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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.
"Like any social justice issue that I be talking about, people tell me that I come across as the angry black man, when I'm talking about topics that I'm passionate about," Powell says with a laugh.
Powell, a short 15-year-old from Bowie, Md. in Prince George's County, 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," he explains. "You know, that family support. And so we take each other to levels that we didn't even know we could take it to, you know?"
Learning life through poetry
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 writing and performance.
"If you can remember back to high school, it didn't always feel like a safe environment," Tucker says. "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 creative individuals ready to share this stuff, it's really amazing; it's something outside of the lived experience of a high school."
One Sunday, in a small room at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street, Tucker warms up the crowd.
"Y'all feeling good? "If y'all ready for a poem, say yeah!"
The crowd is made up of aspiring teenage poets, family members, and friends. 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.
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," Hill says, "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.
Healing through poetry and a community
Poet Sarah Browning is the director of Split This Rock. "Poets always need community, no matter who they are and how they write," she says. "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 active members of our greater community."
Eric Powell says writing honest poems can be painful, and being a part of a team can help you fight through that pain.
"It's cool if you're making pieces for yourself, just to vent, like a private journal or a diary," Powell says, "But if you're going through some real stuff, some heavy stuff, it's good to surround yourself with some positive people, and that's what you have in the D.C. Youth Slam team."
You can see some of the area's best young poets on Saturday evening at the 2013 DC Youth Slam Team Grand Slam Finals. That'll be from 4-6 pm at the GALA Hispanic theatre in Columbia Heights.
Jonathan's story was informed by WAMU's Public Insight Network. It's a way for people to share their stories with us and for us to reach out for input on upcoming stories. For more information, click this link.
[Music: "Slam (Album Version - Edited)" by Onyx from Boom Box Flava]
Photos: Poetry Slam