New York Times
Saturday, December 27, 1997
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When Poetry Means Much More Than Lovely Rhyme
by Francis X. Clines
The urban Muse
was on the move the other night: 15 "slam poets" -- competitive-minded
junior high school versifiers -- journeyed here on Dec. 16 from
East of the River, the threadbare cusp of the city, to have it out
in a mainline bookstore five blocks from the White House.
As this city's
cultural events go, East of the Anacostia River is nowhere, the
city's poverty core, the place for the rarest Presidential photo
op. The area's shortchanged opportunities are occasionally debated
West of the River, but toward no great change of fate. Or, as Bernard
Best, a cocky seventh-grade bard from Hart Middle School, came close
to singing it in his poem, "Realize" (the theme sounding
wondrously as "Ree-a-LAHZ!"):
people on earth
Realize the ladies who are giving birth
Realize the little boys and girls
Realize you don't own this world.
For 75 minutes,
Bernard and the other slam poets applied a kind of half-court-asphalt
strophic drive to the lyrics they have been making East of the River.
energy, their smiles, the scene's swirl of nervousness and self-assuredness
stopped holiday shoppers in their tracks at Borders bookstore as
the young writers from Hart and from Evans Junior High School competed
at their poem recitations in the best Whitmanesque celebration of
the song within.
suddenly enthralled, volunteered to score the competition with big
sign cards numbered one to 10. As the words rang through the crowded
store, the longing on each young poet's face to be rated perfect
was as poignant as the night of lyricizing.
The idea of
slam competition poetry reading -- an increasingly popular and exuberant
performance device for grown-up poets across the nation -- took
on an extra dimension as the youngsters from the East of the River
Inter-Scholastic Slam League came West to sound their stuff.
is the day butterflies fly," announced Syreeta Anderson for
the Evans team, big-eyed as her simple life-popping rhythm swept
Girls trying to get guys
We all should open our eyes
Look up to the skies!
moving lips was Nancy Schwalb, a published short-story writer who
helped organize the slam league while volunteering to teach poetry
writing at four public schools East of the River. She had a grant
last year but it fell through this year when AmeriCorps, the national
service program, cut back on its financing of WritersCorps, the
sponsoring agency that sends creative writers into rough neighborhoods.
good at short stories, but how much short fiction does the world
need?" Ms. Schwalb said in telling why she could not leave
her daily rounds of budding poets, even if a sponsor is lacking.
"We definitely need more poets, even if we don't need poems
and my main thing is we have to hear what these kids have to say."
For her, one
special beauty of the experience is that unlike pupils in the capital's
more privileged schools, her pupils tend to find poetry such an
unfamiliar novelty that no impediment of sissification is attached.
"Boys will try it as much as the girls will: they never heard
of Emily Dickinson," she said of a willingness to write that
she finds comes with steady coaxing and the lure of trying to top
Those who volunteer
like the ideas of rewards -- some have even won cash prizes in literary
competitions -- and team spirit, and some have gone on to the Duke
Ellington High School of Music and Art in Washington. Her methods
include teaching with the rap lyrics of the Fugees to such Rita
Dove poems as "Flash Cards" or Michael S. Harper's "Here
Where Coltrane Is."
poems ringing with the universality of life soon prove infectious.
"It's a renaissance," Ms. Schwalb said of the slam league.
The young poets
nodded and smiled at Borders when she mocked "the wrong Hollywood
stereotype of all this: the nice teacher struggling in the inner-city
schools to finally win over a few kids to write." And they
laughed at her way with imagery when she added, "The real Hollywood
stereotype would be that the kids' talent and expression and ideas,
as soon as they're tapped, come bursting out of them like 'Alien.'
The slam evening
proved rich with images of revels and regrets.
Isaac M. Colon 3d growled forth fear personified.
I am fear
I can make your mind turn against you and eat you whole.
But he laughed off the end of the world:
When the earth opens wide
I'll be flyin' in the sky
When the moon turns to blood, you won't find me, bud.
Louis Hudson brought shocked laughter from the crowd as he piped
his graphic, erotic version of "My First Time" and it
turned out, in the very last line, to be about his first milking
of a cow. Later, stone-faced, he told of living East of the River
on "Mad Street."
You lose your
By the gun or the knife
Though it'll never happen to me
I still gotta live on the mad street.
charmingly boyish, sang in "Women" of how he had them
Don't tell them
how much money you have
Don't tell them you love them
Because they say, 'Stop lyin.'
There was big
whooping laughter for Barrett Norris, strutting a rhythmic theme
If I do put
my mind to it
I know I can do it
When you see me don't be surprised
That I got a good job and you're workin' in Popeye's!
Life East of
the River arrived full-throated in the official city in Crystal
Watts's "Hidden Valley":
A place where
you always stay alive
A place where people don't always give you a dirty eye
No people will die
There will always be a tomorrow in the hidden valley in my mind.
of the poetry slam go back to the barrooms of Chicago, said Kenneth
Carroll, a poet who is the city coordinator for the WritersCorps.
"A poet named Mark Smith started slams as a way of reconnecting
poetry to ordinary people," Mr. Carroll said. "He felt
it had become too much in the domain of academia, sort of stuffy
library readings, and his thing was that in a bar we'll all read
and whoever the audience likes most gets a free beer. It's kind
of an irreverent thing, making fun of the idea that you can judge
art, really, in any quantifying way."
There is now
an annual national slam of ranking poets and some of the student
poets here tutored by Ms. Schwalb got a taste of the big time last
April when Robert Hass, the nation's former poet laureate, led Nikki
Giovanni and other celebrated poets to a slam that packed Borders
with an audience of 800.
plug in to the fun of poetry and the whole idea of competition,
said Ms. Schwalb. "And parents call me up and say, 'My kid
wrote that?' " She fantasizes about having a city championship
in poetry writing, just as with football or any other sport. "We
should have uniforms, right?" she shouts, and the teams chorus:
Colwell back there," she says pointing to a gray-haired English
teacher, "he should be paid as a coach."
the poets declaim.
proves close, with Hart topping Evans, 391 to 388. Instantly, poets
wax crestfallen or squeal with delight.
congratulates the winners and consoles the losers, pointing out
that the next slam will come along as surely as the next poem.
As they head
back East of the River, the slam poets gleam. "My poem has
wings," one of Ms. Schwalb's early students, Zulaikha Edmondson,
had written in what now seems a definitive work for the slammers.
Up the wall
Around and around the room and
There's no barrier in the way
To control it
My poem is strong and determined
And never, not ever
Will it be destroyed.
B; Page 7; Column 2; Arts & Ideas/Cultural Desk
LENGTH: 1288 words
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