Two days ago, I sat in a typical, hulking public school in the Bronx, in a sunny library with grates on the windows, and heard vigorous poetry.
I'd shown up feeling tired, distracted, my Blackberry overrun with unreturned emails. But suddenly I was jarred by the raw spirit coming at me: five Converse-clad middle school students who stood up, one after another, and spewed their compositions like they were unloading burdens.
It was the quarter-finals of a poetry slam between public schools. I'd been invited by an old friend, Tim Lord, 43, who, with Jason Duchin, co-founded Dreamyard, which for twelve years has put gifted artists into public schools. The programs help kids find their voices, while learning skills and discipline to ensure they graduate. (Dreamyard, to which I've contributed money, now runs an entire high school of its own, Dreamyard Prep, with an arts-focused curriculum, housed in another Bronx public school.)
There is teleconferencing equipment in place; the kids in front of me are from Middle School 145, and, once the cameras and microphones are live, they can see and hear their opponents from Antonia Pantoja Prep Academy on the video screen. (Sometimes these kids battle student poets in other states or even other countries; one time they brought their sleeping bags and woke up every few hours to compete in different time zones.)
John Ellrodt, who co-conceived of the slams eight years ago, and whose organization, Global Writes, was Dreamyard's partner in introducing poetry combat, appears on the TV monitor, and reiterates the ground rules: there are five judges "sitting in for the Gods of Poetry," he explains, each of whom will score the poems: "Zero being a poem the judges would rather not ever hear again, ten being a poem that will in fact change the course of history."
Five kids are competing from each school. They've been selected by their peers, and the teams will alternate every poem, with the scores held up after each presentation, like on "Dancing with the Stars." (Every student in the Bronx's 40 ongoing poetry classes writes and revises a poem, but not every kid performs one.) The five teammates take their chairs on the sidelines with minimal chatter, visibly focused and tense. One of the Dreamyard teachers, Dana Crum, a Princeton graduate who grew up in Alabama, and who tells me he insists his students master the fundamentals of poetry - synecdoche and metonymy, for instance - before they try free verse, huddles in the library stacks briefly with each kid just before he or she goes on.
Sherree, in a red shiny headband, gets up and delivers her poem,"Take my Breath," with a lilting cadence, her hands dancing and darting in front of her. "I'm the one that fell for you/and I always come back/....I let myself get smothered in your lies."
Yarisha, a wiry girl in black frame glasses recites, "From the Ground to My Own Home," describing a girl "drooping in that lonely corner like the little tree in The Charlie Brown Christmas Special...."
A boy named Vaughn, neatly dressed in a grey and white sweater, shakes out his arms before he begins, as if expelling the jitters. Then he delivers "You Tell Me You Love Me," about his absent father, rocking with his words, almost hopping, on the balls of his white sneakers. "You tell me you love me but you don't/....Now you say we were a waste of time /That hurts /Like a sword struck through me/....How do you tell me you love me/after all the times you lied and said you'll make it up? I needed a father."
Vaughn goes on to invoke one of his teachers as a surrogate parent: "I consider my teacher, Mr. Craig, as a father because he is /loyal/ he is honest/ he will help you/ and he will even show you/but he will never ever give up on you."
Vaughn's gets high scores: 9.4, 9.2, 9.8, 8.7, and 8.9. (Tim whispers to me that the judges are asked not to score below 7.) Vaughn explains later that his poem was indeed "personal": "When I say my poem out loud, I'm basically declaring myself free," he tells me. He even offers a parallel between his situation and President Obama's: "I also had to grow up using other people to replace my father. What my poem basically says if, 'If you don't want to be my hero, I have others.'"
What comes across to me, more than the students' enthusiasm and plain nerve, is their solemnity. This matters. One poem can cleanse, release, move someone else. It's worth all the practice and polishing, the revealing of difficult chapters. They seem to want to get it out, get it right, and yes, to win the contest.
It's also clear these students matter to each other, whooping encouragement whenever a teammate gets ready to deliver a verse, clustering tight as they wait for their total team score at the end of the morning, hugging and jumping on each other when they do in fact win, (hard for me not to jump too), meaning they'll move on to the semifinals.
As I watched one student after another stand up in front of the video camera and their classmates, take a deep breath, and half-blurt, half-sing their memorized compositions like they were things that had to be purged from their bodies, I thought of a line from Obama's inauguration speech: "...In the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things." These poems were not childish things. They were grown-up, often aching, sober expressions: unsparingly candid, sophisticated, bold. They required imagination, preparation, and a willingness to be exposed. Perhaps it's no great revelation to see a stirring young performance on a cold winter day. But in the midst of bleak daily forecasts of jobs lost, homes taken, and arts programs hanging by a thread, these students, their teachers, and stubborn believers like Tim and his colleagues, do give me faith in the stamina of hopeful things.
Yarisha's poem included lines that encapsulate how the simple act of writing can be emboldening: "I now write /Letting the words out of my pen like an everlasting river of similes and metaphors/Letting people know that with my words/I am stronger than you think."