Rachel Kent, teenage spoken word poet, commented on her piece at a recent slam poetry competition: “It needed to be said … this is a way of me standing up for myself.” The Carpentersville event was headed by the Teen Writers and Artists Project, also known as T-WAAP, where six local teams registered to compete.
The medium is the pastime of a growing number of American youth – and Kane County is no exception, as competitive high school groups, open-mics and slam events pop-up across the area.
While slam poetry refers to pieces performed in a competitive setting, spoken word is often used as an umbrella term to describe the oral art form that utilizes inflection and word play in performance. It’s derived “out of hip-hop culture, with roots in beat poetry, the folk music revival of the ‘60s. Even beyond that … the Harlem Renaissance and the black art movement,” said Adam Gottlieb. Having performed across the country, Adam Gottlieb now serves as the director of curriculum development for T-WAAP.
He was also the star of the 2010 documentary about what’s billed as the largest youth slam poetry festival in the world: Louder Than A Bomb. This annual Chicago event, which is predominantly a competition, and its hosts, Young Chicago Authors, began 16 years ago in the Windy City. Its competitive model has spread to more than 13 cities nationally.
Genevieve Zachas, co-advisor of the Creative Writing Club at St. Charles East High School, described preparing East’s slam poets for Louder Than A Bomb just as over 120 other Chicago-land area teams do each year.
“Once we had our team of 10 established, we began having rehearsals at least weekly, and we encouraged our poets to begin practicing outside of school,” wrote Zachas in an email. “By the time of our first bout, all of our poets were memorized and ready to go!” said Zachas in an e-mail.
T-WAAP attempts to stay true to the YCA standard through including various practices that exemplify the spoken word spirit. The organization frequents St. Charles, Batavia and Elgin, and is “dedicated to mentoring students in the arts,” according to twaap.org, especially in spoken word, and to shepherding the spirit of the city’s spoken word scene deeper into the suburbs.
At its modest-sized October slam poetry event titled Nightmare Before Louder Than A Bomb, Corey Dillard, director of in-house productions at T-WAAP, began the day with a borrowed preface: “We do not want to hear any racist, homophobic, xenophobic, ageist, sexist, transphobic, ableist or otherwise derogatory language in this space. [This is a] safe space!”
Gottlieb later described that “the real intention of the slam [is] bringing people together to create a more positive culture in a democratic space where all voices are heard and matter.”
Dillard said slam poetry is huge in Chicago.
“But we want to make something so cool in the suburbs, so that people in the city want to come out here,” he said.
This sentiment is echoed in high schools in Kane County, as they recognize the legitimacy of spoken word’s extracurricular and academic value. As Zachas affirmed, St. Charles East includes a slam poetry unit in sophomore curriculum, hosts quarterly open-mics and participates in Louder Than A Bomb.
St. Charles, Geneva and Batavia high school students also submit work to the Upstate Eight Literary Festival that includes slam poetry as one of five staple categories. St. Charles North High School, which hosted the festival in 2017, includes slam poetry in its sophomore curriculum, holds a spring sophomore poetry slam competition and competes at Louder Than A Bomb.
Geneva High School’s Heather Peters, an English teacher, said her school holds an annual spring poetry slam that draws 150 to 200 audience members.
An accepting community represents much of the allure of spoken word. Zachas felt that when a student authors and performs a poem, the audience will “learn about you and connect with you, and the story lives on in those connections,” she wrote, “The way slam poetry unites people from all walks of life is inspiring.”
A spoken word team aims to “create a trusting atmosphere, as students won't be comfortable taking the risk of performing slam poetry if they don't feel connected … by the end of each year, our students leave feeling like we've created a … family,” wrote Zachas.
Grace Kohlert, a member of the “family” at East, has competed in several slam poetry settings and been recognized for her pieces. She gets involved through “open-mics, definitely. And [school] clubs … . People that do slam poetry are part of a big writing community … . One of our competitors came up to us and hugged us. I made a lot of friends, connections, roots, through slam poetry in general.”
Kohlert described the poem that she took the risk of performing at Louder Than A Bomb about her sister.
“She was born with severe developmental disabilities, and is also mute,” she said. “That’s something not a lot of people talk about … . My sister is a person, not just her surface,” said Kohlert.
Dillard of T-WAAP addressed heavy subject matter like the issues Kohlert writes about.
“If you sit down and have a conversation with teens … you see they’re developing with the world … with sexuality, racial issues, this new regime, what helps digest that … is a space where you can safely tell your story,” he said.
Gottlieb also addressed performance poetry’s popularity with youth.
“Finding your voice, your truth, is something we’re doing our whole lives,” he said. “But in our adolescent years, we’re really doing it in a[n] … intensified way. There’s a lot of identity-forming then … . Spoken word is an increasingly popular tool for young people to experiment with different sides of themselves.”
Gottlieb affirms that all artistic expression, not just spoken word, is necessary to foster change.
“Art, in particular, art from youth, becomes … crucial for society,” he said. “We need to understand what’s going on, and how to move in the right direction. The young people are put in positions where they have to become leaders, because they’re the ones who will have to make these changes. I think they’re rising to the call.”
To get involved
Want to get involved in slam poetry? Here are some local events to check out:
• Waterline Writers open-mic on the third Sunday of each month. Next opportunities will be 7 p.m. Jan 21 and Feb 18 at Water Street Studios, 160 S. Water St., Batavia. For more info, visit waterlinewriters.org.
• Modest Mic, hosted by Frank Rutledge on the third Wednesday of each month at the Sugar Grove Public Library, 125 N. Municipal Drive, Sugar Grove. Next opportunities will be 6:30 p.m. Jan. 17 and Feb. 21. For more info, call 630-466-4686 or visit sgpl.org.
• Wordplay, an open-mic hosted by T-WAAP. Next opportunity will be 7 p.m. Jan. 19 at 216 Prairie St., Elgin. T-WAAP will also host Slammin’ the Sun Down, a west suburban poetry slam, from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Jan. 20 at Bartlett High School, 701 Schick Road, Bartlett.