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Bomb girl Zedeka Poindexter draws on family, food and angst for her poetry

March 11, 2015 4 comments

This is a breakout season in the life and career of Omaha slam poetry champion Zedeka Poindexter.  Her work is getting in front of more and more people thanks to her live and YouTube performances, her readings, and her published pieces.  My Reader (www.thereader.com) story about her and her passion for all things poetry related, including the Nebraska Writers Collective and its Louder Than a Bomb Omaha festival, reveals a woman extremely passionate about what she does and supremely confident in her own skin.  Zedeka’s coached several teams in Louder Than a Bomb Omaha, which runs March 17 through most of April, but work commitments are preventing her from coaching this year.  Her heart though will be with the youth competing in the event.

 

 

Photo by Justin Limoges 

©Photo by Justin Limoges 

 

 

 

Bomb girl Zedeka Poindexter draws on family, food and angst for her poetry

©by Leo Adam Biga

For The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Three-time Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards poet nominee Zedeka Poindexter envies the performing outlets high school-age poets have today. The March 17-April 20 Louder Than a Bomb is a case in point. There wasn’t anything like it when she was in school.

“I was working in a notebook, I always did, but there was no place to go with these things,” says Poindexter, 39, who’s blowing up with her personal anthems about race, family, relationships, loss and blessings.

But as a teen her thoughts didn’t find a voice outside her private journals. That’s a far cry from today’s young poets, who have platforms galore for their innermost musings. Poindexter should know since she’s coached LTAB teams from Blackburn, Westside, Millard West and her alma mater, Omaha North.

“These kids are doing things that blow my mind and all I have to do is facilitate a space for them to do what they were already going to do anyway and help them figure out the best way to present it, These kids are fearless, they will tell you any personal story they have, They are incredibly courageous and just all by themselves so cool. It kind of fuels you as an artist, You’re like, If you’re doing this and you’re 16, what the hell’s my excuse.”

Just as LTAB gives youth an expressive arena, Poindexter uses slam and other opportunities to evolve her own work. For example, her Union for Contemporary Art fellowship will culminate in a new collection of poems that revolve around family recipes and food as focal point and bridge for familial divisions. She plans a May 2 reading and tasting.

“It’s a very different thing trying to write a series of poems that interconnect and relate to one another,” says Poindexter, who’s used to crafting slam’s more instinctive, one-off performance pieces.

In 2012 she became Omaha’s only female city slam champion.

“It has almost always been a white man. I might also be the only person of color who’s won, but I know I’m the only woman, so that’s a huge honor for me. I was a cranky woman that year because there was only one other woman and there wasn’t anybody else brown. I was like, ‘C’mon, y’all, can do better than this.’ I was pissed.”

She represented Omaha at the 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam in Minneapolis, where she was voted an audience favorite.

“It’s all women, it’s all storytelling, it’s very affirming.”

Her work appears in the WOWPS anthology, Alight.

She’s not inclined to leave her slam roots. She has a long history with the Nebraska Writers Collective, whose head, Matt Mason, is the godfather of Omaha slam. He considers her “a cultural treasure for our community.”

“Zedeka is a nationally-known performance poet. You wouldn’t know by meeting her as she doesn’t name-drop or talk about all she’s accomplished, but her work is among the best in the country,” he says. “It’s been great to see her expand her role by publishing more lately as well as taking on the role of running Omaha’s poetry slam. She really does it all. She’s also a great presence in classrooms.”

In turn, Poindexter’s proud of her Collective family. “We’ve been a force for a good long time. We really had a pretty good run as far as accolades in the slam community. A lot of writers have grown beyond that and published work I really love.”

Beyond her Collective circle she’s studied with former Kennedy Center Imagination Celebration poet laureate Stacy Dyson and with storyteller A-Nanci Larenia Stallworth.

Recently, she joined novelist Joy Castro and poet Roger Gerberling for a Backwaters Press reading and paired with Nebraska state poet Twyla Hansen at the Kaneko Feedback Reading Series. Being matched with Hansen gave her pause.

“Being a slam artist is very different than being somebody who’s devoted their life basically to craft and teaching, which I have not done,” says Poindexter, who’s a thesis away from completing her master’s in communication at UNO. “But it turned out to be amazing. I think there are some people who exist strictly in the performative world and some who exist strictly in academia, but there is a lot of crossover.

“I think the bigger separation or chasm I noticed for awhile was a white scene and a black scene. Myself, i just went wherever the baddest ass readings were. They were different things but vitally important to how I grew as a writer and performer. The perception that anybody is not welcome at either place worries me.”

 

 

©photo by Eric David Herrera

 

 

 

She appreciates the diversity of the OEAAs and enjoyed doing her thing at last year’s awards show.

