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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  Fair
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Youth Speaks brings impassioned spoken word to Memorial Union
A finalist at the 2007 Wisconsin Youth Speaks spoken word competition makes himself heard on Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theatre.
Credit:Emma Lierley

An hour after the blizzard warning took affect Saturday night, when even the Madison bus system threw up its hands, a crowd of people were braving their way into the Wisconsin Union Theater, stamping the snow off by the door.

"We are starting a journey here," said Willie Ney, executive director of the UW-Madison's Office of Multicultural Arts Initiative, to the excited crowd. Clearly he was speaking figuratively, but it had already been somewhat of a journey for those who braved inclement weather to come to the Youth Speaks -- Wisconsin Poetry Slam Finals, which also marked the beginning of the Line Breaks series hosted on campus by artist-in-residence Marc Bamuthi Joseph.

If a major critique of Madison is its penchant for public preaching to the proselytized, then the Wisconsin Union Theater, where so often Madison liberal-speak is spoken to a crowd who knows, agrees, and could nearly complete the sentences of the speaker, is clearly a guilty space.

Something else came down from on that high stage Saturday night, however, as it, pulpit-free, was overtaken by an entirely new group of sermonizers. They were young -- most were only freshman or juniors in high school -- but confident, and while the rhymes employed by some allowed for a guess at what was coming next, the sermons never failed to surprise. High-minded social issues were brought down to a closer level, made concrete through personal experience.

And if a major critique of spoken word is its dogmatic swagger, prescribed rhythm and pedagogical subject matter, then young, inexperienced poets are clearly not safe from the scorn, as they often embody the spoken word stereotype, dropping revolutionary names like they were going out of style, while wearing their faces blazoned across baggy T-shirts.

However, not once did the 13 young poets who made it through to the finals Saturday night invoke the name of some romantic radical. Those poets who did occasionally slip into the drone of the pat spoken-word piece did not linger there long, coming out of the redundancy quickly with piercingly insightful lines and images that elicited an "oh word!" exclamation from their fellow schoolmates and a long, pleased "hmmm" from the adults in the crowd.

The line-up of judges, including author Jeff Chang among others, were tough but consistent, and only seven finalists made it through to the second round. While the atmosphere was supportive -- those who faltered were quickly bolstered by a cry from the crowd, "you got it, you got it" -- it was a competition in the end. Carlo, a junior at Madison West, Charlie, a sophomore at La Follette, and Mercedes, a sophomore from Middleton High, brought back-to-back impassioned performances and were the eventual three that will continue on to the Brave New Voices National youth poetry slam this summer.

"A poet has to spit what a poet has to spit," said Charlie before he launched into his last piece. If, like the poet, a preacher must preach, than let them take some cues from the youth -- they can speak it equally well, and to a beat.

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