5 Poets: Youth Speaks Participants Speak Up

"When I perform poetry, I can’t really see anybody. I feel like I’m on top of this huge mountain, screaming at the top of my lungs, my heart tearing open..."
Charlie Bethel remembers the final night of the 2001 Youth National Poetry Slam in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That weekend, 3500 people turned out to watch twenty-five youth teams, and a thousand of them are in the audience for the finals, booing loudly. “The judges were so bad and inconsistent, the scores might have come from Jupiter,” says the nineteen-year-old Bethel. “The kids didn’t care who won -- it wasn’t the point. So they never tallied the scores up. And the winners were never announced.” But, he says, it was a great experience anyway.

I was interested in Charlie’s story because just a week earlier I had attended the adult National Poetry Slam in Seattle. Sure, there had been lots of love and great poetry in Seattle. But even as a spectator, I had sensed petty internal politics -- the inevitable effect, perhaps, of putting any large group of adults together. (At the 2000 adult nationals, for instance, a team was disqualified for planting judges in the audience.)

The lack of politics in the youth poetry circuit is what drew me to start attending open mics and slams this summer in San Francisco. It wasn’t long before I discovered Youth Speaks. At the open mics they host, the outpouring of support and love seems unconditional -- the more anxious and inexperienced the reader, the more wild the applause and cheering of the audience tends to become.

One of the first organizations in the country to support spoken word and slam poetry for youth, Youth Speaks, was founded in the San Francisco Bay Area. The group organized the first teenage poetry slam in 1996; in 1999, the organization expanded to New York, where it currently runs programs in all five boroughs. A long-time performance poet, Bethel was a member of the New York team at the Youth Nationals last April. He is also one of the young poets whose talent blew me away at the open mic I attended in late July. I interviewed five young Youth Speaks poets this summer. Rather than water down their voices, I’ve presented their interviews oral-history style -- to let their words speak for themselves.


AYOKA STEWART, 16, served on the Youth Speaks advisory board and completed an internship with the organization last summer.

"I’ve been writing since I’ve known how to write. I started writing poetry during my sophomore year, but I’ve always written creative fiction about the things going on around me. I find it harder to write about things I haven’t experienced, which I’ve struggled to work on over the past two years. I also don’t write really aggressive pieces. Most of them are really emotional and kind of floaty.

Workshops really help to keep me going. A lot of times, when you’re just at home, you can’t really get it together, or you just end up writing about the same thing. Aya de Leon [a Bay Area slam poet and performer] gave me a little challenge. She wants me to write a piece that starts off, “I am the dopest emcee ever.” I have part of it done already, but I have a feeling it’s going to take a long time. Performing is fun, but personally, I don’t really care about the competition aspect of slam poetry. I prefer to emcee [i.e., host the event] or be a featured reader rather than compete to feel better than other people. It not that I don’t like performing, but emceeing and featuring allows me to showcase other people. I’ve been doing it for so long, so I really want other people to get on the mic.

From what I’ve heard, adult slams are a lot more competitive, and the poetry is not as good. Though this year, a lot of poets really wanted to make the team -- you could feel it in the air. It made it less enjoyable. At the 2000 finals, we had so much fun. We were sitting right in front of the mic; when poets got off the stage, we’d jump up and gave them a hug. In 2001, though, the stage was separated from the audience. The poets were backstage, instead of in the
"I don’t always bring my parents to open mics. Because sometimes they hear things in my poetry, get scared, and want to have “talks” with me afterwards."
audience. It felt more formal, like a concert. But it was still a really positive event. I get constant support from my family, but I don’t always bring my parents to open mics. Because sometimes they hear things in my poetry, get scared, and want to have “talks” with me afterwards. If I know they’re going to be there, I don’t read certain things. I want to be able to have the freedom to read what I want to read. Youth Speaks is very free-speech oriented. When we visit certain schools, they don’t like us to use profanity or sexual content in the poems we perform; some times, we’ve had to edit our poems on the spot.

At a Youth Speaks event, the mindset is about being open to everything. At our open mics, poets come from Marin, San Jose [and other parts of the Bay Area]. Everything is chill -- it’s not so much about who’s the tightest poet, but who has something to say."

Charlie and his brother Willy
CHARLIE BETHEL, 19, has lived in the the Bay Area since middle school. He now attends college in New York City.

"I’d heard about Youth Speaks while I was living in the Bay Area. But it wasn’t until I’d moved out to New York for college that I got involved with the organization. This last year, I made it onto the New York team and went to the Nationals. Whenever we weren’t on stage, we were all out together freestyling, sharing poetry on the streets, every day.

That’s the kind of connection and spirit that I hope stays in slam poetry. Competition is just the hook to bring people in; hopefully, the spirit of the poetry will be able to overcome it. Youth Speaks really encourages kids to bring their poetry up, instead of putting their poetry down. It’s really nice to work with peers, because you’re all working your way up together.

The poetry slam is a fresh, hot art form. Slams are growing exponentially, hitting young crowds, pulling kids in who would normally hate poetry. It’s really part of hip-hop, which is one of its major appeals. When you see someone who can just speak it, whether it’s fast, rhyming lyrics or slower and more eloquent -- there’s so much power in that. When people exhibit that much power, you want to try doing that yourself, and having some of that power for yourself. Kids have always been keeping journals. But when you share that, you have so much more potential for change."

