The University Record, August 12, 2002

Young writers take to the stage at poetry slam workshops

By Katie Gazella

Poetry Slam

Molly Raynor, 18, contemplates poetry during a writing and performing workshop.
(Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

The high school students spent the first hour of the workshop writing poems and reciting them quietly to one other person in the room. They spoke in whispers, too quiet to be heard except for the occasional word or phrase: “transgression,” and “the ocean in their eyes.”

Then Al Letson strolled to the front of the classroom, a cool presence who commanded the attention of every eye in the workshop. There would be no more whispering.

“This is Performance Poetry 101,” he announced. He talked about acting out poems physically, using “combustible” words like kaboom and packaging a poem as a performance piece to “make it look pretty.” He danced in place and punched the air with a fist.

Letson, a Jacksonville, Fla., resident who has competed in performance poetry competitions known as “slams,” was on campus for a week-long workshop to help teach the teenagers how to perform their poems in front of an audience.

The classes were the brainchild of Anne Ruggles Gere, professor of education and English, and Jeff Kass, a teacher at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor. High school students from across the country attended the workshops, as did a group of teachers interested in new ways of teaching poetry.

The idea, Gere said, was to help the students work on the craft of writing poetry and the art of performing their works. She also wanted teachers to learn about performance poetry as a way of getting their students interested in verse.

“We tend to think of poetry on the page almost exclusively,” Gere said. At the workshops that occurred the week of July 29, she said, people learned “how we can make poetry more accessible, without dumbing it down.”

The workshops were made possible through money from the U-M School of Education, the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, Borders, the Neutral Zone teen center and the Michigan Humanities Council.

Al Letson, a competitive performance poet from Jacksonville, Fla., acts out sone of his poems (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

Gere, Kass and graduate student Cari Carpenter organized the program. Laura Roop, director of outreach for the U-M School of Education, helped to plan the week of events, and graduate students Sarah Wolfson, Scott Beal and Jaswinder Bolina led workshops.

The students went to workshops in the mornings, panel discussions during the day and readings at night. Many performed their own works at the readings and at a poetry slam Friday afternoon, where each poet was given a score on a 10-point scale.

For Jennifer Obidike, a 16-year-old senior from Pioneer High School, the classes were a way to

refine her writing and performing skills and to be around other students who were willing to write about deeply personal issues.

“It’s very exciting to see poets sharing their soul,” she said.

Poetry at the workshops was much different from what most people learn in school, said Marcus Wicker, 18, of Ypsilanti. He is the son of La Cheryl Wicker, administrator of the Substance Abuse Research Center at U-M, and Fred Wicker, a painter for the University.

“You study poets like Shakespeare and Frost” in school, he said. “But it doesn’t really pique your interest.”

Not that people shouldn’t appreciate traditional poets, Letson said. Indeed, he sees performance poetry as a way of driving up interest in all kinds of poetry. The key, he said, is getting people interested in the first place.

“You want to be the on-ramp so they can appreciate Robert Frost,” he said.