Nine years ago, Jonathan Perkins felt the pressure of trying to finish his graduation requirements at Georgia Southern University. Then he found a sanctuary of acceptance in the collegiate poetry slam.
"It was a very trying year for me, and I needed a creative outlet," said Perkins, former executive director of the Liberty Theatre, who now is a playwright and works part time at the Port Columbus National Civil War Naval Museum.
Writing the poetry relieved his stress, and performing it in front of a compassionate group affirmed his worth.
"It was a community that incubated creative expression without judgment," he said. "I loved it. So, needless to say, I wanted to offer the same opportunity to youth in the area."
It took him awhile to get that chance, but he took advantage of it in 2011, with help from the Columbus Museum, which discontinued its poetry slam. So after returning to Columbus, he and fellow 1999 Shaw High School graduate Chiara Richardson co-founded the Fountain City Teen Poetry Slam.
A poetry slam involves competitors reading or reciting their original works in front of an audience, where judges rate the performances. The local group meets 6-8 p.m. in Fountain City Coffee, 1007 Broad
way, the second and fourth Wednesday of each month.
Perkins and Richardson coached the locals to the national level. They were among the 20 teams out of about 60 that qualified for the semifinals in the Brave New Voices competition this summer in Chicago for ages 13-19. The local team members were: Krystopher Mason (Academic Success Center), Khadejah McClellan (Spencer High), Genario Johnson (Carver High ), Jeremiah Russ (Columbus Technical College) and Jessy Williams (Northside High).
Now, more local students are trying to reach next year's national competition. First, they must qualify for the local finals. Five teens vied for two of those 12 spots on a Wednesday night last month.
Rebekah Thompson, a Kendrick High junior, was among them. This was her first poetry slam, but the rookie finished second to Columbus High senior Madison Johnson -- and both qualified for the finals in March.
"It's really surprising because there were like three years where I didn't write at all," said Rebekah, 16. "It's only been recently shown to me that what I do is actually like poetry."
The judges agreed. Here's an excerpt from "I Can Be Happy," one of her two poems she performed:
You made me feel beautiful and lovable but now I feel dead.
I feel dead and the only thing that makes me feel alive is when you notice me.
It seems pathetic, at least once a week I'm laughing loud and smiling big, but not because I'm happy, but because I want you to see that I can be happy.
I can be happy,
I can fake it,
I can be your quiet little sunshine.
I just need a chance
Shaw High senior Austin Nichols, who finished third, already had qualified for the finals the previous month.
"I used to be a very shy person," said Austin, 17, "but recently I've done a lot of different things that have sort of opened up my horizons, made me a little more receptive to sharing and receiving feedback."
His poetry soothes his soul and eases his anger.
"If you put it on paper," he said, "there's less inside."
For example, a few minutes later, it was Austin's turn at the microphone, and he recited his poem titled, "My Own Business."
I was minding my own frickin' business
Lost in the words on the page before me, I was content to remain in my private world
But conflict sought me out, as it so often does
Stalked me as a cat stalks a mouse
You see, I was minding my own business
When a boy I had not seen before tore the book from my hands
And wanted to know what I would do if he tore a page from that which I loved
Returned so suddenly to the reality I despised, I was speechless
I had been minding my own business
And I watched my dearest friend be mutilated before my very eyes
As that single, solitary page fluttered to the ground, irritation turned to anger turned to rage
In the space of a heartbeat, I had lost myself
That boy was minding my business
When I punched him in the face
I watched from afar as someone I did not know was pulled off someone I did not like
I fitted the pages back into their place and returned
To minding my own business
Although the slam is a competition, no request to participate is denied, Richardson said.
"We do it all in love and support to encourage them to be who you are and express yourself, because you matter," she said, "Your thoughts matter. Your feelings matter."
Perkins estimates 40-50 teens have participated in the Fountain City slam, which is free to enter.
"It's a beautiful thing to witness them grow into themselves and develop a voice they are not ashamed of," he said. "There are so many negative things these kids could be doing with their time, but they're opting to grow as writers, artists and people."
Johnson, 19, the Carver High graduate now headed for Norfolk State University to study film, credits Perkins and Richardson for helping him boost his confidence.
"I've learned so much," he said, "just how to be a force when you approach the mike, how to really let out everything you want to say."
Johnson acknowledged the apparent contradiction between writing such personal words and sharing them so publicly.
Then he made sense of it: "So what's better than a group of strangers you don't know? You have no commitments to them. After they leave, you never have to see them again. You can just let out everything that's on your mind. If there are 10 people in the room, I guarantee you five or six of them totally understand where you are coming from. They can be completely empathetic because they've dealt with it or they know someone who's dealt with it.
" What would these words be if you only kept them to yourself? Is it fair to the rest of the world?"
HOW TO PARTICIPATE
The Fountain City Teen Poetry Slam offers two events this month to participate:
Nov. 10: Slam 101, a free poetry writing and performance workshop, 1:30 to 3 p.m., in the Columbus Public Library, 3000 Macon Road. Bring at least two poems of your own creation, plus paper and a pencil.
Nov. 13: Free slam and open mic, ages 13-19, Fountain City Coffee, 1007 Broadway. Whether you're a poet, singer, comedian or rapper, all talent is welcome to the mic. Sign-up starts at 6 p.m. There are only five performance slots. Material must be 5 minutes or less. A poetry slam is a competitive event in which poets perform their work and are judged by members of the audience. Those interested in slamming should come prepared with at least two original poems, no longer than 3 minutes in length. Sign-up for the slam also starts at 6 p.m. The first 10 slammers to sign up will be allowed to compete. The top two from each preliminary slam will advance to the local finals in March. The top finishers from the finals will represent the city at Brave New Voices in Philadelphia in July.
Learn more: For more information, call 706-392-0777, email FountainCitySlam//www.facebook.com/pages/The-Fountain-City-Slam/271140976250114.