With five poetry slams in two days, high school students across Madison will be raising their hands and grabbing for the mic this week, as Youth Speaks Wisconsin gears up for its fourth Annual Teen Poetry Slam in the Wisconsin Union Theater this Saturday night.
However, before these intrepid high schoolers take to that bigger stage, they have to impress the judges at their own schools first. All but one of the semi-finals will be held within the schools themselves, functioning like assemblies that teachers can bring their classes to.
"Spoken word is just blowing up. It's hard to know if you aren't in the schools, but it's blowing up. The youth scene is so much bigger than the adult scene," says Youth Speaks Wisconsin program director Josh Healey.
Youth Speaks is anticipating approximately 50 teen poets to compete in the semi-finals, upping the numbers from last year, when only 30 or so fought for a spot on the finals stage. The semi-final judges, made up of a mixture of community educators, activists, poets and politicians, including Madison school board president Johnny Winston Jr., will pare those 50 kids down to the 14 or 15 that will continue on to the final slam.
All poets are fighting for one of three spots available to Madison students on the team representing the state at the Brave New Voices National Youth Poetry Slam, taking place in July in San Jose, California.
"It's going to be a tougher competition this year. There's a lot more students participating and fewer spots. But that just makes them step up their game up," says Healey, who works with several other local poets and educators to run poetry workshops in the schools, as well as organizing the slam competitions. Even with the potentially fierce contest, Healey is quick to point out that the competition is downplayed. "[The teen poets] are all just out there to support each other -- it's not about the competition, it's about the poetry, and they really take that to heart."
If high school poetry makes you think of spiral-bound notebooks full of pensively penned, redundantly rhymed and awfully alliterated pieces, think again. Beguiling boyfriends and gracious girlfriends are seldom spoken about by these spoken-word poets.
"All we do is give the mic to the students -- that's power we are giving to the kids, and they use it wisely," observes Healey. "They talk about stuff like issues of homophobia, why student voices don't get heard, segregation in the schools, violence at home, in the world, in their own lives. And these are issues that I think the school wants them to be talking about."
"Occasionally you'll see a school administrator get uncomfortable, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing," Healey adds. Hopefully clichés, along with comfort levels, will be left at the door on Saturday.