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KC youth poetry slams fuel creativity and community

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Washington High School English teachers Paul Richardson and Miles Azzeh went to Chicago last year to experience the annual youth poetry slam Louder Than a Bomb. Tomorrow they’ll watch four local high schools compete in the first-ever Louder Than a Bomb KC final poetry slam.

Washington High School poetry slam coach Miles Azzeh talks with student Willie Tolon in the school’s “wordshop.” (Photo by Lindsey Foat)

“Louder Than a Bomb is the largest youth poetry slam in the nation,” said Azzeh, who now coaches the Washington High School team. “It’s an awesome opportunity for students to share their work, talk about their communities, and it’s just a great community-building endeavour.”

Thirteen local high schools have formed poetry slam teams to compete in a series of bouts this month.

“It’s almost like the NCAA tournament. (At each bout) we just kept cutting the teams in half with our regionals and then semifinals, and now to we’re down to the championship,” Azzeh said.

At each bout, each team present four three-minute solo poems and a four-person collaborative piece, which are all scored by judges on a scale of one to 10.

“It brings competitiveness into poetry, which just amps up the experience,” said Washington High School freshman Faith Johnson. “The poetry is a way you release your feelings, and then you get to be competitive with it …. But you can’t really say (it determines) the best poet because poetry is different to everybody.”

Johnson wrote two pieces this year, one about love and hate and another, called “Killer Words,” about her relationship with her father.

She was also part of the team’s collaborative poem titled “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” which looks at Highway 71 as a dividing line in their community.

“I know it’s not a black thing because money is green
But your poor peoples problems can’t compare to mines because everybody’s trying to take your spot when you’re in the limelight
Well I can’t say peoples because the only people y’all seem to have is gangs
Crypts and Bloods infecting where I ‘hang’
I want my children to be happy and stand where I stood
Welcome to the neighborhood where neighbor comes before hood…”

Azzeh’s co-coach Ryan Acosta-Fox agrees that there is something downright magical about the way students are responding.

“Slam poetry is an amazing vehicle not just to get students interested in poetry, but to get them interested in their own lives — as full of value, dignity, bravery, pain and beauty, all that deserve to be talked about and cared about by the outside world,” said Acosta-Fox in an email. “We’ve got students coming from all over the KC Metro, from all socioeconomic strata, and universally they find only compassion, humor and love from their peers. LTAB is building a new community that has not yet existed in KC — a united youth front who have heard each others’ stories and now care about each others’ well beings. Revolution in progress.”

The Washington High School poetry slam team poses for a photo at a preliminary poetry bout at UMKC. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Acosta-Fox)

Washington High School senior Willie Tolon appreciates not only the storytelling aspect of slam but also hearing new styles and approaches to the craft.

“From the poetry you learn something. Every day you’ll learn something new,” Tolon said. “Like they’ll go up there, and they’ll teach me. So I feel like poetry is not only poetry, but it’s also like a class, it’s like a session, and you’re getting taught and they’re taking you to school with it.”

The final bout between Paseo, Lincoln Prep, Shawnee Mission Northwest and Shawnee Mission West will take place tomorrow night at 7 p.m. at the Gem Theater.

Ultimately, Azzeh said it’s not about the points, but celebrating stories from all over the community.

“It’s awesome to see a Shawnee Mission school — a predominantly white school — up there doing their poetry piece and then have Paseo — a predominantly African-American school — snapping their fingers and jumping up and down really rooting them on, knowing that it’s the spirit of the competition, the spirit of poetry, more than just the winning and losing,” Azzeh said.

Major Funding for Education coverage on KCPT provided by Jo Anna Dale and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation

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