Monday, May 17, 1999
Poetry at 30 Paces; In Competition
With the Pros, Young Versifiers Show Their Rhyme Has Come
by Lonnae O'Neal Parker
near the back offices in the downtown Borders bookstore, Kethan
Hubbard, 18, is talking to himself. His voice rises and falls rhythmically
as he practices his art, pacing the stacks.
a feeble mind trying to express itself forcefully.
If you have a feeble mind and you keep quiet,
No one will know the level of your ignorance.
Rodriguez, who is snapping pictures of Hubbard and acting as his
handler, runs interference against all comers. Hubbard would love
to talk, he explains firmly, but he's got to stay on point. An aisle
over, other kids--poetry slam participants from local middle schools
as well as schools in New York and San Francisco--are concentrating
deeply, wearing their game faces.
Close to 800
people jam the space. Fidgeting in fold-up chairs or cross-legged,
three deep, they stretch all the way from the books on World War
II history to Theories of Ethnicity. They came to listen to spoken-word
all-stars like the venerable lioness Nikki Giovanni and Pulitzer
Prize winner Henry Taylor. To be stroked with rhythms and plied
with rhymes. They came to hear it. And the poets came to "Bring
In da Slam"--the third annual poetry slam and "rent party"
to raise money for the Youth Poetry Slam League.
The event featured
headliner poets including Quincy Troupe, Jeffrey McDaniel, Grace
Cavalieri and DJ Renegade from the movie "Slam." The heavyweights
were going up against kids who, out on the streets, might fall under
the rubric of "at-risk youth." But inside the bookstore,
where words have all power, they are packing particular heat. And
though it's billed as a face-off, easy money says the kids will
In a takeoff
on the NBA slam-dunk competitions, judges Bill Ivey, chairman of
the National Endowment for the Arts; Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence
Page; and singer Ysaye Barnwell of the a cappella group Sweet Honey
in the Rock brandish cards that score the performances from 1 to
competitive performance art," explains emcee Ray Suarez, host
of National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation." "This
is gladiatorial, but instead of weapons, their words are sharp."
the slams, which originated in Chicago in the late 1980s, are a
way of opening "new channels of expression" to young people
who might not otherwise have this exposure. Typically slammers have
three minutes to perform poems that are then judged for resonance
and attitude. It is a participatory sport in which audience members
are encouraged to heckle, hooray and display all manner of bookstore
The league was
started 1997 as an attempt to interject life into the WritersCorps
program, which was designed to bring the arts to underserved populations.
Initially in four D.C. schools, the poetry program is now offered
in all Washington middle schools as well as middle and high schools
in San Francisco and New York. It features local and national competitions.
"The idea is to make it an interscholastic sport on par with
football," says Slam League founder and coordinator Nancy Schwalb.
"To get the kids celebrated for their intellectual abilities."
they cram the staircase and look down from the upstairs cafe. It's
an eclectic crowd--boho, buppie and a smattering of button-down.
Heads sport locks, Afros and wispy receding hairlines. Fubu urban
gear and Ann Taylor separates play footsie. Suarez looks for audience
members to augment the three-judge panel. "If you are capricious,
loving but mean-spirited, and semi-unfair," Suarez says, "we
on the laaambs! Bring on the laaambs!" somebody intones from
the back. And "sacrificial" poets are brought out to bloody
the water. A down-tempo "Samurai Song," written by Poet
Laureate Robert Pinsky and performed by Borders CEO Bob DiRomualdo,
is greeted with polite applause. Then 11-year-old Charles Davis
from Washington's Stuart Hobson Middle School swaggers to the mike.
yells a woman in the crowd.
you, Mommy," says Davis, with a full measure of bravado as
the crowd cheers his moxie. He begins his own deliberative verse.
Food you are
Food I am not your toy.
Food get out of my life.
to child star, the competition seesaws.
professional poet and author Jeffrey McDaniel is an audience favorite
with his wire-rimmed glasses and dead-on delivery.
I am a narcissist
trapped in the third person.
I walk up to people on the street, show them a picture of myself
as a child
And say have you seen this boy.
He's been missing for a long time . . .
Low scores for
McDaniel from the judges bring hisses and catcalls.
a tall, doughy, baby-faced kid from Brooklyn sporting a buzz cut
and an accent straight from Central Casting, takes the mike. There
are poems of tourists, and ghettos and breathless hellos.
hard," says 13-year-old Reina Samuels, of Washington's Garnet-Patterson
Middle School, another of the evening's sacrificial poets. "Then
you write poetry."
words of anger and social protest helped define the black arts movement
of the 1960s. For more than 30 years, she has written about gender,
politics and family. And the Borders crowd is nursing a serious
love jones for her. The spectators lean close in their seats.
is call 'Train Rides,' and it is in praise of black men," Giovanni
comes the yell from somewhere near the books on religion, causing
Suarez to quip, "Black man, please hold your applause to the
metered verse about seasons and mice and race and trains, Nikki
Giovanni takes on.
. . . and you
will sit near your fire and tell tales of growing up in segregated
America and the tales will be so loving even the white people will
feel short-changed by being privileged . . .
By the end of
the night, with the student poets squarely in the lead, the audience
seems to have grown thicker. Words hang in the air.
18, wears black DKNY tights under her short skirt, and her legs
end in a set of chunky Wild Pair lace-up shoes. Her hair is a carefully
pinned upsweep that officially makes her "ghetto fabulous."
All night, the San Francisco teen, who hopes to attend Howard University,
has been intense. Nodding, rocking, cheering others on.
The chance to
express themselves is what the organizers say moves these kids.
Drives them into notebook margins, and propels them to the mike.
steal your line, Ms. Giovanni, but I am 'Black and Fed Up,' and
this poem recognizes that," Spicer says.
. . . No need
to apologize for the things you've done--
oh no you're the endangered, the Golden Sun.
And when you get mad, I'm s'posed to lend my body to your anger
You can't even pay rent, but I can cry
Oh no I can't see it,
You're looking for an invertebrate or something
And I can't be it . . .
the house down and tears spill from her dark Hershey eyes.
On the downtown
Washington streets outside Borders, she's a girl some folks could
look at all day, and never see at all. In this place, where youth
has carried the night, the audience claps, ululates, gives her an
ovation. When that dies down, it gives her another. The young poets
will have to balance a world of stereotypes against this night of
acclaim. They are just beginning to recognize the sounds of their
own voices. They are just starting to make noise.
And the wild
cheering in the staid bookstore goes on. Because, of course, this
audience recognizes that.
only: The Youth Poetry Slam League's benefit at Borders on Saturday
night. A group of established poets including Nikki Giovanni, left,
lost a slam poetry face-off to young poets, but ultimately everybody
seemed to feel like a winner.
DUDLEY M. BROOKS; Photo, DUDLEY M. BROOKS
SECTION: STYLE; Pg. C01
LENGTH: 1330 words
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