If you're under the impression that kids' poetry can't be judged, then you might want to stay away from the Alley Theatre this Friday night, when teenage students from schools across Houston will take the stage to perform original slam poetry and compete in the Slam Poets @ Alley Theatre Teen Fall Slam.
“[The teens] want to get out and let people know; they want to be heard,” said Rain, a Houston slam poet. “This is something new to a lot of them and they love it.”
Each student gets three minutes and ten seconds to perform. A panel of judges – composed of five audience members – then decides whether he or she gets to advance to the second and final round, where students will have to perform another original poem. The two winning teen poets get to go on to open the Bayou City Poetry Grand Slam on November 19, a poetry slam competition for adults, as “sacrificial poets.”
“That'll be a good opportunity for them,” said Rain, who will also serve as the evening's feature poet, meaning she will perform “probably four to five pieces” in the intermission between the two rounds. “It'll be a bigger venue and it'll be more people that'll see them and see their work…They get to perform in front of adults, and not just their peers.”
The students participating in the slam won their berths thanks to the Alley Theatre's slam poetry residencies. Rain and Cara G., a Houston slam poet who is doubling as the Teen Fall Slam's host, are among the Alley Visiting Artists who dropped in on six schools around Houston – sometimes a few times a week, sometimes for only an hour a week – to lead classes in creative writing workshops.
“We do a lot of work with metaphor, like using metaphors and similes. Just getting them thinking in that abstract way is the first hurdle,” Cara said, but that's not enough. She advised students, “Take this image that you've constructed and tell me how it relates to you as a person. So like if love is a tree to you, then why is it a tree? Is it because it has rough bark? Is it because it has deep roots? Is it because it can be blown over in a hurricane? Why is love a tree? You have to tap in and identify where your line of thinking comes from.”
Many students' poems, Rain and Cara agreed, touch on heated issues, from police brutality to eating disorders. While the poetry is often a bit disconcerting to hear – “Is it normal to have such tough stuff come up?” Cara wondered – both women believe that the workshops can be a form of therapy, helping teens work through emotions they might not otherwise feel comfortable talking about.
“I had this student who was just, he was resistant. He would not participate, period,” Cara said, adding that he was a big, tough-seeming football player. Then she gave his class a prompt that read, “Under my shirt is my skin, under my skin is my heart, and under my heart is...”
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“And he wrote this stunning poem about his mother. And I cried,” Cara said. “He really tapped into the love he had for his mom…I was really surprised that this student didn't seem to care at all that I was there, would really open up and talk about his mother.”
At the end of the eight- to ten-session-long residency, each class staged a poetry slam. From each of those slams, three winners will head onstage on Friday. While Cara and Rain didn't know what poems students will perform – they are welcome to use the poem they won their classroom slam with, though they may have written new material – Cara said that they try to keep the language in the poems classroom-appropriate.
“When I first went into the school, they were kind of quiet, timid and didn't really want to perform,” Rain said of her students. “A lot of them haven't performed anywhere, anything. But now since I've been working with them, they're ready. They're eager to perform. They're eager to let out what may be some things that they may have had bottled in for a while.”
Slam Poets @ Alley Theatre Teen Fall Slam starts at 7 p.m. on Friday at the Neuhaus Theatre at Alley Theatre. While the slam is free, there is now a wait list for entry. Email Dancy Lukeman at firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to it.