This Sunday, eight high school students will be competing to be part of the Pikes Peak region's six-poet team at the Brave New Voices international youth poetry slam, happening in Atlanta in July. It's the first time Springs teens have competed at this level, but Susan Peiffer, curator and programming director for local poetry open mic and slam group Hear Here, says the team is on par with any of the international groups.
"They haven't experienced the competition level," she says, "but they as poets are mature and gifted." And she would know. She coached Delaware's first Brave New Voices team in 2011 and has worked with teams from around the East Coast in the past.
Poetry slam is competitive performance poetry, and any poem at all can be slammed, whether it's more in the vein of Public Enemy or William Wordsworth. According to Hear Here founder Luke Cissell, "Poetry slam becomes an opportunity for someone to have all of [an audience's] attention for three minutes ... The goal is to write a story or a poem that in three minutes will potentially change your life."
At Sunday's free City Auditorium event, each poet will have three minutes plus a 30-second grace period to present an original poem; after the first round, one poet will be eliminated. The process will repeat (with participants sharing new work) in a second round, leaving six poets — the Georgia-bound Brave New Voices team. They'll compete against each other in a third and final round, basically for bragging rights.
The poets will be judged by a panel of local celebrities: Jill Gaebler of City Council, Warren Epstein of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Jon Khoury of Cottonwood Center for the Arts, Andy Vick of COPPeR, and Stephanie Ford of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation. The poets will be scored on creativity, content and presentation.
Slam progenitor and Chicago poet Marc Smith started poetry slam in November 1984 as a way to get poetry heard again. His feeling, says Cissell, is that poetry is made to be performed, not simply read: "It connects people ... it empowers everybody to believe they have a voice that's worth sharing."
And Hear Here's slam group has done just that. "We're drawing kids from all across the city and from different demographics," Peiffer says. Being disenfranchised and ignored is part of any teenager's life, and having a stage where they're taken seriously can be huge. Peiffer says the young poets she's seen and worked with already have a strong sense of self and identity — and impressive personal strength.
"I think that audiences who aren't used to poetry, or to young people being incredibly vulnerable or incredibly honest, are shocked by what our youth go through," she says. This year, Hear Here's young poets have written a lot of poetry about feminism, body positivity and rape culture. She notes that Colorado Springs' teen poets also often focus on religious and environmental issues, more than poets she's worked with elsewhere.
But across the board, youth poetry is marked by an intensity of emotion. "There's a real sense of gravity, whether it's joy or grief," she says. "[Youth poets] have a really mature emotional scope."