Poetry slams pit individuals and teams in bouts of spoken word street soliloquies that bring performers and spectators to tears and cheers the way arts and sports events do.
Omaha’s long been home to a thriving adult slam scene, thanks to poet Matt Mason and the Nebraska Writers Collective (NWC), who’ve lately cultivated youths by sending established resident and visiting poets into schools.
All that nurturing comes to a head at the April 15-22 Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry festival and competition, when some 120 students from 12 area high schools battle for poetic supremacy. It’s inspired by a movement based in Chicago, where slam began at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge and where Louder Than a Bomb originated with the Young Chicago Authors collective.
It turns out Omaha’s a spoken word hotbed itself.
“We have one of the best poetry communities in the country, the talent level is really through the roof,” says Mason. “We send a team to the national poetry slam every year and we do pretty well in the competition but mostly people come to respect the folks here as writers who do really interesting work. People from other cities come to the Omaha bouts to see what kinds of things we’re writing about and doing. We’ve got nationally recognized poets like Dan Leamen and Johnmark Huscher.”
South High resident poet Katie F-S coaches the school’s LTaB team.
“We’re lucky in Omaha that as a crossroads for the nation we get a good amount of really quality touring poets coming through here,” says Mason. “We’re able to take advantage of that and make it even more appealing for them by paying them to run workshops or do shows for students.”
World champion slam poet Chris August came in March.
Mason long envisioned a metro youth poetry slam and began laying the groundwork for it with NWC’s work in schools. “We’ve been running a pilot program at South High called Poets on Loan that sends teams of poets into schools to give students a real taste of some of the best in the field,” he says. With help from poet mentors South staged a December slam.
Things “accelerated” when a documentary about Chicago’s LTaB became a national sensation. It found a receptive audience at Film Streams. Support quickly surfaced for an Omaha slam modeled after LTaB Chicago. Poet and LTaB co-founder Chicago Kevin Coval visited Omaha in February at Mason’s invitation to do workshops. Mason joined a group of Omahans attending Chicago’s March slam at Coval’s invite. A local contingent may attend a Chicago summer slam institute.
Why all the buzz? South High poetry slam team members Marissa Gomez and Marissa Duffey say the power of spoken word is as simple as being “heard.” Mason says it provides a safe, communal forum to unleash raw, personal stories and perspectives otherwise denied kids.
“No matter who we are, no matter if you come from a broken background or a well-to-do background, being a teenager is difficult, it’s insane, it’s brutal, it’s all sorts of different things,,” he says. “But something like poetry and this kind of expression of poetry especially is a way of channeling and processing and looking at your world in a different light that makes it come a little bit clearer and easier to deal with or to at least understand.”
“That kind of courage and commitment is necessary for great poetry to flourish,” says Katie F-S.
South High teacher Carol McClellan, who has several of the school’s poetry slam team members in her creative writing class, holds open mic sessions on Fridays. “I’m often amazed at their candor and honesty. It’s been a gradual process as they developed trust and a willingness to open up in the class. From a teacher’s perspective, it’s extremely gratifying to witness.”
Coval says spoken word fills intrinsic needs.
“We as people just have a desire to be heard and to be seen, so we’re providing public space for young people to talk about things they care about – who they are, where they’re from, what are their dreams, what are their fears, their dissatisfactions. It’s a a very simple form, it’s a very ancient process.,” he says. “We’re doing the work of just standing up in a public space and telling stories. People have been doing that since before civilization, so I think this is in some ways a call back to that. It’s a call to reengage young people in their own process of education.”
Coval uses himself to illustrate the medium’s transformational power.
“I certainly was not the best student in the world, but once I started reading and writing on my own and I could follow my own interests I became hyper-literate, and in part that’s what hip hop taught me to do. I think that’s what the movement of hip hop poetry and spoken word is encouraging other young people to do.”
South principal Cara Riggs, whom Coval and Mason give a shout-out for her support of spoken word, sees it as a powerful avenue to engage kids. “The format of a poetry slam is so hip and contemporary to our urban kids. It is a beautiful way for them to express themselves and the audiences are always so amazing in their feedback. The events are contagious to kids…they want more.” Besides, she says, “as a performing arts high school, I just thought it belonged here.”
She says South’s poetry slam had “kids coming out of the woodwork with their own hidden talents and supported by their classmates for their brave expression.”
Mason says schools should embrace spoken word because it promotes “creativity, writing, expression” and it “catches students’ interest and imagination.”
“I think specifically the model of Louder Than a Bomb is about engaging educational institutions around the idea of a team sport in some ways,” says Coval. “And so as opposed to just me as an individual poet coming to a place and reading my poem I’m coming representing a community. You’re going to hear what your city sounds like collectively from the voices of the young people that live here.”
Coval says Omaha like other cities is rife with segregation that divides people and LTaB “is an opportunity to come together across those boundaries that typically keep us from hearing one another.”
Mason joins Coval in suggesting spoken word can promote harmony, saying, “It can unite a city by bringing students from different parts of the community together in one room telling their stories and finding connections.” Youths interacting in this way, says Mason, realize “that no matter what community you’re from you face some of the same struggles and some that are completely different. Gaining an understanding of those struggles can really help you help our community.”
He hopes to grow the spoken word culture and encourage poets to stay here. “This community has so much talent with creative writing and not a lot of outlets. It’s about creating opportunities for students to explore writing in a fun and constructive way and giving established poets an opportunity to earn money as coaches.”
Yes, LTaB is a competition with points and prizes, but it’s mainly about affirmation and bragging rights. The mantra, says Mason, “is bring the next one up. It’s not about getting to the top of the mountain alone, it’s about helping everybody up. It’s a real pleasure to encourage and recognize young poets.”
Round One prelims are April 15 at the PS Collective, 6056 Maple Street. Round Two prelims are April 17-18 at the OM Center, 1216 Howard Street. The Finals are April 20 at the Harper Center Auditorium at Creighton University.
For schedule details visit ltabomaha.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.