Nebraska slam poetry competition brings fresh energy to genre

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April 9, 2012 - 7:00pm

Twelve Nebraska high school teams have been practicing for months for a brand-new intramural tournament. The only equipment needed is a microphone - and the English language. This is a contest between poets - slam poets - in the first "Louder Than a Bomb" competition, scheduled for April 15 in Omaha.


The first round of the "Louder Than a Bomb" youth slam poetry competition will be held Sunday, April 15. The second and third rounds will be held the following Tuesday and Wednesday, with the finals scheduled for Friday, April 20. Twelve schools, from Lincoln, Waverly, Bellevue and Omaha, are participating.


Listen to students from Lincoln High School in Lincoln, Nebraska perform original slam poetry:

Joshua Curtis Beard
Beard's poem "Nebraska" examines his feelings about his home state and how it's influenced him as a young black man.



Photos by Jerry Johnston, NET News


Rachel Merliss
Merliss' poem "Look Again" speaks to questions and stereotypes she faces regarding her Jewish identity.



Marquetta Fronterhouse
Fronterhouse's untitled poem explores her father leaving when she was young, and how it's caused her to miss out on Hispanic cultural traditions.



What IS slam poetry?

In the mid-1980s, a group of writers in Chicago - mainly working-class, neither professional writers nor academics - began revolting against staid and mannerly poetry readings. Longing for literature that was livelier, this group developed a style of poetry with explosive language, expressive performance and daring topics. Poets would compete for honors bestowed by a panel of judges chosen from the audience. Informed by hip-hop and beat poetry, the movement grew and spread along with coffee house culture.

In 2011, a documentary about youth slam poetry was making a lot of news, and two Omaha poets - Matt Mason and Andrew Ek - started sharing the documentary with Nebraska teachers, in hopes up building interest in students. The film, "Louder Than a Bomb," featured Chicago-area youth poets.

Lincoln High School creative writing teacher Deborah McGinn was one of the teachers who saw "Louder Than a Bomb." She said she was blown away.

"I was sitting on the edge of my seat," she said. "I could not believe the amount of talent in those young poets."

When she showed the documentary to her advanced students, they were eager to create slam poetry of their own.

"I have never seen anything go as quickly from experience to the page."

McGinn said she saw students giving each other writing assignments, and reciting their poetry to fellow classmates in the hallway.

Exploring poetry in a new way

It seemed like the more students wrote, the more engaged they got, and the more engaged the students, the easier it was for teachers to keep students inspired. McGinn said that in her 28 years of teaching, she'd never seen students so excited about poetry - and the energy was infectious.

"I feel like I'm a new teacher," she said. "I'm able to engage teenagers like I have never been able to before."

Before the Louder Than a Bomb competition, she said studying poetry was a tough sell. Students felt like they had to "solve a poem for its meaning." By writing their own poems, they instead learned poetry from the inside out.

Preparing for competition

On a recent Friday evening, the Lincoln High Slam Team held a practice performance for an audience at the school's auditorium. Every student recited from memory. The vocal styles varied widely, as did the poem's topics, but each was intensely personal. Freshman Rachel Merliss wrote about the questions she gets when people find out she's Jewish. With disarming humor and penetrating wit, she gets her point across that there's no such thing as "looking Jewish."

Senior Joshua Curtis Beard proclaimed his desire to get out of Nebraska to see the bigger world, saying he's tired of people being surprised when they encounter "an intelligent black."

Marquetta Fronterhouse, also a freshman, lamented how her absent father meant that she missed out on some Hispanic cultural traditions.

She and Merliss said exposing such personal stories is "scary." But Beard called his poetry "a release."




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