Representing High Schools Across The City, Twenty Students Performed Slam Poetry At Verselandia 2015.
It is ten minutes until seven p.m. and MC Turiya Autry (artist, educator, facilitator, keynote speaker, lecturer, performer, poet, playwright, and all-around literary superhero) is telling us that coming here, to Newmark Theatre, on April 20, 2015, for Verselandia 2015!, was the best possible thing we could be doing right now.
I admit it. I wasn’t expecting too much from this city-wide high school grand slam poetry competition. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 90’s, and associated a certain element of cheesiness and finger-snapping affect with the slam poetry scene. Maybe it’s because it brought to mind Pearl Jam, and hacky sack, and piles of hemp necklaces. Or maybe my mistrust stemmed from a series of mistaken love affairs with men in my 20’s; men who called themselves “Slammers” and infiltrated the weekly poetry open mic I hosted then with their inflated senses of self, with their misogynist lyrics, with their own names tattooed to their forearms.
Whatever it was, I wasn’t expecting this. I wasn’t expecting greatness.
At Verselandia 2015!, twenty students from eleven Portland high schools were chosen to participate in this, the Grand Slam. Each participant has three minutes to perform an original piece. No props, no music, no costumes. There are five judges, who must rate the piece on a score from one to ten. The highest and lowest of those scores are dropped, and the final score is tabulated from the remaining three scores. In an attempt to produce a consistency in scoring, the slam opens with a “sacrificial poet.” In this case, that poet is an adorable girl named Amulet Reynolds, who nearly catapulted herself onto the stage with seriously infecting enthusiasm.
Let me get this straight: Newmark Theatre was sold out. In an auditorium that seats over 700 people, most seats had butts in them. Let me also tell you this: I have never seen so many teenagers in one place in my life. If you were human, and if you were in attendance, you felt a collective energy vibrating the air around you. If you had eardrums, your ears hurt. There was so much clapping to do, because everyone was so damn excited. (I had to get up out of my seat early, to sneak some toilet paper into my ears as makeshift earplugs).
Now that my ears are taken care of, I can really pay attention. These kids are actually pretty good. Huh, these kids are really good. Holy shit, these kids are great. With every new performer, I grow increasingly stunned. It’s impossible to watch them perform and not think, How old are these kids?
The topics they cover are heavy and relevant: Teen suicide, child soldiers, divorce, race, police brutality, heartache, immigration, sexuality, class. Several poets pepper their performances with humor, which ends up being an effective technique: Gravity, gravity, levity, gravity. The poise they show is extraordinary. Some kids pump themselves up like prize fighters, jumping up and down and rolling back their shoulders. Others close their eyes and bow their heads, as if summoning courage to jump. All rush onto the stage as if they just can’t wait for us to hear the words in their heads.
On child soldiers: “Tiny fingers grip machine guns.”
(Jamie Bikales, Lincoln High School)
On men, leering: “I’ve begun to think of bus stops as cages.”
(Alexis Cannard, Roosevelt High School)
On bisexuality: “You like both? Isn’t that kind of greedy?”
(Fiona Murphy, Wilson High School)
On being Jewish: “I’m gonna be a strong Jewish woman on MY terms!” (Fiona Murphy, again)
Khiarica Rasheed, from Grant High, wins us over in the hilarious opening lines of her first poem, in which she takes her own ego, turns it inside out, and uses it as a prop to make fun of a certain kind of performer, who only thinks of herself. It is as if she (like I), has had to sit through egocentric poets and has figured out an ingenious way to poke fun at it. The audience is like putty in her hands.
Watching anyone hit their flow is an incredible experience, whether it be an athlete, a cook, or a poet. A slam poet, at the height of her powers, can drop words like stones into a river. Her voice can be a drum, a wail, a siren. Sometimes she can access a vulnerability that is right below the surface. The young woman who ended up taking the title, Gwen Frost, is a good example of this. While her words and her posture evoke confidence, occasionally her voice wavers, and this element is precisely what makes her performance so moving.
In Round Two, things heat up even more. We are down to ten. Each poet has to perform yet another memorized, original piece.
Bella Trent, last year’s winner, zooms onto the stage and breaks our hearts with pieces so original one has to wonder: Did she invent the love poem? “I want to write poetry on my eyelids,” she says, and later, “You managed to find the only girl who couldn’t run away.” In a deceptively simple poem, she relates ice cream to life: “Ice cream, it’s all that is and all that’s been.”
Sekai Edwards recites gorgeous, rhythmic prose in a clear, strong voice:
“I am black.
Like the ocean’s greatest secret
and the lion’s greatest mane.
I am black.
I am black.
I am black.
So this, right here,
is for everybody that loves to ask me,
‘What are you?’”
Someone in the audience can’t help but shout back, “Yes!”
Frost seems to have summoned an ability to appear at once god-like and child-like,as strong as forged metal, as delicate as rice paper. Her talent is clear in her writing, but her true gift is in her physical delivery. Every word is thrown from her mouth and given space to resonate.With imagery laden lyrics, we feel the house burning in her throat. The very word “smoke” enters our minds first and our chests second.
It is near the end of the night and Turiya Autry is asking the audience if she can do a little poem. It’s a call-and-response, she says. It’s about manifesting what you want. I adjust the toilet paper in my ears, but I can hear her just fine:
Do you want it?”
“We want it!“
“Do you want it?”
“We want it!“
And for a second, anything seems possible.