An overcast sky sputters its damp song and tulips reach for a sixty-degree day. It’s April 28th, but before National Poetry Month can recite its penultimate line, nineteen young poets from eleven Portland and East-Multnomah County schools pour into the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall to share their voices, their words, their stories.
It is a competition—the word “slam” suggests as much. Yes, the judges readying their scores, the hurried tallying of points, the nerves shining nearly as bright as the lights of the Schnitz. The harmony, too, though; competitors also “slam” pasta together before the show. They laugh, tour the back of house, pat each other on the back, some even interview with OPB about their experience. Collectively, they ask questions and share anxieties. And, collectively, they learn. Not just where the bathroom is or if there is any more of that ziti left, but how their individual voices, from across different schools, neighborhoods, and backgrounds, can join to create a space founded not just on contest, but on caring and love.
Doors open, and with the quickness of a fine-tuned volta, the auditorium seats begin to fill. Students wave and rush to meet their friends, family, and fans—all there to cheer them on. By the time the house lights dim, and the due thanks and the rules of the championship are given, the excitement is as tangible as one of the night’s paper programs, draped open across a lap.
The poetry slam, originally invented by a construction worker in Chicago, is not just about vying for the top score and tonight’s top prize of $1,000. It is also a deft, beautiful way of bringing poetry to a larger audience, Anis Mojgani, Oregon Poet Laureate and the night’s emcee, reminds us. This is made undoubtedly clear by the two tearful, animated, heartfelt rounds of poetry that this year’s competitors grace us with. Lyrical pyrotechnics, visceral narratives, and reflective monologues are expertly woven into three-minute blocks. One student laments the loss of a close friend to suicide. Others wrestle with personal and shared histories of injustices. Another nearly brings the house down with an ode transforming their perceived beauty imperfections into a flawless topography.
Applaud the poet!
yells out Anis, in his soft pink sweater, after each performer’s piece. The Schnitz is alive, not just with applause, but with gasps, snaps, awe, and the writing of courageous young artists. It is alive once more, in a way, for the first time in years. Seeing the excitement on the face of tonight’s winner—McDaniel High School student Nykole Jackson—on stage alongside four other runner ups, is proof, not just of who came out on top, but of the power of coming together in person for the youth and their words. A force showing that lockdowns, Zoom classes, and separation are not the end of this story, but just an uncertain caesura. A pause. A brief inhale before this generation of writers reunite and pen the next line in this defining, stunning, living, breathing verse of being.
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