the poem's delivery, as if Mike's spoken words are themselves an act of resistance against despair. As he finishes the last line and the crowd cheers, five individuals scattered around the room wave cards in the air like ice skating judges at the Winter Olympics. "8.5!" shouts Krystal, a poet and tonight's emcee, as she reads out the scores written on the judges' cards. "8.7, 9.5, 9.7, 9.9!" A scorekeeper on the sidelines quickly tallies the total.
"46.3!" shouts Krystal. "Give it up for the poet!" The audience does, whooping its approval.
Young Chicago Authors (YCA), is an 11-year-old non-profit devoted to nurturing creative writers. Founded by educator Robert S. Boone and funded by philanthropists, the group offers an array of adult-mentored experiences for teens, from Saturday morning writing classes, to a GirlSpeak workshop for emerging female voices, to a visiting poets program for public schools, to Say What magazine, a forum for students' work.
High school poetry teachers run the Tuesday evening WordWide sessions with a "paper-to-performance" formula: two hours of writing exercises followed by an open microphone session at which students can stand up and speak the words they just wrote. It's an approach that seems to work. Having won Chicagowide competitions in the past, WordWide sent a team of young poets to Ann Arbor, Mich., last year to compete for the first time at the National Youth Poetry Slam. The five-member group returned to Chicago with the first-place trophy.
For the uninitiated, slam poetry is performance poetry, the kind that's delivered orally in the cadences of jazz or hip hop-poetry that's evocative of "spoken word" artists such as Gil Scott Heron, The Last Poets and, more recently, a host of rappers. The slam phenomenon-a sort of talent contest for poets-was a Chicago invention begun by poet Marc Smith in 1985 at the Green Mill Jazz Club in Uptown. The teen slam fostered by Young Chicago Authors is intended to be a less combative permutation of the verbal jousts at the Green Mill.
"Slam poetry is very different from on-the-page poetry," says Alanna Zaritz, an 19-year-old who works as a student teacher for Young Chicago Authors. ""A lot of slam poetry is about performance-screaming and shouting and gesturing with your hands. It doesn't have to be as well- written as a normal poem."
At tonight's event, it is clear that how one delivers a slam poem matters as much as what one says. The poets who follow Mike have distinctive styles. Some display the familiar finger-splayed poses of rappers. Others deliver their words in dramatic monologue-style, like pacing young Brandos. Still others eschew gestures and let the words carry the performance. One of these is a poised, dark-haired 16-year-old girl outfitted in black, who stands stock still and delivers from memory "Thumb Prints on Rose Petals." It is a poem about an 11-year-old girl who is sexually assaulted by an older boy. Some lines are chilling: "...But baby fat was confused with voluptuous"; "Seventeen-year-old moans drowned out sixth-grade cries." The crowd holds its collective breath as she recites the end of the poem.
"Now when boys say I love you She is haunted by nightmares of those words first tainted By the sticky tone of grotesque seduction. So before you dissect this quivering spirit And proceed to judge how she has hesitantly evolved into a shaky adolescence Consider the clumsy thumbprints bruising her blossoms of womanhood Consider that trapped within is an 11-year-old girl Hips swaying awkwardly, slicing through the suffocating blackness Trying to feel sexy to avoid feeling violated."
Judges flash their cards and the young woman smiles at her scores: "9.8, 9.8, 9.7...Give it up for the poet!" shouts the emcee as the girl returns to her seat.
Robert Frost once said, "A poem begins with a lump in the throat, an anger..." Frost described well the process that has brought many of the young people into the room. WordWide group leader and poetry teacher Kevin Coval, who recruits kids from the special poetry classes he teaches in Chicago schools, says the teens' themes are mostly universal ones, though some are distinctly associated with urban life in Chicago.
"They write about interpersonal stuff amongst family, amongst friends, about racism and economic inequality," Coval says. "They deal with the pull of gangs and street life, the economic viability of selling drugs as opposed to working at McDonald's. ... In Chicago right now, the neighborhoods are changing. There has been a process of gentrification where families are being pushed out of the neighborhood they've lived in for the past 10, 15, 20 years, so the kids are facing a sense of displacement. ... Specifically in Chicago kids deal with that. But young people everywhere deal with being misunderstood by an older generation."
The poetry workshops and open mics "give kids an opportunity to develop a writing voice," says a WordWide poetry teacher named Mario, who points out that many of the participants are "A" students in school. "They don't have to wait until they're 25 to come to the conclusion they want to write poetry or fiction. We let them say what they have to say, and they tend to be brutally honest about things, particularly social things." Chicago police, he adds, sometimes criminalize young people, "particularly people of color. So they're coming on their own, without getting credit from school, just because they want to share their story. This is a safe space."
The YCA WordWide slams abide by a set of guidelines. Judges are volunteers from the audience who may or may not have any previous experience critiquing poetry. Poets' performances are scored on a scale of one to 10 by five of these judges. Poets get up to three minutes for a performance, with the poem commencing the moment the poet communicates in any verbal or physical way. And while a performer can go nine seconds over three minutes without penalty, he loses one-half point for every 10 seconds over allotted time. Other rules: No props, costumes, recorded sound, music or beat boxing (making a beat with the voice). No profanity is allowed, or content that is offensive to any group. Above all, a poem must be written only by the person, or group of persons, performing it.
As the slam progresses, it becomes clear that much of the poetry performed tonight has been rehearsed and memorized for the occasion. Near the end of the performances, a poet named Kevin wows the crowd with his second poem of the evening, a diatribe against a teacher who won't call on him, though hishand has been raised and waving in the air for long minutes. In the poem, the teacher finally turns to the boy and says, "Why do I have a feeling that this is another one of your dumb comments? You constantly waste my time. Why don't you just drop out or something?"
The poet speaks the remainder of his piece in an emotional voice, railing against teachers who "singe holes in the esteem of those who need just a little more help than others." The poet addresses himself then to "any teachers in the audience."
"I urge you to understand that the hand you grab the chalk with the hand you grab those red pens with the voices you speak with are over-sized chisels and you must proceed to teach with caution For what you say and what you do is written in stone and if you chisel too hard these minds can crack. "So what don't you understand now ... ?"
The poet pauses for drama before delivering his last line.
"I just wanted to know if I could go to the bathroom."
The crowd roars. The judges flip up scorecards reading 10, 10, 10. Mike, the first performer of the evening, is on his feet, his fist in the air, shouting "Give it up to the poet!" With a perfect score, Kevin claims the first of four spots on the WordWide slam team.
For a few hours this Tuesday evening, poetry has reigned supreme over breakups with boyfriends, family worries, the stress of street life, and test scores. In the slang of slam, poets have kicked rhymes and breathed stories. Seymour Perspective and Alanna head back to CTA trains to tack up their verses. And poetry combatants embrace once more before returning home to fill journals, wordsmith, and practice moves that might win one of the three remaining spots on the slam team.
Somewhere, Robert Frost has a lump in his throat.
In a nutshell: Young Chicago Authors' WordWide's drop-in poetry workshop is open to city and suburban Chicago youth ages 13-19. Workshops are Tuesday afternoons, 4:30-6:30 p.m., following by Open Mic from 7-9 p.m. Location: The Resource, 3rd floor, 1561 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. "Louder than a Bomb," the 3rd Annual Chicago Teen Poetry Slam, is scheduled for Feb. 20-23, 2003. Call Young Chicago Authors for details at (773) 486-4331, or visit www.youngchicagoauthors.org.Nancy Drew is a Chicago writer, co-author of "On Garden Style" (Simon & Schuster), and the mother of two teen boys.