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Omaha South High student Marissa Gomez will stand, deliver and be heard at Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Poetry Festival and Competition

April 8, 2012 2 comments

With Omaha gearing for its own citywide Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry festival and competition (April 15-22), I profile high school student Marissa Gomez, a talented writer and performer who will be representing with her teammates from Omaha South Magnet High School. She and her fellow teen poets are brave souls for how deep they plumb the depths of their beings. I recently met Marissa for this story.  I interviewed her and saw her perform one of her poems, and I was bowled over by her command of language and her, well, fairly refined poetic sensibilities. She has a maturity about her work and her life that’s beyond her years.  Whether she and her team win or lose at the event is beside the point because she’s well on her way to blazing a trail for herself that will get her to wherever she wants to go.

Omaha South High student Marissa Gomez will stand, deliver and be heard at Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Poetry Festival and Competition

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

When South High Magnet School represents at Omaha‘s first citywide youth poetry slam, Louder Than a Bomb, starting April 15, junior Marissa Gomez will be a performer to watch.

Resident poet Katie F-S, who coaches South’s poetry slam team, has high praise for Gomez:LTaB takes its name and model from a teen poetry festival and competition in Chicago, where slamming was born. A popular documentary about the event has sparked a nationwide youth slam phenomenon.

“Marissa is a fantastic artist. Her writing is authentic and accessible, her performance is compelling, her poetic ear is sharp, and her sense of humor keeps all our work from ever feeling like a chore.”

With friends cheering her on the 16-year-old Gomez took second place in her school’s December slam.

“I let out whatever I had in me,” says Gomez, who rated high-fives and props, even from kids she didn’t know. “It was crazy because (before) these kids would see me in the hallway and just walk past, but once I slammed they heard me.”

 
LTaB co-founder Kevin Coval

 

 

On Fridays South teacher Carol McClellan runs an “open mic” in her creative writing class, where Gomez tries out her latest poems. On April 6 she stood to deliver with equal parts conviction and poise her poem, “For You, I Would Pray to God.” The piece, like all her work and that of her classmates, is deeply personal.

“At the beginning of the year when we first started doing open mics it was difficult expressing these raw emotions to people but as much as we’ve gotten to know each other it’s like we’re home. We just kind of go there and we open up,” she says “We open up things in writing that maybe we wouldn’t normally share.

“We break down in tears when we read sometimes and we’re all there for each other, we support each other, give a big round of applause, give a hug. It’s nice knowing there’s those people who I can read to and they’re not judging, they’re just telling me, ‘Hey, that’s good, I can’t believe you said that, I can’t believe you live with that, I can’t believe you actually told somebody that.'”

“Marissa’s work is fearless,” says Katie F-S..” There’s nothing she won’t say on a stage if she feels it’s important.”

Revealing her inner life to others is freeing and healing for Gomez. The turmoil she often expresses comes with the territory.

“Hey, I’m 16, I have a lot of problems. It’s great to relieve myself into my poetry.”

Her poems and those of her peers are not all angst-filled reels and rants about the pangs of youth. There’s plenty of humor, too. However, despair is a common refrain. “Who I Am” deals with the dark moods that once overtook her.

“I used to be really depressed,” she says. “and this poem is kind of telling people that’s the way I am. One of the lines in it is, ‘Would you still love me if you knew that on the inside my anger and hate it grew.’ I mean, it’s really just being honest that I’m not perfect. Everyone seems to think I’ve got it all going on so good, but again I’m 16, I’ve got a lot of stuff going on, and it’s not always working in my favor.

“Another poem called ‘One, Two, Three, Four’ counts the four biggest heartbreaks I’ve ever gone through. My poem ‘Dear Mom, I Want You to Meet Richard’ is about a co-worker of mine who was killed. I was writing poetry that day and I couldn’t think about anything else but him and I wrote about how I wanted my mom to meet him. My mom and I are best friends, we talk about everything. I got the call at work Richard had been murdered and we were all raw about it. I came home and my mom saw me kind of hit bottom. I just kind of broke down and she sat there with me and tried to help me get through it.”

Marissa Gomez performing at the Omaha South slam

 

 

Anything is fair game for a poem.

