by Tessa Livingstone, Portland State University MFA student
This year Verselandia! was especially exciting because it’s the first time it was held at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. This exquisite historic theater is the last of its kind on Broadway: a street once lined with numerous theater houses. Built in 1927, the Schnitz’s ornate interior is reminiscent of Rococo art. Breathtaking chandeliers hang from the vaulted ceiling, while stained glass glows on either side of the stage. As the lights dimmed, and the music quieted, the crowd erupted into applause.“Ya’ll this is so exciting to have this in the Schnitz,” said Anis Mojgani, Portland-based poet and returning host of Verselandia!. “To hit it big like this is awesome.”
The city-wide slam—a partnership between the Youth Programs of Literary Arts and public school teachers and librarians—featured students from Benson, Cleveland, Franklin, Grant, Gresham, Jefferson, Lincoln, Madison, Metropolitan Learning Center, Parkrose, Roosevelt, and Wilson high schools. The twenty competing students were finalists of their individual high schools’ slams.
Anis took a moment to explain how the slam works: all twenty poets compete in the first round, with the top ten continuing on to the second round. At the conclusion of each poet’s performance, the panel of judges, including Joaquín Lopez, Vailey Oehlke, Kimberly Howard, Armin Tolentino, and P.C. Cast, hold up scorecards numbered from zero to ten. A pair of Math Experts calculate the poet’s median score for each round.
Before the first poet was called to the stage, Anis reminded the audience how strange it is to attribute numbers to art, and how important it is to applaud the poet and the poem at the end of every performance. He asked us to recite the following anthem, which served as an empowering affirmation for fledgling poets: “I am here. I have a voice. My voice is not yours. My voice is mine, and I will use it.”
One by one the names were called. Onstage the poets anxiously or boldly adjusted the microphone in front of hundreds of their peers, parents, teachers, and other members of the Portland community—almost 1400 people were in the audience.
It was easy to forget these are teenagers, some as young as fourteen and fifteen years old. On the stage, under softly glowing light fixtures, the poets explored issues such as climate change, domestic violence, immigration, mental illness, religion, and an unjust justice system. Their young voices addressed sensitive subjects with the utmost respect, care, and maturity.
During each performance the audience listened attentively, and chattered excitedly when the judges revealed their scorecards. Scores below 7.0 were met with boos and disgruntled groans, while high scores are met with exceedingly eager applause and standing ovations. After a fifteen minute intermission, a second round, and a beautiful performance by Anis himself, the final scores were tallied and the top five poets called to the stage: 1st place: Lily Lamadrid, Franklin High School; 2nd place: Dylan Palmer, Grant High School; 3rd place: Zawadi Doti, Cleveland High School; 4th place: Maia Abbruzzese, Lincoln High School; 5th place: Engraver Arnold, Grant High School.
Thank you to the Judges and Math Experts, who ensured the poets were fairly scored, and to the dedicated parents, librarians, teachers, and host, for supporting and guiding these young poets. Creating a safe space for poets to share their art demonstrates to these young poets how much they are valued and appreciated.
To all the poets who shared their work at Verselandia!— we are confident you will succeed, no matter which educational or vocational path you choose, because the drive, passion, and determination you exemplified on stage will carry you far. This is our next generation of poets—and what a generation it is!