IMAGINE FOR A MINUTE that poets are rock stars and kids everywhere dream of one day driving stadium audiences to frenzy with nothing but their naked verse.
The dream seems a short step from reality on a February afternoon at Roseway Heights Middle School, when a posse of six high school poets emerges from a tunnel-like hallway into a cafeteria auditorium filled with 180 screaming middle schoolers, like a chart-topping band taking the stage. Sophomore Reuben Cottingham, wearing a blue hoodie, black gloves, and a pick in his afro, works himself up like a boxer, spitting rhymes under his breath; senior Sabrina Ruiz wears the steely gaze of too-cool-for-middle-school blasé beneath her blonde striped sweep of hair; and junior Tenzin Dawa’s low-riding swagger and shaggy hair pushed over his face by his Bulls cap give at least an illusion of bravado.
“I’m so nervous,” Dawa confides to librarian Nancy Sullivan on the seven-block walk over from Madison High School. It is his first time performing a poem in public.
“It’s going to be fun,” replies Sullivan, whose high cheekbones and short, spiky hair make her look barely older than her students. “Use your nervous energy.”
Cottingham and Ruiz are past participants in the annual Madison poetry slam Sullivan started seven years ago in, of all places, the school library—a space that’s turned into a cultural heart for many schools. Today Sullivan’s goal is not only to get the middle schoolers excited about poetry, but to hone the older students’ performance chops for a much larger stage: the entire city. Madison’s top three poets will face trios from each of PPS’s eight other high schools at the Mission Theater on April 25 in a first-ever competition, called “Verselandia.” Organized by Literary Arts and a network of school librarians, the performance will pit 27 poets against each other before an audience of their peers, a panel of local celebrity poet judges, and the host, Anis Mojgani, a two-time National Poetry Slam Champion and former Portlander. One will emerge from the verbal fray as the most badass high school MC in the city.
Sauntering across the auditorium, Dawa taps a check on the microphone before launching into his maiden performance: a love poem. His earnest pop couplets—“I love you more than Jay-Z loves Beyoncé; I love you even more than you love Kanye”—make the 13-year-old girls in the back of the audience swoon, but his coup de grâce proves to be his metaphors: “Your smile is the sun, it shines away my pain. If I ever see you cry, I’ll be the umbrella to your rain.” Ruiz, who took second at last year’s slam with a poem about the banality of violence in response to a student shooting, closes the performance with more vulnerable fare: “I am up off my knees. I am no longer a peacemaker. That thin, shriveled, anxiously anorexic creature belongs to a different time, a different life, a different me.”
Sullivan, who transferred to Madison in 2003 after four years at several elementary schools, organized the first Madison slam in 2005 to give students the opportunity to express this wide range of emotions beyond the structures and strictures of high school. “You don’t get any points on standardized tests for creativity,” she says. “You get points for fitting the mold. But most students don’t fit the mold at Madison. Not everybody’s going to be a great student, so if this is the thing that they’re good at and they never get a chance to show anybody—that’s why I keep doing the poetry slams.”
She points to Cottingham, last year’s third-place winner, who’s constantly spinning poetry out of his life and rhyming his way down the school’s halls. Even walking back to Madison, he practices quietly, timing himself to be sure he’s under Verselandia’s three-minute limit. He’s composing what he calls a mixtape of poems around one issue. “The topic that has stuck with me in my generation and my race is fatherlessness,” says the African American 16-year-old. Cottingham was born in a Cincinnati shelter and raised by his mother; his father was diagnosed as bipolar schizophrenic. First assigned to write a poem in eighth grade, he stayed up all night because it was the first time he felt he could truly express himself without restrictions. He performed it at last year’s slam: “I never did have a father figure; I never did have a dad come home, look at me, and smile and say, ‘I missed ya.’ But I always did have a lonely mom, because no familiar man came up to her and kissed her.”
“Sometimes I wish I was as brave as they are,” says Sullivan, a self-described “slam poetry groupie” who frequented poetry hotbeds like Café Lena back in the genre’s late ’90s local heyday but never ventured on stage herself. “It’s really empowering for the students who are willing to get up and share what they’re going through and get that positive support from the community.” As early as the first Madison slam, she declared that she wanted to take the contest citywide. Last year, after seeing Louder Than a Bomb, the award-winning documentary about Chicago’s citywide high school slam, Sullivan enlisted a fellow librarian, Sandra Childs, to help her book the Mission Theater and then reached out to the other high school librarians to coordinate their own school’s play off slams. But as the event grew, they realized they needed help.
Having run the popular Writers in the Schools program in PPS for 16 years, Literary Arts, the local presenter of all things writerly, signed on immediately, seeing the competition as a prime way to fulfill its mission to provide models of the disciplined creative life. “A competition is a goal, and sometimes in the creative life, those goals can be elusive,” says executive director Andrew Proctor. “If we produce an army of poets, that would be awesome, but more important is that we’ve taught kids that they can relate to each other and build bridges through literature.”
After the Roseway Heights performance, a dozen middle schoolers swarm the poets to fist-bump and say, “You’re so awesome!” Walking back to Madison, Dawa almost vibrates. “It was electrifying; I’m overwhelmed,” he says, barely able to complete a sentence. He’d been inspired to write and read the poem after seeing Louder Than a Bomb at a screening Sullivan put on. Before the show at Roseway Heights, he’d read it to two people. Now he plans to make it to the Mission to read it in front of 300.
Sullivan and Proctor hope the inaugural event will make a similarly ambitious leap in a few years from a PPS-centric fête to a metro-area-wide contest, with Verselandia shining brightly from the Schnitz marquee. It may take a little longer to make the turn to poet rock-stardom, but in the meantime, Sullivan hopes, many a student will discover the self-expression of untethered literary creativity.
“Poetry is not a five-paragraph essay,” she says. “You don’t even need a comma.”