As the Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Poetry Festival draws to a close after weeks of preliminary bouts and last Sunday’s semi-finals, it appears slam poetry is a new outlet for that rite-of-passage known as adolescence.
The 2013 team finals pitting defending champion Duchesne, Lincoln North Star, Lincoln High and Omaha Central are April 12 at 7 p.m. in the Hixson-Lied Auditorium at Creighton University's Harper Center. The event is free and open to the public.
Poets serve as coaches of participating teams from public and private, inner city and suburban schools and community organizations.
"I love the mix of different schools and geography we have represented," says Omaha poet and festival director Matt Mason.
He also loves how slam poetry brings together cool kids and nerds. "There's the football player and the chess player and the golf kid, all lined up on the same team helping each other,” says Mason. “Teachers report this is an approach to poetry that reaches students not reached very much in classes. Asking them to write and perform and tell their stories really opens something up in them and makes them appreciate what's happening at school rather than sitting there with a bad look on their face."
Teams prime themselves for a season of poetry concentration.
"We treat this as if it were a sports activity at a school where teams start practicing, getting ready for competition, doing workshops and scrimmages in the fall, and then there's the big tournament (festival) in the spring," he says.
There are scores and standings but Mason says it's more a celebration of creatively expessing ideas and feelings.
Duchesne team member Gina Keplinger repeats a festival slogan "the point is the poetry, the point is the people," adding, "Poetry is bigger than stages and pages and microphones."
The often achingly intimate poetic reveries explore love and loss, identity issues, social woes, and everything human. Westside team member Lia Hagen’s “Inappropriate” is a satirical critique of gayphobia. Lincoln North Star team member Shatice Archie’s “My Two Inch Thick Mattress” is about homelessness.
"The thing that continually impresses me is the way the students so directly and honestly address the most challenging issues in their lives...nothing is out-of-bounds or too personal for them," says Westside and Central coach Greg Harries.
The fest is put on by the Mason-led Nebraska Writers Collective, which sends poets into area schools. When a documentary profiling a Chicago youth slam poetry competition caused a buzz here he rode that impetus to organize the first LTAB Omaha slam in 2012. Twelve teams competed then. The field grew to 19 teams this year, for him a signal of slam poetry's growing popularity.
"I think more and more it is getting into the culture. It wasn't just the movie that got kids onto slam poetry teams. YouTube made more people aware of it. What we did last year created a kind of momentum, so that we've got students trying to get LTAB teams into their schools because they've got friends on a LTAB team. So it's spreading now from the kids themselves. They are the best advocates because they're excited about it and their friends see how excited they are."
Slam's competitive aspects are real but not paramount. Judges award points for individual and team performances. Performers with the highest cumulative marks keep advancing. Audiences are encouraged to express their appreciation and do so with applause, finger snaps, cheers. Mason's impressed that competitors don't seem as caught up in the winning or losing as they do in the shared experience.
"What's really exciting for me is to see how these students support each other and support other teams. They're cheering for their own team because it's a competition but when somebody from another team does something they like they're the first ones on their feet.
“These kids just want to see good stuff and so they get excited when they see it."
Keplinger says, "Being cheered on, complimented and genuinely congratulated by poets who were not members of my team was a welcome surprise."
"There's a competition but there's also a recognition and acceptance of each other's talents," says Lincoln High English teacher Deborah McGinn. "The camaraderie is based on words and language. The energy is just sky high."
Mason's enthused the fest is growing the state's poetry community.
"We've held poetry slams for students for years in the area and they've been decent, we've seen some good work, but it hasn't had anywhere near this level of talent and just really polished work. I mean, the talent level is just through the roof. I think that goes back to our coaches working with schools for months, not just coming in and doing a one-off workshop.
"A fair amount of our coaches are coaching a team for the second time. I think the work shows that these kids are growing and really speaking about issues the audience responds to and doing it in a way that really brings them alive."
The individual finals are April 21 at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, For details, visit ltabomaha.org or www.facebook.com/ltabomaha.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.