Along with indiscriminate downpours and equally indiscriminate ninety-degree days, spring in Portland brings with it some of Literary Arts’ most joyous and riotous events: Verselandia!, the city-wide youth poetry slam, and, newly, the East Side Slam. Of course, this year, not so much.
As gatherings became unsafe, event venues and school buildings shuttered, and a profound disorientation settled on the masses, our homes multiplied their purpose. Dining tables became meeting rooms, living rooms became daycares, bedroom corners turned into offices, coffee shops, and classrooms. Every surface that could hold a laptop became a movie theater.
At first it was just for two weeks; fourteen days to keep everyone away from one another while we waited for an unknown solution to a problem that no one seemed to fully understand. Very few outlooks were optimistic, however, and it quickly became clear that two weeks was a pipe dream, and we had to shift gears—aggressively, and fast.
We held onto Verselandia! as long as we could. It was difficult to tell our school partners that it wasn’t happening because so many people, so many students, look forward to it all year. It’s high-profile, it’s loud, it’s electric, and it couldn’t be recreated virtually. So, we waited to call it off until we heard from the governor that school buildings would be closed until at least April 28, two days before the event would have been held.
It’s possible that there was a moment of pause while we considered our options, but it didn’t feel like it at the time. Driven by our desire to keep to the mission, but also, possibly more important in the moment, to provide a sense of community and access to creative spaces for young people, online alternatives to every single program were designed within a couple weeks.
#Virtualandia! came from the understanding that we could not replicate a slam, the official rules or the experience, in a virtual environment. But poetry is still powerful and deserves to be shared. Marrying requests for student feedback with the poetry workshops that had been organized for east Multnomah County schools, we invited five local writers to create video lessons to teach different components of slam poetry.
Local slam poets Brianna Renae and Julia Gaskill, Oakland-based artist and activist Mandela Baylis, Oregon Poet Laureate Anis Mojgani, and writer and filmmaker Arthur Bradford, all lent their expertise as creators to Portland’s young poets. They recorded lessons on the purpose of slam, brainstorming, performance, revision, and video recording. Brianna, Mandela, and Julia also offered individualized feedback to any student who submitted a poem.
The result of Virtualandia!, which now lives as a poetry collection on the Literary Arts website, was very different from Verselandia! in its execution, but we hope remains similar in its purpose: to hold space for and elevate youth voices.
Though the provisions of Literary Arts are likely a small portion of most students’ high school experiences, to cut ties with our school community during the course of the pandemic was, and is, not an option. Between tragedy, fury, and grief that has struck the nation of late and the fact that grades were finalized for students before Virtualandia! started, there was little to no obligation to participate. But students still did, and we’re lucky.
In this work, we always have to remember the why. As the streets grew quiet, pleas for help jettisoned unanswered into the void, and hostile incompetence flourished in feeds and capitol buildings alike, a lot of day to day life began to feel excruciatingly unimportant. But to stop this work in the middle of chaos is, perhaps, to tell the young people we serve that we are too overwhelmed to care about what they have to say.
So instead of buckling and hiding, we readjusted and provided an open space, should someone want to enter it. No obligation, no competition, no opportunity for rejection, just a way for us to say, you don’t have to show up, but we’re here if you need us.
Keep an eye out for the 2020 Student Anthology, which this year accepted applications from students outside of our WITS programming.