Teens slam into poetry expression

North Harford students embrace form


If someone told Donald Vickers three years ago that he'd be "slamming" poems some day, he would have assumed that meant smacking a poetry book onto a desk.

But today, Vickers, who has a bright red streak in his hair and goes by the pseudonym "Leprechaun," believes slam poetry offers young people a fresh format for speaking their minds.

"Slamming is important," said Vickers, a 16-year-old junior at North Harford High School. "It allows us to see society from other perspectives and to exercise our freedom of speech. It's really taught me how to express myself."

Vickers took up slam poetry in 2003, shortly after the inception of the monthly Slam N' Jams sessions at North Harford. At this year's kickoff slam in the school's cafeteria, more than 100 students and alumni - the most since the program began - gathered to watch performances by several students and a professional slam poet.

The emphasis on free expression was one reason English teacher Chris Wilson initiated the program.

"I became intrigued with the slam medium and the instant gratification you get when you perform one," said Wilson, who has taught at the school for five years. "As we bring in more nationally renowned acts, it gives the kids something to look forward to. To see these kids excited about poetry is amazing."

A slam is performance poetry in a competitive setting; poets are judged by randomly picked audience members. Poems must be original and delivered in three minutes or less. The audience is sometimes given gestures to be used, such as finger-snapping and foot-stomping.

The slam concept dates to 1984, when a construction worker started a poetry reading at a Chicago lounge to liven up the open-microphone venue.

The form is not without its controversies. Critics say performance is emphasized over the quality of the poetry. Defenders say value is placed on writing and performance, challenging poets to focus on both what they say and how they say it.

Comparisons frequently are drawn between slam poetry and rap music. Both consist of rhythmically delivered phrases. And it is not uncommon for slam poetry to contain vulgar concepts and strong language, as some rap songs do.

Although Wilson said he prescribed boundaries for content and language, on occasion, performers deviate and recite poems of jarring content.

For example, the recent slam featured guest poet Chris August, who placed seventh in a national slam competition. August, a special education teacher at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, recited "Dear Martin," which contained a string of vulgar insults directed at a roommate with whom he had a falling-out. Some of the other performers - who Wilson said were alumni - presented poems that contained profanity and lewd content.

Although Wilson allows his students to slam about whatever is on their minds, he said most of them respect the language and content boundaries.

"The kids have free reign in topic," said Wilson. "But I look for them to express themselves in such a way that they can relate to anyone in the audience without shock value. I'm teaching them that they can leave out profanity and obscenities and still be effective."

The students say the program affords them a way to tap into emotions they otherwise might not.

Sara Meagher half-jokingly said she used the slam sessions to complain. Meagher, 17, performed "Principally Speaking," a poem she wrote the day of the event.

"The poem is about people not listening to what I say. I'm very shy, and I don't usually tell people how I feel," said Meagher. "And it's scary to get up in front of people. I even told my mom she couldn't come because I'd be too embarrassed. But I'm overcoming my fear, and now I get to speak out about things that bother me."

Since the inception of the program, the students have slammed on topics such as friendship, death, betrayal, birth, failure, parents, school and love. Many say that although self-expression has not come easily to them, they find slamming a welcome and necessary outlet, and tell of the important impact it has had on them.

Steven Kirk, a senior from Pylesville, said his entrM-ie to the form was gradual.

"The first year, I came to the slams and listened to the performers," the 17-year-old said. "There are so many types of slammers out there. It can be overwhelming if you don't introduce yourself to it. You have to watch them all and figure out what works for you."

Kirk was drawn to the performance aspect of slams but doubted his writing. At a slam last year, Kirk performed "Revelations," a poem about his father. The eventual winner of the slam received a belt Kirk likened to those pro wrestlers win.

"That night I came in second place, and the person who won came and offered me the belt, because he thought my performance was the best," said Kirk. "Never in my life have I had such acceptance from my peers."

Kali Sadler of Pylesville started with an open-microphone night in 10th grade and progressed to slamming.

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