Fountain City Poetry Slam is hosting a semi-final round of spoken word competition Saturday, bringing some of Columbus’ finest young writers to the microphone at the coffee shop.
Winners will compete again in the spring finals, vying for a spot on the team that will travel to the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam this summer in Las Vegas. Jonathan Perkins, the organization’s founder and writing coach, started the program eight years ago while working with youngsters in theater and summer camps.
“I noticed that there wasn’t a platform for young people to express themselves, do original work and let us know what’s on their minds, let us look at the world through their gaze,” Perkins said at a recent open mic event. “This is an opportunity for adults to listen to them.”
Many of these young poets started writing in middle school, creating rap rhymes or short poems in their English classes. As teenagers, they see poetry as more than a creative outlet. They approach writing poetry as a way to work through the challenges of their lives, to process their emotions, and as an avenue to express their opinions about the world around them.
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Seventeen-year old Sean Myers’ first poem was simply titled, “Me Poetry.” He discovered how he sees words, how words impact him and how he can use rhythm and sound to speak through poems.
“I wrote a little poem, and I really enjoyed it, and I really enjoyed the feeling of being able to connect with my emotions, connect with what I was feeling, connect with what I was saying and how it all kind of blended together into the culture of today and the culture of now,” Myers said. “And how even though poetry is something that people think that a lot of kids can’t really connect to, it is absolutely something that all of us can connect to, whether through like rap or song lyrics. It’s just something powerful.”
Laiah Harris, 17, agrees. She sees poetry as a way “to meet people in a voice that they don’t always hear.”
“For me, poetry is so important,” she said. “Any type of writing, it’s significant because childrens’ voices are the ones that we’re going to hear for the rest of our lives. I just believe that everyone’s voice is necessary, everyone’s voice is important and needs to be heard. And poetry is a way to do that.”
Her poem “Growing Up” addresses school shootings and the fears that her generation faces as they walk the halls each day. It’s a fear she feels for her two younger sisters.
Cynthia Short, 17, also faces her fears through her writing.
“It’s something I have to do, there’s not much of a choice,” Short said. “I get angry about things, I have to process things. My poetry is my process. Recently I wrote a poem, and after it was done, I was like ‘wow, I feel the growth. I’ve become a different and better person because of it.’ And that’s just how poetry works.”
Poetry slams and spoken word events are freestyle, head-to-head competitions where poets bring their original works before an audience, usually in small venues, and are judged by randomly-picked members of that audience. The format is intended to dissolve barriers to an art form that is often perceived as academic.
Suhaylah Rahim, 14, loves the adrenaline rush of performing. She powers through the anxiousness each time she picks up the microphone.
“I always have, and I always will,” she said. “I see it as, I’m about to perform this anxiety away. And after I sit down and I’m done, it’s just relieving. It’s like the best feeling ever.”
For Hannah Beasley, 17, poetry slams just sounded cool. She saw a poster for a Fountain City Slam writing workshop at school, where she met Perkins and other young writers. She never saw the other kids again, but Perkins’ dedication and guidance captured her attention. As a performer, she feeds off the energy of the audience, her readings become more dramatic and animated as the crowd responds.
“I was insanely motivated once I figured out that it was a big thing,” she said. “I get a big release from writing poetry, being able to express how I feel in all of these complicated metaphors. When the audience understands my poem ... you feel totally relaxed.”
As a kid, she loved professional wrestling, and wanted to become a professional wrestler. Now, she wants to be an English professor and a writer.
“Sometimes it’s just getting it into the universe, out of your head and out of your body,” Perkins said of the poetry slam. “It’s a positive outlet. It’s a great art form, a great entryway for self-expression.”