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Charged, audience-driven poetry leading some higher in educational pursuits

Photo: Josh Huskin, License: N/A

Josh Huskin

Rising young poets: Nathan Zertuche and Ariana Brown.

Photo: Photo by Modest, License: N/A

Photo by Modest

Shaggy slams some verses at Sam’s Burger Joint.


Recently, two young poets, Ariana Brown and Nathan Zertuche, were chosen to join the Austin-based slam team, They Speak Youth Slam, in order to represent SA in the annual under-21 event Brave New Voices. The event pitted 49 teams from the U.S. and Canada against one another in San Francisco, and They Speak’s team made it all the way to third place in the semifinals.

Brown, who is about to begin her university career at UT Austin where she will focus on English and African-American studies, finds in her art “the connection and the catharsis” she can get nowhere else. “I am by nature a shy person,” says the young woman who initiated the Fresh Ink Slam Poetry Club at John Jay High School, which in turn led to the Fresh Ink Under 21 Youth Poetry Slam team. Brown’s poetry deals with dark topics like the substance abuse she has witnessed in friends, while grappling with the kind of panic and paralysis that keeps young people from speaking their minds, and even protecting themselves against dangerous individuals. From her new work “Roads,” which is addressed to her tongue, we get the caustic lines:

 

licking my lips, self-inflicting censorship
impersonating my sentences yet never owning up to your deeds

 

you weren’t there when I needed you
To be louder than the sound of my sincerest apologies
you made me sorry every time I spoke.

 

“Unfortunately,” says Brown of some of her newer work, “when I slam it, it’s not as showy as some of my other pieces, so the message tends to go over people’s heads.”

Rayner Shyne, a Green Lantern fanatic who adopted his stage name as a kind of superhero identity, knows that his presence is a shot in the arm to the movement: “The only way for slam poetry to keep going is to bring in the youth, which is exactly what we’re doing.”

Kellee Greenwood, a vibrant and enthusiastic performer who along with Rayner Shyne attended the San Francisco event as a “noncompetitive” slammer, feels her life has been absolutely altered by the Slam phenomena. “I used to write this seven-line poetry stuff about love or whatever and then I saw slam and said ‘What is this? I’ve never seen anything like this.’ It’s basically this giant theatrical monologue through a poem,” says Greenwood, who immediately sublimated her impulse to act and write Christian music for what she calls “this secular poetry that is amazing.”

Slam has always had its detractors, from Harold Bloom famously calling it the “death of art” in the Paris Review, to former poet laureate Robert Pinsky decrying the form on 60 Minutes as not on par with more traditional verse. But the most interesting complaints come from the slammers themselves, who often do not see what they do as literary at all, but instead as a form of populism. “If you’re no good you should know it,” said Shaggy. “I sucked for a long time but worked toward getting better.” Slamming for 15 years, Shaggy says he still finds inspiration in Frank Zappa records and old Andy Kaufman routines.

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