“The fact I got to perform poems really important to me before a roomful of artists and everybody got quiet was absolutely one of the most magical things.”

She often writes about the dynamics of her large African-American family. The Great Migration brought her people from the South to Chicago and Omaha. She mines their rich vein of idioms and imbroglios, delighting in food as a bond that nourishes and heals.

Her poem “Poor Relations” discusses her Omaha family line being branded inferior by their affluent Chicago relatives.

“There were struggles, we had our own personal dysfunctions but we were strong and we were happy. It’s been really cathartic to try to tell these stories and be honest about them.”
Born into a family of matriarchs who were “voracious readers,” Poindexter immersed herself in books and writing from an early age.

“Poetry’s been this thing that’s sustained me spiritually but it kind of existed outside regular life.”

She dabbled in theater and journalism but discovered her artistic home in the emergent slam and spoken word movement.

“I always wrote poems but I kind of started finding a community when Matt Mason ran readings at Borders years ago. There were Pop Tarts for prizes.”

She followed the local slam scene to the Om Center, where it’s still based.

Slam slayed her the first time she saw Def Jam. “I didn’t know what that thing was but I was going to figure out how to do that thing.”

She immersed herself in slam in Colorado, where she moved after losing her grandmother and anchor. She returned to Omaha a few years ago to be close to her spoken word soul sister, Felicia Webster, and to her slam girls, Katie F-S and Sarah McKinstry-Brown.

“Slam has saved me in more ways that I can think of. It feels right. If I migrate away from performance and writing I feel the atrophy of it. I like the fact I have a passion, that there’s this thing that drives me. I don’t know what I would do without that as a rudder.”

She wouldn’t know what to do without her creative community.

“I don’t know if I could function without having that sense of support. It’s afforded me most of the close friendships and safety nets I’ve experienced the last 15 years.”

She’s encouraged by the camaraderie LTAB students display. She’s still struck by what happened a few years ago when a Lincoln High team member lost her mother.

“As a team they decided they wanted to come to finals with all new work, including a piece that the girl who’d just lost her mother had written. And so they scrapped everything. There was no strategy, they were not worried about winning, they were like, This is the work we want to feature. They believed in it and they won, and it was so good. The thing that was so cool was they were willing to sacrifice to do this thing intrinsically personal to them. I’ll take that any time over people who live for the scores and stuff.”

She calls LTAB coaching “the best job ever.”

She feels confident about one day supporting herself as an artist and teacher. She may next pursue a master of fine arts degree,

“I don’t know many artists who value themselves for the work they do because it’s always something that’s never fully supported them,” says Poindexter, who works a corporate day job.

“Being valued for my artistry is something I’ve learned to do a lot better.”
Zedeka hosts the Om Center poetry slam the second Saturday of every month. Visit OmahaSlam.com.

View her performing at buttonpoetry.com.

For Louder Than a Bomb details, visit ltabomaha.org.

Expect plenty of booms at Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival finals; Friendly tournament makes rxpressing deepest feelings safe

April 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Boom!   That’s the sound of another slam poem being thrown down.  If you haven’t seen a youth slam poetry bout before than do yourself a favor and check it out.  No better time to start then at tonight’s (April 17) team finals of the Louder Than a Bomb Great Plains Youth Poetry Festival at the Holland Performing Arts Center.  What follows is my Reader story on the festival and the culture surrounding it.

 

 

Expect Plenty of booms at Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival finals

Friendly tournament makes expressing deepest feelings safe

BY LEO ADAM BIGA

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the hybrid realm of slam poetry, where free verse, theater, oral storytelling and forensics converge to make a verbal gumbo, personal expression rules.

Impassioned teen anguish stirs the pot to create a heady brew during the Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) Great Plains Youth Poetry Festival. After weeks of competition, the team finals throw down April 17 at 7 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

Teams competing in the finals are: Millard South, Lincoln North Star, defending champion Lincoln High and Waverly.

Individual finals take place April 26 in Lincoln.

The events are free but donations are accepted.

On the heels of nurturing the local adult slam poetry community and inspired by LTAB Chicago, the Nebraska Writers Collective (NWC) launched its youth festival in 2012. In that short span the fest’s found a niche at area schools, growing from 12 to 19 to 32 participating teams.

NWC director Matt Mason, who’s led Neb.’s team at the National Poetry Slam, says as more schools have gotten involved from urban and rural locations the work’s broadened.

“You have so many different people and voices and experiences. There is such a diversity of subject matter. You go to a bout and you see four high schools putting up teams, all with different experiences. Some have certain styles, some are kind of all over the place.

“You get poems talking about things in the news today as well as poems about dating, spurned love, successful love, conflicts, being bullied, racism, sexism. You get the universal themes brought in and wrapped up in very personal stories.”

