Spring is finally, finally starting to show its face in Ann Arbor, and with the return of red-chested robins comes the highly anticipated poetry slam season for Washtenaw County teens. The competition began in March with a series of four preliminary bouts at Pioneer, Huron, Community, and Washtenaw International High School. Nineteen poets moved onto finals, hosted at The Neutral Zone on Thursday, April 12th. Teens competed for one of six spots on the Youth Poetry Slam Teen where they will travel to Chicago this summer for a national youth poetry institute.
The point is not the points
The event was hosted by Molly Raynor, Literary Arts director at the Neutral Zone. Judges for the evening included local writers Dylan Gilbert, Fiona Chamness, Marlin Jenkins, Franny Choi, and Daniel Bigham. The poetry slam featured two rounds, with ten poets moving onto the second round. In each round, the poets read original work with a time limit of three minutes, and the judges assigned a score of 0-10 to each poem, with 10 being the highest. Unlike in adult poetry slams, and in order de-emphasize the competitive element of the evening, scores were not read aloud. Alex Kime, leader of the Neutral Zone’s Riot Youth program and MC for the slam, was sure to remind the audience, “the point isn’t the points, the point is sharing,” an important message to remember when participating in, and attending, poetry slams. That being said, poetry slams are a great way for poets to bond with other writers in the community and often motivate them to create their best work. At the end of the day, it’s really not about how a poem scores, but the fun and excitement of participating in the reading.
Words that heal
No doubt the judges had their work cut out for them this year. From start to finish, area youth poets demonstrated they did not come to play. In the face of our country’s current climate, their writing tackled a wide range of experiences regarding injustice and adversity. From racism and gentrification to rape culture, body shaming, and mental illness, Ann Arbor high schoolers spoke their truths in volumes.
Even with the diversity in their writing, teens still tended to share a similar theme: standing strong against oppression, and reclaiming themselves. “Scars remind me that my ancestors, my culture, will forever be healing,” read Serena Varner of Washtenaw International High School. And the night, in many ways, was an evening of healing. Karley Misek’s piece Recovery expressed that “the hardest part of recovery is finding out what you’re recovering from.”
Despite the hardships many writers have faced, they managed to share their hopes and an undying strength. Sam Kass, Pioneer High School junior who wrote of struggling with OCD, spoke of her fear “weakness will become habit” but how she is, instead, intent to “make survival a habit.” Erica Mcdonald, Pioneer senior, found power in herself and the women around her, proclaiming, “she is bathed in resilience and she’ll make it alright.”
And the 2018 Ann Arbor Youth Poetry Slam Team is…
The six poets who will make up Ann Arbor’s 2018 Youth Slam Team are Karley Misek, Anika Love, Aldo Pando Girard, Hasna Ghalib, Thea Rowe, and this year’s Ann Arbor Youth Poetry Slam Champion, Serena Varner.
After the slam Hasna, a sophomore at Pioneer and affectionately known as “the Icon,” (and with her confidence and fierce attitude, it’s easy to see why), expressed her admiration for all the writers in the slam. Amidst her post-poetry performance euphoria and contagious enthusiasm, she cited her writing inspiration as poet Safia Elhillo, and her mom. Her ultimate playlist for poetry (and life) includes Daniel Caesar, SZA, and Frank Ocean.