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Top young poets showcase skills in Oakland

on July 25, 2011

On Saturday 18-year-old Curtis Davis, wearing a black fedora, large-rimmed plastic glasses and a wispy mustache, took the stage at the Oakland Museum and performed his poem “Poetry is Whatever We Make it” in front of dozens of his peers from around the country at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam. The poem comes off as a critique of how slam competitions are judged. “I wish I could go on stage and read calmly from my notebook, but that doesn’t score,” he says—and the audience responds with approving snaps and shouts of “Speak the truth!”

“Doing that poem on stage in front of a room full of poets,” Davis said after the competition, “I know they really accepted what I was saying because a lot of them feel the same way.”

The top youth slam poets from around the country gathered in the Bay Area last week for workshops and three rounds of competition, the 14th year the event has been sponsored by Youth Speaks, a San Francisco nonprofit that organizes spoken word performances and programs.

“Brave New Voices” is a spoken poetry competition, where each poet is given about three minutes to recite an original work from memory. Five judges awarded scores on a 1-10 scale. Teams of six, composed of people age 19 and younger—from cities across the country but also as far away as Leeds, England and Gaum—performed in judged competitions in Oakland and San Francisco. The finals were held Saturday night at the San Francisco Opera House, a few hours after the Oakland Museum performance.

Davis’ team, from the Orlando and Tampa area of Florida, placed second to the team from New York City, just missing a spot in the four-team finals, a decision that did leave him a little disappointed. The judging aspect is downplayed at Brave New Voices—the audience is encouraged to boo judges’ decisions and the host criticized them regularly for scoring performers too low—but victories are still celebrated and losses may sting a little.

“I’m a very honest person and I know I’m not trying to be hypocritical, so when I’m at a competition, I’m competing,” said Shayna Castano, an 18-year-old from Hampton Roads, Virginia. “But at the same time, I’m not going to be lost in (the competition) and let that take me over.”

Having the chance to perform in front of—and hang out with—kids with similar interests and abilities from around the country is what Davis said mattered the most.  “It’s really cool seeing all the poets from different places, how we’re all the same in different ways, all the different personalities,” he said. “Even though there is the competition aspect of it, even though we lost, at the end of the day we had fun.”

While Brave New Voices is a competition, it’s more of a chance to give kids a venue to speak their mind and share their experiences. Topics included hunger, insomnia, hip-hop, Walt Disney, death, and zombies. Many of the poets were in tears by the time they walked off the stage and were greeted by series of hugs as they went to sit back down in the audience.

“We spend a lot of time focusing on connecting them to this sense of movement,” said Youth Speaks national director Hodari Davis. “Reminding them of how young people have been silenced, and remain silenced and what a blessed position they’re all in to give voice to some of the things many young people hold in secret, or in a book that’s buried under their mattress.”

After the competition, many of the poets stuck around the theatre to talk, and some went back on stage to freestyle rap. Once he was finished competing, Davis reflected on the week, and decided the highlight wasn’t performing, it was learning a game from the Philadelphia team called “paper clipping”—coming up with a poem off the top of your head that makes no sense, Davis said.

“It’s really fun,” he said. “Me and my team have been doing it all the time now.”


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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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