“I don’t know, my poems cover a lot of different things. ‘A Letter from Mistake’ talks about how I was an unplanned pregnancy and my parents were actually on the verge of splitting up and everything, and they stuck it out for me. One line is, ‘I hope you don’t blame me for everything and I hope you understand that even though I was a mistake I can still be something you want.’ I write a lot about my family.”

Her work sometimes refers to an older brother serving time in prison. They often exchange letters. Hers contain poems, his include raps.

At LTaB she expects family and friends to support her as always but she’s not hung up on the competition aspect.

“It’s not about points and placing. Yes, we would like to place, we would love to win, but when it’s all said and done if someone heard something and took something from what we wrote, then that’s great,” she says.

Having a platform for her voice is all she really cares about.

“When you’re doing poetry you’re letting yourself be heard. Everyone’s knowing that’s what you’re doing. You’re putting that out. It’s a great experience. I love performing.”

For Omaha slam details visit ltabomaha.org.

Louder Than a Bomb Omaha: Stand, deliver and be heard

April 8, 2012 3 comments

Kevin Coval

 

 

The reverberation of Louder Than a Bomb, the Chicago slam festival, competition, and documentary, has reached Omaha and spawned a youth poetry slam here that runs April 15-22. As movements go, I must admit that while I’ve been vaguely aware of the growing popularity of poetry slams I’ve never attended one and I’ve only seen a few spoken word artists perform.  But it’s not like this is completely foreign territory to me because I have heard and seen my share of authors and storytellers do readings.  In the same vein, I’ve attended a few play readings, and so I do have a pretty fair notion for what this is about.  Of course, the competitive nature of slams sets this apart from the others.  Now that the youth poetry slam format is getting a major showcase in my hometown I find myself covering it, which brings us to the following post, which is essentially a preview of that event through the prism of what is driving this phenomenon of slams springing up around the country, even in my middle America.

NOTE: Check out my companion story on this blog about Omaha South High poetry slam team member Marissa Gomez.  And for all you poetry fans out there, this blog has stories about Ted Kooser, William Kloekforn, and any number of literary lights.

Louder Than a Bomb Omaha: Stand, deliver and be heard

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Poetry slams pit individuals or teams in bouts of spoken word street soliloquies that bring performers and spectators to tears and cheers the way performing arts and sports events do.

Omaha‘s long been home to a thriving adult slam scene, thanks to poet Matt Mason and the Nebraska Writers Collective (NWC), who’ve lately cultivated youths by sending established resident and visiting poets into schools.

All that nurturing comes to a head at the April 15-22 Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry festival and competition, when some 120 students from 12 area high schools battle for poetic supremacy. It’s inspired by a movement based in Chicago, where slam began at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge and where Louder Than a Bomb originated with the Young Chicago Authors collective.

It turns out Omaha’s a spoken word hotbed itself.

“We have one of the best poetry communities in the country, the talent level is really through the roof,” says Mason. “We send a team to the national poetry slam every year and we do pretty well in the competition but mostly people come to respect the folks here as writers who do really interesting work. People from other cities come to the Omaha bouts to see what kinds of things we’re writing about and doing. We’ve got nationally recognized poets like Dan Leamen and Johnmark Huscher.”

South High resident poet Katie F-S coaches the school’s LTaB team.

Katie F-S

 

 

“We’re lucky in Omaha that as a crossroads for the nation we get a good amount of really quality touring poets coming through here,” says Mason. “We’re able to take advantage of that and make it even more appealing for them by paying them to run workshops or do shows for students.”

World champion slam poet Chris August came in March.

Mason long envisioned a metro youth poetry slam and began laying the groundwork for it with NWC’s work in schools. “We’ve been running a pilot program at South High called Poets on Loan that sends teams of poets into schools to give students a real taste of some of the best in the field,” he says. With help from those poet mentors South staged a December slam.

Things “accelerated” when a documentary about Chicago’s LTaB became a national sensation. It found a receptive audience at Film Streams. Support quickly surfaced for an Omaha slam modeled after LTaB Chicago. Poet and LTaB co-founder Chicago Kevin Coval visited Omaha in February at Mason’s invitation to do workshops. Mason joined a group of Omahans attending Chicago’s March slam at Coval’s invite. A local contingent may attend a Chicago summer slam institute.

