Poems are not meant to be hidden away in spiral notebooks, silent and invisible.
At least, that’s the belief of a group of teenaged poets from Sardis secondary.
This month, six students will be competing at Hullabaloo, a massive poetry slam competition in Vancouver featuring teams from 16 B.C. schools comprising of more than 80 competitors.
Hullabaloo is not a poetry reading, but a poetry performance.
Using spoken word, these poems are aggressive, in-your-face, theatrical performances. They’re narratives, satires, eloquent rants all with poetic roots fused within.
“It’s kinda like poetry and drama mixed together,” said Grade 12 student Katie Marenkov.
In slams, five judges are randomly selected from the audience holding up numbered flip cards and awarding Olympic style scores between 1.0 and 10.0.
Poets have just three minutes to perform – using hand gestures, facial expressions, verbal intonation, different scales of tone, and effective pauses to get the feeling of their poems across. Some are high energy, words bouncing off the walls in rapid succession, while others are quieter, more sullen, monotonous, leaving the audience feeling empty by the last word.
The poems themselves heavily feature rhythm, word play, repetition, rhyme, and vivid imagery.
“With spoken word, you want your audience to feel something,” said Grade 11 student Maecyn Klassen. “You want your audience to feel the way you felt when you wrote it … you want them to feel the words, how much you loved those words when you first wrote them.”
Slam poetry, which first originated in Chicago 30 years ago, has gained traction in recent years with today’s youth.
At Sardis, a group of students formed the club after watching Louder Than a Bomb, a documentary on the largest youth poetry slam in Chicago.
“After watching the documentary, I had to write a Haiku, but I didn’t want to write a Haiku, I wanted to write a slam,” said Grade 12 student Beth Shepherd.
“It’s about showing the world what we can do, what we can give,” said Marenkov.
Yet, there are critics.
Many in the poetry world have denounced spoken word and slams, saying they’re nothing more than nonsensical rants.
English teacher Jen Wieler calls that ridiculous.
Spoken word has roots that date back to the Black Arts movement and beat poetry of the ’60s.
“Figurative imagery is often the backbone of spoken word pieces,” said Wieler. “Because the audience doesn’t have the luxury of seeing the words on a page, there needs to be something that glues the piece together. Sound and rhythm are so crucial. There’s repetition, metaphors, a lot of internal rhyme.
“The poems are pretty raw.”
Just ask Erin Froese.
The Grade 11 student volunteered for an impromptu performance of her poem Colourless.
She stood at the head of the class, staring out, her eyes almost blank, as she recited her words of teenaged loneliness. By the end, you don’t know whether to clap, cry, or give the girl a hug.
That’s exactly the effect she was going for.
“This is my way of expressing myself,” Froese said.
The competition later this month will be a true test for the young poets who have yet to perform for anyone other than their classmates.
Wieler hopes it will be a springboard for other students to express themselves in the same manner.
“This is a genre that young people are jumping on,” said Wieler. “These slams are creating a buzz, they’re returning poetry to its oral roots – they’re making poetry sexy again.”
Hullabaloo runs from April 24 to 26.