In the hybrid realm of slam poetry, where free verse, theater, oral storytelling and forensics converge to make a verbal gumbo, personal expression rules.
Impassioned teen anguish stirs the pot to create a heady brew during the Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) Great Plains Youth Poetry Festival. After weeks of competition, the team finals throw down April 17 at 7 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center.
Teams competing in the finals are: Millard South, Lincoln North Star, defending champion Lincoln High and Waverly.
Individual finals take place April 26 in Lincoln.
The events are free but donations are accepted.
On the heels of nurturing the local adult slam poetry community and inspired by LTAB Chicago, the Nebraska Writers Collective (NWC) launched its youth festival in 2012. In that short span the fest’s found a niche at area schools, growing from 12 to 19 to 32 participating teams.
NWC director Matt Mason, who’s led Neb.’s team at the National Poetry Slam, says as more schools have gotten involved from urban and rural locations the work’s broadened.
“You have so many different people and voices and experiences. There is such a diversity of subject matter. You go to a bout and you see four high schools putting up teams, all with different experiences. Some have certain styles, some are kind of all over the place.
“You get poems talking about things in the news today as well as poems about dating, spurned love, successful love, conflicts, being bullied, racism, sexism. You get the universal themes brought in and wrapped up in very personal stories.”
Omaha Central High English teacher Deron Larson, who sponsors the Eagles’ LTAB team, says the work isn’t just about releasing angst or speaking to hard things.
“A couple members on our team have gone out of their way to make people laugh,” he says. “At a recent bout one poet waxed poetic about her collection of socks. There’s a full gamut of things they write about.”
Diversity also shows up in the teams’ composition, where gays and straights, jocks and geeks, are respresented.
“It’s fantastic to see how these teams of very different students come together” to collaborate and communicate, Mason says.
Paid teaching artists hired by the Collective serve as coaches. Sponsoring classroom teachers recruit and facilitate and in some cases co-coach.
World champion adult slammer Chris August from Baltimore, Md. is NWC’s first resident teaching artist. He’s come to appreciate what makes the area poetry scene so vital and LTAB a hit here.
“The Omaha and Lincoln scenes have always been open and embracing and are among the places that put the most energy into fostering their youth poetry scenes. When I think about what an art form like slam poetry can bring to young people, the word I immediately think of is ‘permission.’ Twenty years ago I was a weird, artsy teenage boy in a rural high school with virtually no diversity. Back then, the idea of a safe and empowering outlet for voices of any kind speaking on any truth at all would have seemed impossible.”
Mason says, “I think this is a great outlet for anybody, especially for teenagers, to process what they’re going through and to give voice to it. They’re permitted to have a venue to get this across rather than just bottling it up and dealing with it.
“It’s about teaching these folks to write and to get this performance experience and to be comfortable in front of people and to vocalize what they’re feeling.”
Everyone associated with LTAB hails the supportive environment at practices and bouts. At the “friendly tournament” poets celebrate other poets, even those on opposing teams. The safe space created by LTAB is particularly important because students often expose their most intimate, vulnerable selves in the work.
Mason says the slam form lets students articulate personal issues weighing on them, including gender and sexual identity issues.
“It is maybe this more than any other element that allows slam poetry to so lovingly respond to a need so present among so many young people,” says August.
NWC education director Andrew Ek says the Collective has done “a lot of deliberate work making sure our students feel like their stories, ideas and experiences are being honored,” adding. “A lot of that involves letting them read and not getting in the way of that process.”
“It’s a very positive space,” says Bellevue West 10th grader Ari Di Bernardo, a first-year participant. “No one feels like an outcast because that’s not what LTAB is about. It’s about connecting through this very beautiful thing we do. For me it’s the feeling of belonging. Like I finally have a safe place to just open up and give up all the feelings I’d been harboring. I can be honest. I’m not afraid to say what I need to now.”
“It’s uplifting to have everybody there have your back,” says Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln senior Francisco Franco. “The feeling is just warmth and good vibes. It is a competition but everybody’s there to support you, nobody’s there to put you down. Of course, there’s scores but it’s your words, your poems, so you can listen to the scores or believe in yourself. I choose to go up there and to have as much fun as I can.”
“It’s good to be in a competitive environment where everybody roots for everybody instead of against everybody,” says Franco’s teammate, Chanel Zarate.
Matt Mason says it’s not just the high energy, communal love-in that gives LTAB a following but the work itself.
“Yeah, people are yelling and cheering for poets, but the poems are also interesting, funny, beautifully put together. It exceeds your expectations of teen poetry. These kids are smart, creative. It would not surprise me if a lot of these poems get published in magazines or eventually books.”
Central High teacher Deron Larson is impressed by how much work his students put into making poems as powerful as they can be, doing draft after draft, all under the guidance of teaching artist Greg Harries.
“They become invested in words in a way I don’t get to observe every day in the classroom. They make a commitment that goes beyond doing homework a teacher assigns. They make their own homework and just conquer it and take it 10 steps beyond where they thought they were going to go.
“The mentoring poets that duck into my classroom and share their love for words really touch the students in a way I can’t do. As much as I love words there’s a process over the course of the year where they get tired of hearing the same thing I have to say. If a 20something comes in they’re much closer to my students’ experience. The message carries differently and then the students just run with it.”
Larson’s pleased slam poetry has found a footing in schools but he’s not sure it would benefit from being a formal academic program.
“If we put it into a curriculum it almost feels like we might change it an elemental way. As an after school club and extra that definitely deserves our support it feels like it might work better. If we try to write it into lessons I think there’s a possibility we might kill something that’s so vibrant right now.”
NWC artists also work with youth at a Lincoln juvenile detention center. Audio recordings of these youths’ poems will play at the finals to allow “their voices to be heard,” Mason says.
For festival details, visit ltabomaha.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.