Evolution of the high school poet

A network of after-school programs draws teens into the world of spoken-word and slam poetry.

By , / Correspondent

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    Jah-Don Hart edits one of his poems on his cellphone. Many young poets use their phones as ‘notepads’ to refine their work. Jah-Don started competing in poetry slams last year.
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    Jah-Don Hart performs one of his poems. Jah-Don started competing in poetry slams last year.
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    Ishmael ‘Ish’ Islam recited a poem at a slam that featured teen poets in the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe in New York.
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    Jah-Don Hart works on a poem in a Manhattan park.
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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.

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.

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"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.

"Spoken-word and slam poetry are so alive right now," Hicks says. "A teenager might look at a sonnet, for instance, and think that form is dead. With spoken-word, she can have a stake in the movement, she can make a mark in it, she can say something that hasn't been said. The energy is there."

Still, Hicks believes that all poets should have a grounding in traditional poetry, and on a recent spring afternoon, while students flowed in and out of a second-floor classroom, chatting on computers or updating their Twitter feeds, she and her students are immersed in a master class on form. On the agenda: meter, rhyme scheme, device, simile, alliteration, metaphor.

Working counterclockwise around the table, Hicks asks each student to read from a recently composed poem, providing the work adheres to some central, consistent poetic form. She encourages them to steer away from billowy free verse and carve out a pattern, a rhythm – to juggle the poem, in her formulation, "from hand to hand, while you wait for the idea to cool into a workable, recognizable shape."

The results are spectacular. Jah-Don collects verses from four of five previously written compositions and uses them to cobble together a single breathless stanza of rhyme. Melissa Butler, a 17-year-old who will enter her senior year in the fall, starts out by singing a Madonna tune – "Like a Virgin" – and uses the song to segue into a lesson on the importance of teen abstinence:

See, guys like it fast,
but too bad, my name isn't Wendy
and there is no dollar menu
and I can't respond to
"Yo ma can I holla at chu?"
because I'm not ya mama
and you're right next to me so you  said "Yo" just for drama.
Boy, don't bother.

Melissa clearly revels in the performance. She plays her audience like an instrument, listening for the hoots of encouragement and raising her pitch accordingly. When the poem is finished, she takes a mini-bow and extends one hand toward the ceiling.

Unlike Jah-Don, Melissa has been writing poetry since she was a small child. Although she confesses she doesn't necessarily "need" the workshop – she says she'll be writing poetry for the rest of her life, no matter what – she appreciates the feedback of her peers. "I've seen people come in, and yeah, their poetry is good, but watch them transform," she says. "I've seen that in myself, too. It's an inspiration thing. You hear it, you write it, you want to be around it."

Michael Cirelli, the executive director of Urban Word NYC, says the Wordshops, which are staged at youth centers around the city, are popular precisely because of that community vibe.

"We try to be a student-centered organization," Mr. Cirelli says. "We try to counter the bad experiences a child might have had in the school system or in society at large – we try to counter that idea that children should be seen and not heard. We say it's OK to come from the hip-hop generation, and we meet the students where they're at in their development as writers. We honor their voice."

A few days after the Crown Heights workshop, Jah-Don, who recently moved with his family from Brooklyn to the Jamaica section of Queens, is at home, working on a new batch of poems. In recent months, he has also begun work on a science-fiction novel. "I've had the idea forever, but now I have the courage, and the vocab, to work on it," he says.

Over the summer, he plans to compete in a few local slams – "you know, to get my name out there" – and then, in the fall, he will begin classes at a local community college. Jah-Don doesn't know what he'll major in, but he's leaning toward a double major: Philosophy and English Literature.

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