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Youth poets tell their stories at Brave New Voices

Sun, Sep 15, 2013

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Thomas Hill takes the Auditorium Theater stage with reserved daring.

“Let’s go, DC!” shouts an audience member.

Five judges gaze stoically from the balcony. He props his arms at a limp 90 degrees and droops his head as if it’s seeking the earth—a scarecrow. A lynched man overlooking a plantation.

“Don’t be nice!”
“Go in, poet!”

The timekeeper hasn’t yet clocked the time, but his performance has already begun: a momentary shuttering of eyelids, his bare, deep breaths, the first lines running through his head, momentum building in the dark theater as the audience simmers down.

He begins: “All I know is wind. During its inconsiderate visits, my organs tremble like dust, a hollow chorus of vibrato whistling its way through my insides, intrusive and always unwelcome. All that I know is plantation.”

“Oooh’s” and snaps shiver through the audience.

This is the 16th annual Brave New Voices (BNV) international youth poetry festival.

“This is home,” said Ariana Brown, coach of the Austin, Texas team and a BNV alumnus. “This is the best it’s going to be all year.”

For Brown and hundreds of other young poets, it is more than a slam poetry competition. It is four days of sharing the personal, the vulnerable, and the troubling until it becomes too concrete to haunt. Four days of unabashed conversations with strangers proudly representing their cities. Four days of learning from poets across the world. Four days of sudden ciphers, outdoor gatherings in which poets take turns performing. Four days of snapping, cheering, and awe. Four days of community.

“There’s so many things that all of these [poets] have to say, and there’s so much we don’t know,” said Sejahari Amaru Saulter-Villegas, a poet on the Kuumba Lynx team, which competed with dozens of other youth teams in Chicago’s Louder Than a Bomb festival in March to represent the Windy City. “I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about this festival, especially when you’re listening. I hope people are not here to perform but more so to listen.”

Poets also hope to inspire through their performances. “There’s at least one person in the audience who wants to speak up but hasn’t gotten the chance,” said Kiana Wright, a poet from Providence, Rhode Island, who began slamming poetry after seeing it.

“When you read or hear stories, you kind of want to make your own stories,” said Artezia Hassan, another poet from Kuumba Lynx. “So I just started writing stuff. I wrote to release things that you normally keep inside, to get your feelings out. Stuff that you normally wouldn’t say, it’s much easier to write out.”

Kuumba Lynx is known for writing about socially conscious issues in Chicago, particularly on gun violence, which its members know intimately. Their writing always reflects something that has affected the team members or someone they care about.

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“That’s something we take pride in,” said Saulter-Villegas. “It’s like a form of healing.”

Themed “Speak Peace,” this year’s festival brought youth representing Guam, Cape Town, Toronto, Alaska, Leeds (England), and a range of US cities who energized and haunted Chicago August 7 through 11.

“Coming to the city of Chicago and ignoring the violence that’s going on would be disrespectful,” said James Kass, founder of Youth Speaks and executive director of BNV. “Many of the young people we engage with have a direct relationship with violence. [But] we don’t want to speak about violence. We want to speak about peace.”

In honor of victims of violence, the opening ceremony and final round of competition began with a moment of silence.

“There are people who aren’t here who should be but didn’t make it,” Kass said at the opening ceremony. “And I don’t mean the team. I mean August 7th.”

These include James Briggs, a Detroit poet from Forward Arts, and John Vietnam, a Chicago native, BNV alumnus, and Kuumba Lynx poet, both of whom have been lost to gun violence in the past year. The Chicago team performed the first poem of the festival in Vietnam’s memory: “Every two seconds, someone in the world dies, and there’s nothing we can do. I’m living for you…Mainstream, harmonizing breath, every finger on key, you were always on key.”

“It’s a more somber BNV,” said Hodari Davis, national program director and executive producer of the festival. “We want to leave a presence in Chicago and give youth something to take home with them.”
Being in Chicago also means paying tribute to slam poetry’s roots.

“When I come here, I feel like I’m part of something that’s been here for a while,” said Brandon Santiago, the festival’s Youth Development Manager. (See interview Page 12) “You see it in the way Chicago folks carry themselves—like they know who they are and they’re proud of where they come from. They’ll remind you that the reason you’re able to do what you’re doing is because it started here. And I love that. I think it’s an obligation for us to show gratitude and remember that we took a model that started in this city.”

