The dozen or so students and three teachers in the choir room at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy sat silently as one teen started her slam poem.
Its title: “An open letter to my abuser, I mean my father.”
By the time she was halfway through the piece she’d written about a man’s sexual abuse of his young daughter, tears streaked her cheeks.
The student kept reading. She was in the middle of an audition, and she wanted to be one of the six girls from the Lincoln Prep slam poetry team who would be chosen that day for a national competition in California this summer.
The school’s team of nine — all girls — had already won a regional slam poetry competition in March at Kansas City’s Gem Theater.
Now the pressure was on again.
The girls had been given a week to write new poems and none had completely memorized her work by audition day. Some read from colorful bound journals, others from their phones.
Each of them took on a social theme such as child abuse, teen suicide, date rape, human trafficking, drug addiction and child sex slavery. They chose subjects they have experience with themselves, through friends or family members.
None of it was pretty or sweet or flowery. It was ugly stuff. Messy. The kind of stuff kids don’t talk about, said school counselor Nyree Smith.
One Lincoln poet recited:
His skin was like barren dusty roads I walk to school.
He had almond shaped eyes that ran in the family
He was my uncle.
His hands that used to cradle me to sleep would soon invade an uncharted region of my maturing waters
Waves not meant for tourists.
“It is amazing to hear about what these kids go through every day and you would never know until you hear their poetry,” Smith said. “They are great at masking it.”
And as tough as their subjects might be, “these girls are not seeking professional help,” Smith said. “This (the slam poetry stage) is their forum.”
Another Lincoln poet:
My thick thighs are the representations of grandma’s Sunday evening cooking.
I’m talking collard greens, fried chicken, macaroni & cheese with corn bread on the sides.
Yes these are the definition of good cooking.
They also represent hard work,
Yes they caught yo eye from a distance,
and You wanted them.
“I feel like this is what poetry is supposed to be about,” said Marjai Neal, 16.
Martin Woods, a senior who used to be a member of the team, agreed. “When I did it I had a lot of life troubles and no one would listen,” he said. “My paper was my audience.”
But pain is not the only ingredient poured into good slam poetry. And getting it right isn’t easy.
Sometimes the hardest part, team members said, is speaking the words out loud and in public.
“This takes bravery,” Erica Wright, one of Lincoln’s slam poetry coaches, tells her team. “It’s nothing to pull on armor, but to tear it down ... well, that takes bravery. To bare your soul like that is brave.”
And then there’s all the hard work to put the slam or the rhythm and the spice into the poetry. The team practices after school every Monday.
“Before I joined the team I was writing what I thought was poetry,” said Lauren Taylor, 16. “But I wasn’t writing spoken word. I was just writing down my feelings. There’s a difference. Spoken word is making the words come to life. It’s how you can really reach out and touch someone’s heart.”
Slam poetry, they said, is getting your words off the page.
“There’s definitely a difference in regular poetry and slam poetry,” said Adrianna Schoonover, 18.
Slam poetry is not about how the words look on the page but rather how the sound of them rolls off the tongue, she said.
“The difference is in the rhythm,” Schoonover said. “Slam poetry is a performance.”
What the girls have learned and what has made them regional winners is that “you can say the same thing in different ways and it will have different meanings,” said Danielle Foster, 17, whose poetry stage name is Foster Child and whose audition piece dealt with a broken relationship.
“When I’m practicing I’m thinking, ‘How can I say this so it makes everyone in the room really feel this?’ ” Danielle said.
First rule, write your own material.
“Everything I spit, I wrote,” Marjai said. “This is personal. It comes from our hearts.”
With their hands raised above their heads, her teammates snapped their fingers fast and repeatedly to show they approved and agreed with her word choice.
Clarity is important. The girls practice their diction. They test it by placing a pencil between their teeth and trying to speak clearly.
“How you say what you say can mean the difference between a score of 10 and a score of 5,” Marjai said.
While competing against other high school teams, the girls have heard poetry “when the content is amazing, but they just didn’t deliver it right,” said Danielle. “It’s like, ‘You had me but you lost me, you know?’ ”
“I feel like if you are writing poetry it just makes it easier to put things into perspective. Things I’ve written about I have experienced myself and the way that you can put that into words to describe to everybody else is just crazy. It just lets you have a different view on everything.”
Slam poetry, said Erika Hall, 18, “gives you an immense appreciation for the English language because it shows you what you can do not only with the words, but with the action and emotion you put behind the words.”
The students say that since they’ve joined the poetry team, they even hear music in a way they never did before.
“I just catch myself listening to certain songs or rap songs and I hear things that make me think, ‘Wow, if this singer did this in like a poetry competition, the scores would be like, straight tens. Like this is really poetry,’ ” said Aisha Arij, 16.
The poetry duet Marjai does with Erika was inspired by a song by Drake, the hip-hop vocalist/rapper. “We were just sitting listening to music and we looked at each other and we were like, ‘This would sound so dope in a poem,’ ” Marjai said. “Music and poetry feed off of each other. Like rap is poetry. Poetry goes into many genres of everything.”
The Lincoln poets said they’re ready to represent Kansas City at the national competition. They’re trying to raise the $3,500 to make the California trip. They held an open mic performance last month and raised a few hundred dollars but still have a long way to go.
Since they won the regional competition, they said, they’ve been getting some added respect around school.
“We are a team,” said India Jane Walker. “I feel like a lot of the kids don’t see us that way. They see us as a club. But we flow like a competitive unit. We are going to competition. We are winning. We are are doing it.”
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