Brave New Voices … or is it all about love?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

I was pleased to see that the White House recently hosted a poetry jam featuring some up-and-coming spoken word poets who have appeared on Russell Simmons’ HBO series "Brave New Voices." President and Michelle Obama are one of the hippest couples to occupy the executive mansion in recent years.

But I am even more pleased that Beeber Middle School has been hosting an annual Poetry Cafe jam for over the past 10 years.

What started out as a desperate attempt for me to find a way to engage many of my disengaged students is now a rite of passage for many of the talented students in the school.

On May 29th, 16 students will brave the stage and compete in our school’s annual Poetry Café contest. The daring contestants will glance at a full auditorium of over 300 faces; some kind, some at awe, some giddy, some disconnected. Taking deep breaths, these brave pubescent artists will make “words from the page come alive on the stage.”

Some students at Beeber consider their participation in the annual Poetry Café contest the highlight of the year. This collaborative experience involves a large part of the school and engages students to write and perform poetry as well as showcase singers, rappers, dancers, and spoken word talent at the school.

This year the event will host two simultaneous competitions: a poetry recitation and poetry slam contest.

For the poetry recitation, students perform and recite poems from the Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest Anthology. Dina Gioa, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and credited with creating the Poetry Out Loud National Contest, argues for training students in performance poetry to keep the art of poetry alive. When poems are read or recited, it improves speaking and listening skills. Although the formal contest is for high school students, I want my middle school students to have that opportunity to read and bring the words of the world’s most prolific poets from William Blake to Langston Hughes alive on stage.

This year there will be a diverse collection of poems recited. We have Jhon, a 7th grader, and Marcus, an 8th grader, reciting such titles as “We Wear the Mask” by Paul L. Dunbar, and "Dream deferred (Harlem)” by Langston Hughes. Alexis will be performing a bilingual poem “Bilingual/ Bilingue” by Rhina P. Espaillat. It’s been great seeing this 7th grade girl, who is Puerto Rican, embody this poem.

Armon, who performed this same poem 2 years ago, won the recitation contest then. He wowed the crowd with his Spanish and English articulation. Sounds like “mi lengua” and “su numbre” really made the crowd take note. He was truly brave; he had never taken any Spanish courses (foreign languages have been removed from most of our middle schools). But I let Armon work on the poem with Juan, one of the few Puerto Rican students in the school (we have a small but growing population of Latino students), and Armon nailed the poem.

Now the tables have turned, and Armon is helping Alexis master performing this poem. He helps her repeat words that tongue-tie her – "mundo y palabra." This year Armon has chosen to recite the lilting poem “The Tyger” by William Blake. Because he won the recitation contest 2 years ago, students see Armon as a front runner for the recitation contest.

The poetry slam will highlight original work produced by our students. Some poems encompass universal issues such as teen struggles, while others take listeners on personal journeys through their ars poetica. Ayanna, a 6th grader, uses a Jill Scott-like persona to perform her poem "Music," while Sabir, another 6th grader, pays homage to Robert Hayden and Tupac in his poem "Poetry."

But love is the dominant theme in most of the poems. Not just any old kind of the love but those first, real or imagined, “mushy” love poems. David, a 7th grade student, muses in his poem “One Kiss.” While practicing his performance, David gets on hands and knees and says “I’m on my hands and knees/ Baby you’re one of a kind/ Girl you need to be mine/ Ooh girl you are fine…"

Sixth grader Courtney laments in her poem “Is this Love." When practicing Courtney uses a demure tone and utters “Is this love if you said it was lust/ Is this love if said my body/ Would be the only one you touch…" There is also the poem “Mystery” by Precious, a 7th grade girl, who writes song lyrics, and then there is “Will That Boy Ever Love Me”, by musically talented Zakeyah, a 6th grade violinist.

As I have worked with the students after school and sometimes during my prep period, I can’t help but to be hopeful about love. Even though my son Kagiso calls me an old “married fart,” I am starting to feel this love vibe.

Or maybe it’s the change in weather. I am wondering if the onslaught of love poems is due to the fact that last year’s slam poet winner, Justin, performed a love confession poem that was covertly performed for his “girlfriend” who will remain "nameless." Justin performed his poem so well, the audience swooned (including the teachers and judges) – maybe thinking his love poem was dedicated to them. Dominick, the front runner for the poetry slam this year, has not written a “mushy” love poem. This lanky but confident 7th grader, who competed in a recitation contest last year, has been perfecting his slam poem since the beginning of the school year.

His poem “My Halo," is a very different type of love poem that pays reverence to his parents and mentors, who help keep him on the right path. He has not missed a practice, and despite being the front runner, he is always asking for constructive feedback on how to improve his performance. Just the other day, he asked me, “How can I do gestures with both my hands if the microphone in my other hand is in my way?”

I am just excited to see that tradition of poetry and celebrating art is not only valued at Beeber Middle School. I say to the White House, "Welcome to the club."