Evolution of the high school poet
A network of after-school programs draws teens into the world of spoken-word and slam poetry.
On a humid day this spring, long after the last school bell of the day has rung, 17-year-old Jah-Don Hart is sitting at a table in a classroom at a Crown Heights recreation center surrounded by a gaggle of friends and acquaintances, spitting out a stanza of improvised verse. Poetry is not something that Jah-Don has always loved. Not that he had anything against it – his dad is a poet – but for many years, Jah-Don preferred the solace of a good pair of wraparound, noise-canceling headphones. Now he writes poetry in every spare moment, sometimes recording his thoughts on paper and sometimes typing the verses into the notebook application on his BlackBerry.Skip to next paragraph
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He is a natural poet. His mentor, Trish Hicks, once told him that "there's nothing you need you don't have already," which sounded – let's face it – ridiculous at first, but the more Jah-Don thinks about it, the more he understands what she meant. He has found his best poems are colloquial and conversational, but slavishly metered; they roll off his tongue in fluid, supple bursts. "Lyrical seizures in leisure tease poetic diseases into exponentially multiplying," the teen recites now, tapping the tabletop with one fingernail to maintain a steady beat. "Potentially for the core of assembling emotional trembling."
There is a moment of silence, and then one of the kids to his right howls, and soon the whole crowd – eight or nine students, all poets themselves – is howling, too. Jah-Don pulls the brim of his blue "X-Men" ball cap over his face, but it's no use: His smile is six yards wide.
"Back in the day, I'd have an idea or a couple of lines, but I'd keep them to myself," he recalls later. "I'd figure that no one would want to hear it. But now everything I go through comes out through the poetry, and I think I surprise people. They didn't know I had it bottled up inside me."
For Jah-Don, the catalyst has been an after-school class called the Brooklyn Wordshop, which is held every week at St. John's Recreation Center, a faded brick cube not far from the project houses of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Every week, a rotating roster of aspiring poets gathers at the rec center to trade poems and ideas and to learn from Ms. Hicks, a poet and an instructor with a nonprofit called Urban Word NYC.
Urban Word is best known as the organizer of the citywide Teen Poetry Slam. (Jah-Don was a semifinalist this year.) Every year, six poets are plucked from the tournament and asked to represent New York at the Brave New Voices national finals, which will be held on July 23 at the Sabon Theater in Los Angeles. But the limelight isn't for everyone, and the bulk of Urban Word's work involves dozens of small-scale, craft-driven workshops such as the one in Crown Heights.
"The slams are these big, glitzy moments, but that's only a tiny portion of the experience that any given poet will go through," says Hicks. "The rest of the time it's the writing, it's the workshops, it's the coming together, it's all the stuff that leads to those three minutes on the stage."
One of the major focuses of the Brooklyn Wordshop in Crown Heights is slam poetry, a freewheeling, fast-flowing spoken-word style, intended to be performed in front of an audience, often with some sort of a cappella aside. Slam poetry has achieved a good deal of ballast in recent years – slam artists have been featured in a popular HBO documentary series, "Brave New Voices," and in 2009, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama hosted a slam event at the White House. The form shares much of its musicality with rap and pop, and, for that reason, it has tremendous appeal to young poets, who might identify more with the hip-hop artist Nas than William Shakespeare.