THELMA FLORES, 20, is a self-described "teacher, preacher, actress, singer, poet, and performer."

"When I perform poetry, I can’t really see anybody. I feel like I’m on top of this huge mountain, screaming at the top of my lungs, my heart tearing open, and the state of my soul controlling what I’m saying. It’s just like….trrrrrrrrr! And then the crowd is just like….hahhhh! It’s a rush.

I started getting involved with Youth Speaks about four months ago. I was at a rehearsal for a play. There was someone putting up flyers for the Youth Speaks open mic next door -- Bamuthi -- who invited me to come by. And [the environment there] was just amazing. With Youth Speaks, everyone is completely open-minded, and so conscious about what’s going on in the city, the community, the society we live in. They don’t put you down for what you say. There aren’t topics you can’t talk about. They love you for doing it, for getting up there. Everyone gives such love. It’s so positive.

I’ve been through so much struggle. My grandmother left my mom in Nicaragua, dying of hunger. The whole struggle of my family -- physical abuse, mental abuse, escaping abuse, marrying into abuse. I lived in the projects for thirteen years. I’ve seen people who are just dead, walking around, their eyes filled with so much pain.

But one day, I said to myself, I don’t want to write about this pain. So I tried to write something nice about my grandma. The piece was called "My Grandmother’s Eyes." It ends with the phrase: 'the truth will heal the wound.' Because I really believe, in the end, we have to face our pain and learn from it. I got this tiger tattoo on my arm when I was eighteen, when I just graduated high school. I was so angry, at having been impoverished, being around drugs. So this tattoo used to be a symbol of anger, biting and scratching at everyone, blood on its claws. Now it’s a symbol of pride, strength. Defending the people who need defending. Having pride in the person I am now.

MONICA MAGTOTO, 14, is an activist and musician who is currently in her first year at Leadership High School. She read poetry in public for the first time at a Youth Speaks event this July.

I was so excited after the open mic, I couldn’t go to sleep afterwards. When you listen to these poets, you’re just numb and drooling. Once you read your stuff, and you’re blown away, you know you’re doing okay. When you read aloud, you don’t feel shut in or shut down by other people. Sometimes you forget that you can actually say what you want to. [Youth] are really censored. It’s because they’re training us for the working class. They don’t want people who are actually happy with who they are; they want people who are going to conform to who society wants them to be, people who don’t have ideas in their heads.

I’ve always been around music, too -- my dad was in a 70s funk band back in the day, and music has become one of my first priorities. I was born into the hip-hop scene, but corporate hip-hop is really superficial. Underground hip-hop, punk, rock -- there’s more feeling, more passion. It’s easier to be comfortable in your own self, your own body. I’m trying to start a punk/ska crossover into rap band -- we’re thinking of calling ourselves "The Kleenex Fairies," but some of the guys weren’t too crazy about that. Maybe we’ll be "The Post-Its" instead.
"I was so excited after the open mic, I couldn’t go to sleep afterwards."

I work at this organization called Love & Justice, which provides support for LGBT youth who are victims of physical and emotional violence, in their homes and on the streets. We do trainings that teach you how to deal with crisis -- to support people who are victims of hate crimes, domestic violence. I’m eventually going to be working the crisis line. It’s very intense, very emotional, but everyone should go through this kind of training to deal with crises and trauma in general.

BADRU AKIM, 19, will be starting San Francisco City College this semester.

"Poetry -- it’s the place where, if you haven’t been through shit, it’ll show. If you’re not real, it will show up immediately when you get on the mic. If it’s organic, from the soul -- you can’t reproduce it on a grand scale, like other things that have been pasteurized and distributed. Youth Speaks is a beautiful atmosphere to be in, one that supports the cultivation of self. It’s all about the wisdom, the spreading of love. But I also came into the poetry scene as an emcee. I battle. The first time I went to a slam, I thought to myself, I could win this by next year. It’s all about dope skills, being on top of shit, everyone applauding when you’re rocking the house. It’s about people respecting the shit out of you. I’ve been emceeing for three years steadily, but I’ve been doing it on and off since I was a kid.

I started out doing really political pieces, but I’ve become more introverted. I’ve been dealing with, you know, the regular teenage bullshit. It’s made me look into myself deeper. I’m just searching for something that’s intangible, but in my grasp at the same minute. I’m still all "f**k the police" -- all the revolution shit -- but I’m not as aggressive as I used to be. One of my teachers, Art Concordia, and my friend Pekolya -- they helped me check myself, really encouraged self-contemplation.

I want to become a sociology professor. Before poetry and hip-hop, I was this nerd reading. I love studying theory, philosophy, theology. I want to be able to use the foundations I lay as a professor to really start some revolutionary stuff. I’m releasing an underground hip-hop album by the end of the year. After that, I’ll release a spoken word album. I’m hoping to get a spoken word/hip-hop group together. I really want to do this professionally -- to be not just good, but legendary good. The vibe is just infectious."
Suzy Khimm!

Suzy Khimm finds the Poetry Slam vibe infectious.

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