Last semester I taught Writing 12 for the first time. Unsure of where to start with poetry, I turned to one of my favourite slam poets, Sarah Kaye, and students quickly caught on that there is a whole world of great slam poets on YouTube. Soon we were watching a variety of poets – from Anis Moijani (“Rock Out”) to Shane Koyscan, among others.
When we began to write list poems, I was surprised to see lists that went far beyond the superficial: these students were exploring themes of loss, gender, sexuality, and ego in their own lists. The room became charged with energy even though it was completely silent. The students were engaged in their own creating process.
My students agreed, reluctantly, that poetry is meant to be performed, rather than read silently, and so our own small slams began in the classroom. The first day, one student’s performance left us silent; several girls were moved to tears. After a moment or two, comments like, “You’re beautiful” or “I know exactly what you mean” came spontaneously. One girl commented that our class was not simply Writing 12, but Group Therapy 101 as well. We were all learning about the power of spoken word.
Thanks to a lead from my son, I learned about one of the longest running poetry slams in North America. Every last Monday of the month, Café Deux Soleils on Commercial Ave in Vancouver invites youth between the ages of 13 and 19 to come to perform their poetry. The students responded enthusiastically when I suggested we go, and not long after, two of the students bravely suggested that they might want to perform.
On the night of our “stepping out”, 15 students joined me at a crowded café, three students bravely signed up to perform, and others volunteered to try their hand at judging (see the rules for Slam Poetry on Vancouver Slam Poetry’s website). In the world of poetry slams, appreciation for a deftly worded phrase is signaled by the snapping of fingers. I was moved to see and hear snapping fingers during Alyssa and Kathryn’s performances; they were performers for a night to a large and appreciative audience. They were also witnesses to many other talented and innovative writers and poets.
Our debrief the following day was charged and enthusiastic. One girl said she’d found new ideas for her own writing, while another said the evening was the first time she’d been out to Vancouver on the Skytrain. All participants agreed that they wanted to go again.
Although we still had days in the Writing 12 classroom that felt less than inspiring, and some students still struggled to capture their ideas in writing, stepping out of the classroom and on to a real stage moved poetry out of mere rhyming couplets and anthologies to inspired works of art and word.