 

 

A poetry slam workshop

 

 

Why all the buzz? South High poetry slam team members Marissa Gomez and Marisha Guffey say the power of spoken word is as simple as being “heard.”

Mason says it provides a safe, communal forum to unleash raw, personal stories and perspectives otherwise denied kids.

“No matter who we are, no matter if you come from a broken background or a well-to-do background, being a teenager is difficult, it’s insane, it’s brutal, it’s all sorts of different things,,” he says. “But something like poetry and this kind of expression of poetry especially is a way of channeling and processing and looking at your world in a different light that makes it come a little bit clearer and easier to deal with or to at least understand.”

“That kind of courage and commitment is necessary for great poetry to flourish,” says Katie F-S.

South High teacher Carol McClellan, who has several of the school’s poetry slam team members in her creative writing class, holds open mic sessions on Fridays.  “I’m often amazed at their candor and honesty. It’s been a gradual process as they developed trust and a willingness to open up in the class. From a teacher’s perspective, it’s extremely gratifying to witness.”

Coval says spoken word fills intrinsic needs.

“We as people just have a desire to be heard and to be seen, so we’re providing public space for young people to talk about things they care about – who they are, where they’re from, what are their dreams, what are their fears, their dissatisfactions. It’s a a very simple form, it’s a very ancient process.,” he says. “We’re doing the work of just standing up in a public space and telling stories. People have been doing that since before civilization, so I think this is in some ways a call back to that. It’s a call to reengage young people in their own process of education.”

Coval uses himself to illustrate the medium’s transformational power.

“I certainly was not the best student in the world, but once I started reading and writing on my own and I could follow my own interests I became hyper-literate, and in part that’s what hip hop taught me to do. I think that’s what the movement of hip hop poetry and spoken word is encouraging other young people to do.”

Marissa Gomez at the Omaha South High slam

 

 

South principal Cara Riggs, whom Coval and Mason give a shout-out for her support of spoken word, sees it as a powerful avenue to engage kids. “The format of a poetry slam is so hip and contemporary to our urban kids. It is a beautiful way for them to express themselves and the audiences are always so amazing in their feedback. The events are contagious to kids…they want more.” Besides, she says, “as a performing arts high school, I just thought it belonged here.”

She says South’s poetry slam had “kids coming out of the woodwork with their own hidden talents and supported by their classmates for their brave expression.”

Mason says schools should embrace spoken word because it promotes “creativity, writing, expression” and it “catches students’ interest and imagination.”

“I think specifically the model of Louder Than a Bomb is about engaging educational institutions around the idea of a team sport in some ways,” says Coval. “And so as opposed to just me as an individual poet coming to a place and reading my poem I’m coming representing a community. You’re going to hear what your city sounds like collectively from the voices of the young people that live here.”

Coval says Omaha like other cities is rife with segregation that divides people and LTaB “is an opportunity to come together across those boundaries that typically keep us from hearing one another.”

 

 

Mason joins Coval in suggesting spoken word can promote harmony, saying, “It can unite a city by bringing students from different parts of the community together in one room telling their stories and finding connections.” Youths interacting in this way, says Mason, realize “that no matter what community you’re from you face some of the same struggles and some that are completely different. Gaining an understanding of those struggles can really help you help our community.”

He hopes to grow the spoken word culture and encourage poets to stay here. “This community has so much talent with creative writing and not a lot of outlets. It’s about creating opportunities for students to explore writing in a fun and constructive way and giving established poets an opportunity to earn money as coaches.”

Yes, LTaB is a competition with points and prizes, but it’s mainly about affirmation and bragging rights. The mantra, says Mason, “is bring the next one up. It’s not about getting to the top of the mountain alone, it’s about helping everybody up. It’s a real pleasure to encourage and recognize young poets.”

Word.

Round One prelims are April 15 at the PS Collective, 6056 Maple Street. Round Two prelims are April 17-18 at the OM Center, 1216 Howard Street. The Finals are April 20 at the Harper Center Auditorium at Creighton University.

For schedule details visit ltabomaha.org.


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