‘Slam. Get heard. Hear. Be happy,’ says one young poet
By Carlina Duan
Calling all Ann Arborites: this is an invitation to listen.
As springtime hits the air, the month of March is primed to bring a rich array of high school voices into the mix. Slam season in Ann Arbor is about to hit the stage and, this year, the city’s youth poetry slams carry additional promise of vibrancy, zest and literary adrenaline.
The Ann Arbor Youth Poetry Slams will feature high school poets from around the Ann Arbor Public Schools throughout March. They were created 13 years ago by Pioneer High School Creative Writing teacher Jeff Kass who describes them as “five nights of unfiltered verbal fuel excavated by some of the most imaginative and creative young people in the country.”
The slams will consist of four preliminary semi-final rounds at Community, Huron, Pioneer, and Skyline high schools, and one final round at The Neutral Zone.
Participating high school poets will perform original works for the audience and will be judged on a decimal scale of zero to ten for each poem. The top poets in preliminary rounds move to the final round and the top six poets in the final round will earn a spot on Ann Arbor’s Poetry Slam Team, which will go on to perform in the Brave New Voices International Poetry Festival in San Francisco this summer.
“It was really striking to me to see kids so passionate about language, and so excited about it,” said Kass, discussing his reasons for starting the slams. “I realized that I’d never been able to engage students to that level of commitment in their writing, so I started thinking that I need to bring poetry in my classrooms.”
‘I realized that I’d never been able to engage students to that level of commitment in their writing, so I started thinking that I need to bring poetry in my classrooms.
– Jeff Kass, Pioneer creative writing teacher who started youth poetry slams 13 years ago
The preliminary slam events will be: Friday, March 4, 7:30 p.m. in the Craft Theater at Community High School; Thursday, March 10, 7 p.m. in the Little Theater at Huron High School; Thursday, March 17, 7 p.m. in the Little Theater at Pioneer High School; and Friday, March 18, 7 p.m. in the Black Box Theater at Skyline High School. All preliminary rounds are free and open to the public. The final round will be held on Thursday, March 24, 6:30 p.m. at the Ann Arbor Neutral Zone. Tickets for finals are $5 for students and $7 for the general public.
Kass said the poetry slams offer growth for many young writers. “Because so many young people are involved, there’s no doubt that it motivates more people to be more involved and take their writing seriously,” he said. “Over the 13 years that we’ve done this, I can think of probably 100 writers that I think the slams have had a significant impact on them and their lives.
“A lot of them have gone on to become teachers, literary organizers, prominent leaders in their community… I think all of them got their start in terms of putting their work out for public consumption in the slams.”
Participating poets can choose their own subjects to write about; they are not limited by any form of censorship. The judging panel consists of Ann Arbor Wordworks members, former slam participants and former team members. Poets are judged on a decimal scale of zero to 10 for each poem, with the highest and lowest scores being eliminated. The top score any poet can receive is a 30.
Kass said although the scoring system can be an obstacle, deterring some students from pursuit of literary passion, he lauds the slams for the opportunities they provide. “I love that right before the slams, a lot of kids want to work so hard on their pieces,” he said. “Watching people read on stage with so much passion is really fun and exciting to watch. Ultimately what’s really exciting is watching these writers progress – the ones who make the slams their starting point, and turn it into something else entirely.”
The power the poetry slams hold helps to cultivate a lifelong love of verse. “For a lot of people, once the bug bites them, they just want to keep writing,” he added.
For many young poets, participating in the slams is not only thrilling, but also a valuable learning experience. Pioneer High School senior Sara Ryan, in her second consecutive year of performing in the slams, said they make her think about presentation.
“Performing in front of a lot of people gives me a lot of confidence and it’s a fun atmosphere to be around – you hear funny poems, you hear sad poems, and you kind of get to know people through their poetry,” she said.
Kass likes the variety of the slams. “I think what’s great about the Ann Arbor Poetry Slams is that there’s no one kind of aesthetic driving the process, so you have all kinds of different poems on all kinds of different subjects,” he said. “You have kids who have really experienced the slams, and are in (them) for their second or third year, and you have other kids who’ve never read a poem in public.
“Everyone gets the same chance. Everyone gets the same love and respect from the audience. It’s a really great opportunity for young people in Ann Arbor to speak in a way that they’re not normally given to speak. “
This year, the slam promises to be one of the most invigorating slams yet. Kass said many of the young poets graduated last year, “so this year, it’s really a wide open field.”
As for competing poets, Kass shares a bit of advice. “I would say you need two really strong poems to get out of the preliminary slams. Work as hard as you can to get your two best poems. Don’t be afraid to get help. Practice your poems, but it’s also really important to write well,” he suggests. “Our judges really care about fresh language and good writing. Don’t rely on clichés; don’t think you can get by with saying something really loud and quickly. You really need to have some insight and some skill with language, so work as hard as you can with your writing, and just go out there and have a good time. Write what you believe in.”
The top six competing poets in the school district will comprise Ann Arbor’s Poetry Slam Team in the Brave New Voices International Poetry Slam Festival. The Festival consists of four to five days of poetry slams, readings, performances, workshops, and community building activities for participating writers. Approximately 50 teams compete in the Festival from around the world.
Pioneer senior Allison Kennedy, a 2010 Ann Arbor Slam Team member and a participating poet in this year’s competition, recounts her time at Brave New Voices as “my happiest moment.”
“I was surrounded by all of these extremely articulate poets who were very ready to start a revolution,” she said. “(There were) 500 excited and motivated young people who (were) completely convinced that they can influence the world.”
Kennedy said the poetry slams add flavor to the occasionally mundane daily high school routine. “I think when I’m just going through the sometimes dull hallways in our school, it’s easy to get sucked up in the apathy, but when I hear someone pour all of their creativity and imagination into something I can’t just say I’m ‘over that’ too easily,” she said. “It really makes me like and appreciate people. Slam. Get heard. Hear. Be happy. That’s the general conclusion I’ve drawn.”
Kass concludes, “I’m looking forward to an exciting slam season. I think we’re going to have a great team this year, and I just love the energy we’re going to have throughout the month of March – young people just putting their pens to the page and creating magic.”
Carlina Duan is the editor of The Optimist, Pioneer High School’s student newspaper. She contributes regularly to the AAPSNews.
Ann Arbor Youth Poetry Slams
Ann Arbor high school students are featured in five nights of competition including preliminary rounds (free and open to the public):
- Friday, March 4, 7:30 p.m., Craft Theater at Community High School;
- Thursday, March 10, 7 p.m., Little Theater at Huron High School;
- Thursday, March 17, 7 p.m., Little Theater at Pioneer High School;
- Friday, March 18, 7 p.m. in the Black Box Theater at Skyline High School.
Finals: Thursday, March 24, 6:30 p.m. at the Ann Arbor Neutral Zone
Tickets for Finals: $5 for students and $7 for the general public.