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MK Stallings

Annual Youth Poetry Grand Slam In St. Louis

February 22, 2017
St. Louis has a vibrant youth poetry slam scene called VerbQuake. It extends beyond the city limits to include high schools in St. Louis County, Northwest High School in Jefferson County and Collinsville High School in St. Clair County. With miles of road separating these young poets, the opportunity to hear and be heard brings them together even more so than the competition.

On Feb. 4, St. Louis Community College-Forest Park opened its student center to teams of poets from 11 high schools for the VerbQuake Festival. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., these poets shared their truths in front of strangers — at times painful, surprising or even humorous. Volunteers who shape the contours of the poetry community in St. Louis as poets or audience members served as judges. Poets organized the day so that the top four youth slam teams would emerge and top 12 poets could be recognized.

By the evening, K-Word of Kirkwood, Beauty and the Beats of Marquette, Poetic Soulz of Grand Center Arts Academy, and Vap of Central Visual and Performing Arts were in the VerbQuake Grand Slam, which is generally a four-team championship contest. K-Word won and has the distinction of being the only three-time youth slam championship team in the region. Poetic Soulz ranked second, Beauty and the Beats were third, and Vap came in fourth.

After the Grand Slam, the top 15 poets of the season participated in the final competition of VerbQuake's sixth year. The judging panel consisted of well-regarded poets who contribute to the region in notable ways. Poets such as two-time slam champion Mari "EmCee" Carter, 2014 regional slam champion JayLuvve, "The Roof is on Fire" filmmaker David Wraith, Warrior Poet Stephanie "Surreal Sista" Williams, and internationally-renowned poet Cheeraz Gorman.

In total, the panel scored 30 poems performed by those young poets on an unusually warm Saturday afternoon in mid-February, and they dominated The Stage at KDHX.

Washington University
We heard poems that celebrated the lyrical nature of poetry, that protested institutionalized forms of discrimination, that revealed the pain of sexual assault, that made us see the world through their eyes. The event determined participants in an international youth poetry slam festival called "Brave New Voices" in San Francisco. After three rounds of works crafted by these young wordsmiths, UrbArts gave the top four poets prizes and the opportunity to travel to the Bay Area.

The team to represent the St. Louis region consists of Aly "Atlas" Terry of Kirkwood, Zack Lesmeister of Marquette, Tobias "Majovah" Wells of Grand Center Arts Academy, and the individual champion Joi McClain of Metro Academic and Classical High School.

As these young poets prepare for a summer of hearing and being heard, they will have one of their first public performances as a city-wide team on April 8 during "Rethinking High Schools" town hall at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park.

MK Stallings is the founder of UrbArts. Follow him on Twitter: @MK_Stallings.

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