Evolution of the high school poet
A network of after-school programs draws teens into the world of spoken-word and slam poetry.
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"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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.