Sunday, March 28, 2010

Poetry with a shot of adrenaline

Last Saturday, the legendary Nuyorican Poet’s Café opened its doors to young slam poets who showed up for the third night of the 12th Annual Teen Poetry Slam semi-finals. The dynamic, several-hour-long event featured 25 contestants who tackled themes ranging from family, pain, rape, politics and – everyone’s favorite subject -- adolescent love.

The audience was a mixture of about 100 writers, friends, family and slam poetry aficionados. When they felt a rhyme resonate, they oozed a honey-drenched "mmm," or snapped their fingers in approval.

“This is the best finals yet—the talent is incredible,” said Michael Cirelli, executive director of Urban Word NYC, the group that organized the event. Urban Word strives to help inner city youth find their voice “and the tools to use it.” Since 1999 the organization has provided free writing workshops to encourage the literary arts.

This event at the East 3rd Street café was the third of the four-night semi-finals, held last week at various venues. Tonight a winner will be chosen at the Grand Slam Finals, hosted  by Harlem’s Apollo Theater.

At a poetry slam, writers traditionally read or recite their work and are judged based on content, style and delivery. But because of the supportive nature of a teen slam, the scores of performers were not announced. Instead, the five judges each wrote down a number, neatly folded their piece of paper, and then slid it down the table.

“It was important that they were taking a chance with the poem,” said 24-year-old judge Evan Burton, a poet himself. “I was judging them on the effort I could hear they put into it—whatever the result.”
Burton said his personal favorite was contestant who goes only by the name of Prophet. He was one of Saturday’s five winners and notable for having a “self possession and a lucidity that’s difficult for even polished poets to perform,” Burton said. “It was funny, poignant—about ‘coming out’ to his mother. And she was there in the audience.”

Last Saturday’s event brought in teens from all over the city. “Watching others slam is a true experience,” said Arlene Contreras, 17. “I always love hearing what they have to say.” While she was there that day to support her friends, she went on to compete last Sunday in the fourth and last of the semi-finals -- winning a spot on this evening’s line-up at the Apollo.

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  1. four hours of teen poetry...sounds intense. I'm judging a novel writing contest right now for high school students. So much angst. Every once in a while, though, you find one that brings you back, that makes everything seem raw and new again.

    But for the most part all they write about is vampires.

  2. Oh man it was great, it was sort of a hip-hop meets rap meets really well-developed vocabularies.

    I'm starting to miss that "raw and new" thing you're talking about.

    Haha and i was totally confused by the vampire phenomenon until I got hooked on True Blood. man, oh man...