Magazine article Humanities

The War of the Words

Magazine article Humanities

The War of the Words

Article excerpt

"As I gaze upon the midnight sky..." begins Louis Hudson, an eighth-grader at Kramer Middle School in southeast Washington, D.C, who is performing in a local poetry slam. When he's done reading his poem, the audience judges raise their scorecards. "An eight, a nine, and another eight for Louis," exclaims the announcer. The audience, including parents, kids, and interested bystanders, yells and hollers with mixed reactions to the scores. Their screams are silenced as the next poet/student approaches the microphone. It is Michael Billups, a thirteen-year-old eighth-grader at Browne Junior High.

Billups has been involved in the slam league since it began at his school last fall. "At first I wasn't interested in poetry," says Billups, "but once I joined the club, I realized I had a talent. It's a chance to express yourself." Billups has been selected to attend the National Youth Poetry Slam in Albuquerque. Poetry slams are like a poetic boxing match; words are the only weapons. The students are armed with original poetry.

"HO-lee, HO-lee, HO-lee," begins Billups, emphasizing the pronunciation like an evangelical minister speaking to a congregation. He pauses, looks around the audience, then again, "HO-lee, HO-lee, HO-lee." The audience begins to laugh. Billups pauses and looks at the audience again with a smirk on his face.

"HO-lee, HOlee, HO-lee," he continues.

The interscholastic Poetry Slam League is part of the D.C. WritersCorp, an arm of the Humanities Council of Washington's literacy program called Urban Scholars. The D.C. WritersCorp has writers in residence at twelve middle and junior high schools and in public housing communities and community centers throughout the city. The slam league was born out of this WritersCorp program.

Beginning in the fall of 1997 with only four schools, the poetry slam league has expanded to include twelve middle and junior high schools. More than one hundred students have participated in the actual slam competitions so far. When they are ready for a slam, the resident writer selects for each team six to ten students who have demonstrated their poetic abilities.

Before the competition, students from the competing schools gather for dinner and a practice session, where the students critique each other's work. Nancy Schwalb, director of the Poetry Slam League and one of the writers working with the students, says "We're building a community of writers, so rather than pitting the kids against each other in bloodthirsty competition, we're emphasizing friendly competition." Schwalb continues, "Of course we go into the slam as a competition, but the kids are expected to understand that really it's writers against the rest of the world, rather than this school against that school."

Poetry slams have gained popularity since they began in the 1980s, when poet Marc Smith came up with the idea of slamming or competing with poetry. This form of performance caught on-it was a competition that appealed to audiences because of its liveliness and intensity. Now, poetry slams take place in cities around the world.

The youth competitions are modeled after the adult slams. There are three rounds with six students from each team performing during each round. After each poem is read, the judges, who are selected from the audience, give a score for the poem. The scores are announced and then the next poet performs. Each team takes turns performing, until all six students from each team have read. …

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