Omaha Central High English teacher Deron Larson, who sponsors the Eagles’ LTAB team, says the work isn’t just about releasing angst or speaking to hard things.”

A couple members on our team have gone out of their way to make people laugh,” he says. “At a recent bout one poet waxed poetic about her collection of socks. There’s a full gamut of things they write about.”

Diversity also shows up in the teams’ composition, where gays and straights, jocks and geeks, are respresented.

“It’s fantastic to see how these teams of very different students come together” to collaborate and communicate, Mason says.

Paid teaching artists hired by the Collective serve as coaches. Sponsoring classroom teachers recruit and facilitate and in some cases co-coach.

World champion adult slammer Chris August from Baltimore, Md. is NWC’s first resident teaching artist. He’s come to appreciate what makes the area poetry scene so vital and LTAB a hit here.

“The Omaha and Lincoln scenes have always been open and embracing and are among the places that put the most energy into fostering their youth poetry scenes. When I think about what an art form like slam poetry can bring to young people, the word I immediately think of is ‘permission.’ Twenty years ago I was a weird, artsy teenage boy in a rural high school with virtually no diversity. Back then, the idea of a safe and empowering outlet for voices of any kind speaking on any truth at all would have seemed impossible.”

Mason says, “I think this is a great outlet for anybody, especially for teenagers, to process what they’re going through and to give voice to it. They’re permitted to have a venue to get this across rather than just bottling it up and dealing with it.

“It’s about teaching these folks to write and to get this performance experience and to be comfortable in front of people and to vocalize what they’re feeling.”

Everyone associated with LTAB hails the supportive environment at practices and bouts. At the “friendly tournament” poets celebrate other poets, even those on opposing teams. The safe space created by LTAB is particularly important because students often expose their most intimate, vulnerable selves in the work.

Mason says the slam form lets students articulate personal issues weighing on them, including gender and sexual identity issues.

“It is maybe this more than any other element that allows slam poetry to so lovingly respond to a need so present among so many young people,” says August.

NWC education director Andrew Ek says the Collective has done “a lot of deliberate work making sure our students feel like their stories, ideas and experiences are being honored,” adding. “A lot of that involves letting them read and not getting in the way of that process.”

“It’s a very positive space,” says Bellevue West 10th grader Ari Di Bernardo, a first-year participant. “No one feels like an outcast because that’s not what LTAB is about. It’s about connecting through this very beautiful thing we do. For me it’s the feeling of belonging. Like I finally have a safe place to just open up and give up all the feelings I’d been harboring. I can be honest. I’m not afraid to say what I need to now.”

“It’s uplifting to have everybody there have your back,” says Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln senior Francisco Franco. “The feeling is just warmth and good vibes. It is a competition but everybody’s there to support you, nobody’s there to put you down. Of course, there’s scores but it’s your words, your poems, so you can listen to the scores or believe in yourself. I choose to go up there and to have as much fun as I can.”

“It’s good to be in a competitive environment where everybody roots for everybody instead of against everybody,” says Franco’s teammate, Chanel Zarate.

Matt Mason says it’s not just the high energy, communal love-in that gives LTAB a following but the work itself.

“Yeah, people are yelling and cheering for poets, but the poems are also interesting, funny, beautifully put together. It exceeds your expectations of teen poetry. These kids are smart, creative. It would not surprise me if a lot of these poems get published in magazines or eventually books.”

Central High teacher Deron Larson is impressed by how much work his students put into making poems as powerful as they can be, doing draft after draft, all under the guidance of teaching artist Greg Harries.

“They become invested in words in a way I don’t get to observe every day in the classroom. They make a commitment that goes beyond doing homework a teacher assigns. They make their own homework and just conquer it and take it 10 steps beyond where they thought they were going to go.

“The mentoring poets that duck into my classroom and share their love for words really touch the students in a way I can’t do. As much as I love words there’s a process over the course of the year where they get tired of hearing the same thing I have to say. If a 20something comes in they’re much closer to my students’ experience. The message carries differently and then the students just run with it.”

Larson’s pleased slam poetry has found a footing in schools but he’s not sure it would benefit from being a formal academic program.

“If we put it into a curriculum it almost feels like we might change it an elemental way. As an after school club and extra that definitely deserves our support it feels like it might work better. If we try to write it into lessons I think there’s a possibility we might kill something that’s so vibrant right now.”

NWC artists also work with youth at a Lincoln juvenile detention center. Audio recordings of these youths’ poems will play at the finals to allow “their voices to be heard,” Mason says.

For festival details, visit ltabomaha.org.

Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Slam Poetry Festival: “the point is the poetry, the point is the people”

April 11, 2013 2 comments

 

If your usual reaction to poetry is along the lines of “Ugh” or “No thanks” than be prepared to undergo a conversion when you attend a slam poetry event.  It’s hard to imagine not being carried away by the sheer exuberance, courage, passion, and talent displayed at one of these celebrations of words and ideas.  The Louder Than a Bomb  Omaha Youth Poetry Festival is a prime example of all this and more at work.  My story about it in The Reader (www.thereader.com) is repurposed here.  Check out the team finals this Friday, April 12 at Creighton University.  The individual finals are April 21 at UNL.  Even if you think you don’t like poetry, you’ll find yourself getting hooked and cheering and applauding poets the way you do musicians or actors or athletes.

 

 

 

 

 

Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Slam Poetry Festival: “the point is the poetry, the point is the people”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

As the Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Poetry Festival draws to a close after weeks of preliminary bouts and last Sunday’s semi-finals, it appears slam poetry is a new outlet for that rite-of-passage known as adolescence.

The 2013 team finals pitting defending champion Duchesne, Lincoln North Star, Lincoln High and Omaha Central are April 12 at 7 p. dm. in the Hixson-Lied Auditorium at Creighton University‘s Harper Center. The event is free and open to the public.

Poets serve as coaches of participating teams from public and private, inner city and suburban schools and community organizations.

“I love the mix of different schools and geography we have represented,” says Omaha poet and festival director Matt Mason.

He also loves how slam poetry brings together cool kids and nerds. “There’s the football player and the chess player and the golf kid, all lined up on the same team helping each other,” says Mason. “Teachers report this is an approach to poetry that reaches students not reached very much in classes. Asking them to write and perform and tell their stories really opens something up in them and makes them appreciate what’s happening at school rather than sitting there with a bad look on their face.”

Teams prime themselves for a season of poetry concentration.

“We treat this as if it were a sports activity at a school where teams start practicing, getting ready for competition, doing workshops and scrimmages in the fall, and then there’s the big tournament (festival) in the spring,” he says.

There are scores and standings but Mason says it’s more a celebration of creatively expessing ideas and feelings.

Duchesne team member Gina Keplinger repeats a festival slogan “the point is the poetry, the point is the people,” adding, “Poetry is bigger than stages and pages and microphones.”

The often achingly intimate poetic reveries explore love and loss, identity issues, social woes, and everything human. Westside team member Lia Hagen’s “Inappropriate” is a satirical critique of gayphobia. Lincoln North Star team member Shatice Archie’s “My Two Inch Thick Mattress” is about homelessness.

“The thing that continually impresses me is the way the students so directly and honestly address the most challenging issues in their lives…nothing is out-of-bounds or too personal for them,” says Westside and Central coach Greg Harries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fest is put on by the Mason-led Nebraska Writers Collective, which sends poets into area schools. When a documentary profiling a Chicago youth slam poetry competition caused a buzz here he rode that impetus to organize the first LTAB Omaha slam in 2012. Twelve teams competed then. The field grew to 19 teams this year, for him a signal of slam poetry’s growing popularity.

“I think more and more it is getting into the culture. It wasn’t just the movie that got kids onto slam poetry teams. YouTube made more people aware of it. What we did last year created a kind of momentum, so that we’ve got students trying to get LTAB teams into their schools because they’ve got friends on a LTAB team. So it’s spreading now from the kids themselves. They are the best advocates because they’re excited about it and their friends see how excited they are.”

Slam’s competitive aspects are real but not paramount. Judges award points for individual and team performances. Performers with the highest cumulative marks keep advancing. Audiences are encouraged to express their appreciation and do so with applause, finger snaps, cheers. Mason’s impressed that competitors don’t seem as caught up in the winning or losing as they do in the shared experience.

“What’s really exciting for me is to see how these students support each other and support other teams. They’re cheering for their own team because it’s a competition but when somebody from another team does something they like they’re the first ones on their feet.

“These kids just want to see good stuff and so they get excited when they see it.”

Keplinger says, “Being cheered on, complimented and genuinely congratulated by poets who were not members of my team was a welcome surprise.”

“There’s a competition but there’s also a recognition and acceptance of each other’s talents,” says Lincoln High English teacher Deborah McGinn. “The camaraderie is based on words and language. The energy is just sky high.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mason’s enthused the fest is growing the state’s poetry community.

“We’ve held poetry slams for students for years in the area and they’ve been decent, we’ve seen some good work, but it hasn’t had anywhere near this level of talent and just really polished work. I mean, the talent level is just through the roof. I think that goes back to our coaches working with schools for months, not just coming in and doing a one-off workshop.

“A fair amount of our coaches are coaching a team for the second time. I think the work shows that these kids are growing and really speaking about issues the audience responds to and doing it in a way that really brings them alive.”

The individual finals are April 21 at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, For details, visit ltabomaha.org or http://www.facebook.com/ltabomaha.

 

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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