An event in Newport News on Saturday pulls together local young people, social action and the positive power of spoken poetry.
The sixth edition of the Hampton Roads Youth Poetry Slam Fest kicks off 5 p.m. at the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center on Wickham Avenue. The center will host the first of three qualifying rounds leading up to a regional final to be held April 26 at Norfolk State University.
“It allows them, first of all, to tell their stories — and they’re powerful stories,” said Deirdre Love, executive director and founder of Teens With a Purpose. “It’s essential that they be heard. They talk about the things that matter to them, the things that they’ve experienced. They get to talk about them in a poetic way and in a creative environment. There’s a roomful of people who are listening to them.”
Writers between 13 to 19 years old will get to stand up and share poems with the crowd. Readings or performances will be judged by a panel that includes educators, writers and one young person from the audience.
There’s no cash prize, but young people are shooting to be among six chosen to represent Hampton Roads at a national Brave New Voices youth poetry competition in Philadelphia in August.
Ultimately, the goal is for young people to see how creativity can be a force for both personal growth and social progress, Love said. “We’re giving them an opportunity to put poetry in motion for change.”
For example, when a group of local poets traveled to Chicago for Brave New Voices last year, they learned that six youths had died in street violence there during their short stay. The young poets responded by writing haiku verses and scribbling them on rocks strategically placed around town, near street corners or next to trees.
“It was a message from these young poets, encouraging them to change,” Love said.
Emeka Onyirimba of Norfolk is one young man who benefited from an injection of poetry into his life. Learning to write and perform his poems through the Youth Poetry Slam helped him build self confidence and focus, Love said. He now attends college at Virginia State University in Petersburg.
“He’s become this passionate, loving, giving young man, who used poetry as a vehicle. He’s a great mentor to the other teens. He cares deeply and motivates them. Poetry has taken him on a different journey. He still writes, but the thing that’s most impactful is his spirit and how much he’s grown.”
Love’s own 22-year-old son, Andre, came up through the program and now works as a co-coordinator for Slam Fest.
“The most striking part for me,” he said, “is the journey from beginning to end.
“I like to watch the poets and young people grow into themselves a little bit more,” he said. “It always reminds me of how I was in my late teens. It helps me remember where I came from.”