Young and expressionable: Youth Speak poetry slams give a voice to teens
A spotlight shines down onto a crumpled piece of notebook paper, as a faltering voice utters words that couple into phrases and run into...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Grand Slam7 p.m. Sunday, May 18. Seattle University, Pigott Auditorium, 901 12th Ave.; $5 youth, $10 adults (206-661-2036 or www.seattleyouthspeaks.org)
A spotlight shines down onto a crumpled piece of notebook paper, as a faltering voice utters words that couple into phrases and run into sentences. These sentences wash over the audience, which smiles, whoops and claps in encouragement.
This is Youth Speaks, a sanctuary for teens who feel otherwise voiceless. Since January, the Seattle nonprofit literary-arts organization has been holding poetry competitions, or slams, for youth. On May 18, 12 of these finalists will compete for a spot on the five-member team.
This team will represent Seattle against contingents from all over the United States and England, at a national poetry contest called Brave New Voices, in July in Washington D.C. Since Youth Speaks entered the contest in 2003, the Seattle team has regularly placed in the top 10.
"Seattle is known for the writing and the performance," said Youth Speaks program director Angela Martinez Dy. "It's not just show and spectacle."
Their poems read like secrets from a diary — raw, sore and honest. And their subjects are far beyond their years: love, identity and acceptance.
Eighteen-year-old Mikeya Jackson-Harper's poetry is mostly personal but also captures the vibes and sounds of Seattle.
"It was hard dealing with family issues at home, and I didn't feel like I had a voice anywhere else, so I started writing to release tension," Jackson-Harper said. "It helped for a while and I kept doing it."
Finalist Ronnie Reynolds also found a constructive outlet in poetry. "I definitely have a lot problems emotionally and mentally, but I also have a lot of solutions," said Reynolds, 19, a Seattle Central Community student. Poetry "is one of the solutions I suppose. It helps me out, it helps me understand everything. When I write down things on a page, it sort of is like mapping it out for myself, so I know where I'm at."
His poetry has a hip-hop edge; his words rattle into beats, an expression of his need to be heard.
Roseanne McAleese had that need, too. After repeatedly skipping class, a counselor sent her on a field trip where she first saw Youth Speaks perform. She was hooked immediately. So much so, that the Garfield High senior made it to the Seattle team last year.
"It gave me hope for my generation," she said about the competition. "There were so many people there my age, open to change, and open to hope, and open to listening to each other, and their point of view, and how to make it better for what the future can offer for us."
Lines from her signature poem read: "This is my apology to anyone who says I can't be a poet, because I don't know how to spell. Well, you're wrong. Not only do I write, I also spit. And I spit nothing but fire, so call yourself cremated."
For many in the program, this need to express is more important than the need to win.
"As far as competition, you really lose a sense of what's really important, that sense of revealing yourself," said Michael Maidan, 18, a freshman at Seattle Central Community College. "It becomes a sport, and I love sports, but it's hard. Kids can kind of lose themselves in the competition. They forget what writing can do."
Maidan was broken up after losing last year in the finals. But, he said it gave him perspective on his real purpose for participating — "revealing ones' deepest feelings, and ... letting other people kind of just bathe in the emotions that are being outpoured."
Since its establishment in 2002, Youth Speaks has grown to serve more than 600 at youth centers from Seattle to Tacoma, including homeless-youth centers and treatment centers. Besides the slams, the nonprofit hosts writing and performance workshops, a weekly young writers' group and a five-years-and-running open-microphone series.
"Poetry's transformative power lies in the way it allows one to identify and acknowledge problems, as well as to express them in a creative way that is healing," said program director Dy. "Poetry then becomes the means by which teens begin the interconnected processes of problem-solving and self-healing."
But perhaps the most encouraging thing is that at a Youth Speaks event, one doesn't feel scared to approach the mic.
So when words fail to come out, palms in the audience swish back and forth, creating an wave of encouragement. And when the poem is done, these waves crash into applause.
Marian Liu: 206-464-3825
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
NEW - 7:04 PM
Toy-maker shifts gears into sculpting career
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.