MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Sticking with our arts theme, we're gonna transition now from visual arts to poetry. And I don’t know about you, but when I think about teamwork, poetry isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind. I mean, so often, poems are so intensely personal, right? They're something to be written, and read on your own. But as Jonathan Wilson tells us, that's not the case for members of the D.C. Youth Poetry Slam Team.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
Adolescents and all the changes and personal growth that come with it, can be excruciating.
MR. ERIC POWELL
I'm Eric Powell. I'm from PG County, Bowie, Md.
Eric Powell is sitting in front of three poetry coaches interviewing to be a part of the D.C. Youth Poetry Slam Team. He's articulate, but nervous.
Anything, like any social justice issue that I'm really passionate about, like people have told me that I might come across as like the angry black man, when I'll be talking about certain topics that I'm very passionate about.
Just watching the passion, nervous energy and heartbreak that so many teenagers wear on their sleeves, can be cringe inducing. But it's also what can make watching them try to harness all those things in a performance, exhilarating. Eric performs a poem for the panel.
Have you ever felt nostalgia for a home you've never been to? For lips you've never kissed? As if home would never be able to embrace you in the midst of your own self doubt. Have you ever felt so far away from self, so far away from her?
Powell, a short 15-year-old, stands straight as a rod as he recites his poem. He doesn't gesture, and his eyes remain closed most of the time. His performance skills aren't yet as compelling as his writing. He's already been on the team for one year, and is applying to return for another. He says being around other poets also in the process of discovering what their words can do, is powerful.
That encouragement, and that family pushing is there, you know, that family support. And so we take each other to like, levels that we didn't even know we could like take it to, you know?
One of the panelists listening to Powell's poem is Jonathan B. Tucker. Tucker grew up in Crofton, Md. and has been writing and performing poetry for 10 years. He's now the Youth Programs Coordinator for Split This Rock, the arts and social activism collective that runs the youth slam team. He's coached the team for the past 2 years and says it's about more than just writing and performance.
MR. JONATHAN B. TUCKER
If you can remember back to high school, I remember when I was in high school, it didn't always feel like a safe environment. There was always somebody ready to judge you for something that you chose to do. And so bringing a bunch of teenagers together to share their personal stories, their creative writing in a team atmosphere, and to create such a supportive network of young, creative individuals ready to share this stuff, it's really amazing. It's something outside of the lived experience of a high school.
MR. JONATHAN B. TUCKER
Y'all feeling good?
If y'all are ready for a poem, say yeah.
If you ain't playing around, say, oh, yeah.
You're about to get some poetry.
The crowd of aspiring teenage poets, family members, and friends watch as a Sunday show, held at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street. Sitting in the row of upcoming performers facing the crowd is Thomas Hill. He's a sophomore at Magruder High School in Montgomery County, and goes by the name "Vocab" on stage.
MR. THOMAS HILL
I was always one of six other kids who sat in a bare classroom, Mommy can't risk losing her job, and Daddy won't share his corner with nobody, not even his own son. He's too proud of his pavement, he polishes it with his smoky spit and the soles of $200 Jordans. And I couldn't get a new pair of shoes and my ankles depended on it. My father taught me.
Hill is auditioning to be on next year's slam team, but he says it took some time for him to get used to the idea of sharing his poetry with a team.
I wouldn't tell anybody that I wrote poetry because I didn't want to get teased. And then I came to a Split This Rock event, and Jonathan broke me out of my shell.
For so many of us, Thomas Hill's first experience with poetry, solitary, personal, isolating, is the image that sticks. We think of Emily Dickinson locked in her bedroom. But at a performance like this one, it's easy to see why the team concept helps budding poets grow. Poet Sarah Browning is the director of Split This Rock.
MS. SARAH BROWNING
Poets always need community, no matter who they are or how they write. And some are very solitary, but others, like myself, I've always worked best even if I'm not in a formal team, but in a community of ideas and of active members of our greater community.
Eric Powell says writing honest poems can be painful, and being part of a team can help you fight through that pain.
I mean, it's cool if you're making pieces for yourself, just to like to vent, like a private journal or a diary or something, but to have those people surround you, because if you're going through some real stuff, some heavy stuff, it's good to surround yourself with positive people, and that's what you have in the D.C. Youth Slam Team.
I'm Jonathan Wilson.
You can see some of the area's best young poets Saturday night at the 2013 DC Youth Slam Team Grand Slam Finals. The event will go from 4-6 pm at GALA Hispanic theatre in Columbia Heights. To find more information and to see clips of some pretty amazing spoken word poetry from local high schoolers, visit our website, metroconnection.org. Oh, and we should note, this story is one that came to us through our Public Insight Network, which we mentioned earlier. And you can get more information about that at metroconnection.org/pin.
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