In 1984, construction worker and poet Marc Smith laid the groundwork for slam poetry at Chicago’s Get Me High Lounge in Bucktown, revitalizing and democratizing poetry through the open mic setting. Anyone could be a poet, judge, or audience member at his readings. By 1986, he had established weekly slams at the Green Mill in Uptown—competitions in which each poem received a score from 0-10 from five judges with the highest and lowest scores dropped, a format that continues today across the world and at the Green Mill every Sunday.

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Ten years later, James Kass founded Youth Speaks, which hosted the first youth slam in the country in 1997.

“All of a sudden kids from all over the Bay Area showed up, representing the real demographic of the Bay Area,” Kass said. “And after it was done, I thought, this would be amazing to do on a national scale, [given] the kind of young people who would participate.” He called up Marc Smith, who put him in touch with Elizabeth Thomas, a coach from Connecticut also working with teen poets at the time.

From there, the festival expanded slowly and steadily, with only four teams in its first year and 10 teams a couple years later. After a PBS documentary and an HBO show, this year’s festival had 100 teams for 50 slots.

Compared to the adult slam scene in Chicago, the youth scene is much less about competition, according to Kass. “It’s not about, ‘I’m a better poet than you are.’ It’s about, ‘This is an opportunity for us to share with each other.’ That’s the most exciting thing, the way the kids talk to each other through the poems. And it’s an invitation in rather than a distancing.”

Beyond the competition, the festival held National Youth Town Halls to foster collective conversation on five different forms of violence—gender-based, immigration policy, economic, bullying, and armed—writing workshops, open mics like South Side Word Play and Queeriosity, an Encyclopedia Show, and a collaborative workshop with the AfriCobra art collective in Washington Park. There was always something for poets to do, even if their team didn’t advance to the next level of the slam.

But the competitive format of slam inevitably affects young poets as they latch on to what a successful poem looks and sounds like.

“We’re all different poets from different backgrounds and different cities,” said Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, award-winning spoken word artist, playwright, and filmmaker, to a room full of poets at her writing workshop. “These cities have different paces, different lights, different atmospheres. But why is it that a poet from New York sounds the same as a poet from Twin Cities? We’re losing the biodiversity of slam poetry.” Though democratizing, slam has also become homogenizing.

“I once heard a woman perform a touching poem about a friend with cancer,” Tsai continued. “But she recited the poem like this.” She stood up, feet shoulder-width apart, aggressively striking her hand before her, mouth wide open. “You all know what I’m talking about. And I thought, really? You gave up a beautiful performance for a 10?” The poets nod at her description of a cliché, overemotional piece and fall silent.

Brave New Voices, like many other spoken word festivals, sees its fair share of routines where poets rely on volume or choreography and neglect good writing. The poets are well aware of it.

At the beginning of her workshop, Tsai asked each poet to articulate one struggle he or she had. One said, “My poems always end up so melodramatic. I know what I’m writing about isn’t that sad, but it’s so easy to be melodramatic.” At this, several around the room snapped in agreement.

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But BNV still gives poets an opportunity to learn and listen. From the persona poem from a homosexual boxer combatting his homophobic opponent physically and emotionally. From the Connecticut piece that grapples with an absent father through strong female role models while eerily evoking the state’s landscape imagery. And from Thomas Hill, the DC poet who portrayed slavery through the eyes of a lynched man.

“These sons of the sun are simply silhouettes, breaking the path of an evening breeze, lifeless pendulum swaying in the grave, six feet of oxygen dug from midday sky skinned, moaning against the weight of death, they don’t really need me when there are things far more frightening being hung in these fields, not sure if I’m protecting the crops or the carcasses ‘cause I can’t seem to scare these birds past the stench of lynched flesh wrapped in obsidian skin. Now all that we know is wind.”

And no matter how overdramatic these young poets might be on stage, no matter how tragic the topic they choose to write on, they do it out of a love for the communities and cities they come from. They speak to better the spaces they love and inhabit.

“[Chicago is] like a construction site,” said Hassan. “You’re building a new building. You can’t really see it, but you can see the finished parts. There’s a lot that needs to be done in Chicago, and it’s a working process. We’re going to get there. It’s going to happen.”

Cindy Ji
StreetWise Editorial Intern

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