It's a Slam, Sam, and Couth for Youth, So Listen and Learn, Then Take a Turn

SAN FRANCISCO -- It's a warm Saturday afternoon at Borders and hip-hop music is blaring on the crowded 4th floor.Some girls greet one another slapping hands, others are muttering to themselves. Jennifer Robles, 17, sits scribbling away furiously -- she always leaves her poems to the last minute, she says, because she writes better under pressure.All these people are getting ready for a Youth Poetry Slam.Robles, who was in last year's slam, participates "to get the message out -- let people know how you feel inside from a youth perspective." She wrote poetry before, but says that the slams have made her less afraid. "You get different reactions," she says, "Some people say it's great. Sometimes they talk down to me. That just makes me stronger. " In a slam, poets read their work in front of an audience and are scored by judges. This slam is sponsored by WritersCorps, a national organization that works with at-risk kids from 6-21 to improve their writing skills, critical thinking and confidence.All the seats are filled and after a welcome, the three teams -- all girls -- start. There are poems about flying, books, a paycheck, about family and politics. The tone ranges from funny to melancholy to angry. One girl reads a poem about a woman with a Coach bag in one hand and an espresso in another bumping into her followed by one where she declares her sexuality cannot by classified. The girls clap and cheer for one another and the audience responds by yelling out support.Asefa Subedar and Sadaf Minapara, both 14, have been in WritersCorps classes for 3 years. Minapara's poem about Indian stereotypes brings down the house and gets perfect scores of 10 from all 5 judges, as does one of Subedar's poems about her grandmother. Subedar says she likes writing for itself, but especially important to her is the feedback from the class and at the slams."With each poem you are telling a story. Afterwards we talk about it and talk about our culture. Then I think of another poem É it's a story about your life and where you come from. Everyone for me has a story. "Janet Heller, the WritersCorps Project Manager, is not surprised at the popularity of poetry slams with kids and audiences. "They give kids an opportunity to be heard and not assumed. It lets kids say who they are in their own voice and form."The director of Youth Speaks, James Kass, says youth poetry is changing the art form. Despite the form, he says, "competition is really de-emphasized. The kids have less ego and more interest in cultural exchange and connecting with their peers. They've re-energized the whole scene."When he first started going into high schools in 1996, Kass says, "we would ask 'who's a poet?' and one or two kids would raise their hands. Now we get a hundred kids raising their hands."Kass attributes this change to hip-hop with its emphasis on word play, national poetry month, big poetry displays in bookstores and programs like Youth Speaks and WritersCorps in high schools.A three-time National Slam champion himself, Russell Gonzaga, a WritersCorps teacher, believes poetry can save lives. Once a gang member, Gonzaga started hanging out with poets in San Francisco and sneaking into bars for poetry readings.He feels his job gives him an opportunity to do what poets did for him -- show another way. He sees poetry as a way to confront anguishing issues and to gain some objectivity. Gonzaga also writes literary poetry but he says the slams are much more accessible and immediate and that he likes the feeling of performing his work. "There is a form of love when you get in front of people. You get validation and appreciation through the cheers and the scores."Astrian Cael, 17, one of Gonzaga's students, was in her first slam this year. "I'm trying to make people feel me," she says. "Writing poetry lets me get some stuff off my chest. If I get in a bad situation, I try and write about it instead of arguing with people."Young people's poetry involves more than slams. Isaias Rodriguez, 22, has created "Poetry Television." Rodriguez himself is an artist, not a poet, but recognizes the power of poetry and feels the oral tradition deserved respect. Rodriguez shot pilots for Poetry Television in the fall and is currently working on a weekly half-hour show featuring audience participation.April 8, each team will send two representatives to the semifinals at Somar Art Gallery in San Francisco. The two winners at this event will go on to represent San Francisco at the National WritersCorps Slam in Washington D.C.A separate event, the National Youth Slam will be hosted in San Francisco on April 22 at the Regency Theater.

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