Niajiah Jackson, a seventh grade student at Huntington Middle School, is a finalist in a regional youth poetry slam competition this weekend at Downing-Gross. Jackson, along with Zaquan Smith, another Huntington Middle School student, will compete at Saturday’s event with the winner advancing to the international Brave New Voices event in Houston July 18-22.
Inspiration can call upon Niajiah Jackson at any hour, and she always answers.
One day last weekend it hit her around midnight. Jackson, a seventh-grader at Huntington Middle School, loves to express herself through poetry, and in the middle of the night a phrase came to her: “I’m damaged goods.”
She began writing then and there: “I am damaged goods. I can’t be returned.” What followed was the poem she will read on Saturday evening when she competes in the Teens With a Purpose poetry slam at Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center in Newport News.
“It doesn’t really have a name,” Jackson said. “It’s just something that popped into my head. I’ve gone through some hard things in my life. I’ve been homeless. I’ve lost family members. There’s a lot going on in my life that people don’t know about, and poetry is a way to express that.
She and Zaquan Smith, an eighth-grader at Huntington, will be among the 11 finalists in a regional poetry slam competition that has been going on throughout April, which is National Poetry Month. The top performers at Saturday’s event at Downing-Gross will advance to the international Brave New Voices event in Houston July 18-22.
Jackson and Smith are both members of the Hear This poetry club at the school.
“We are extremely proud when our students are able to take their passion and skills, and have the confidence to use them in a public setting,” Huntington principal Courtney Mompoint said. “I’m glad they’ve had outside people and mentors who have helped them with that confidence. It takes courage, and it’s wonderful to see them doing this and doing it so well.”
The poetry slam competition is sponsored by Teens With a Purpose, a Norfolk-based nonprofit that promotes peer leadership in schools.
Deirdre Love, founder and president of the organization, said the poetry slams are in their 10th year. The competitions focus on highly personal works that are intended to be read aloud.
“All year round, in our clubs and in the community, these young people are writing and taking poetry workshops,” Love said. “They’re using their poetry as youth advocates for change on different levels. This competition is where we celebrate their work and their words.”
She praised the young writers for not only developing their writing skills, but also finding the self-assurance to reveal important parts of themselves, and to share it with an audience.
Many kids today, she said, tend to keep to themselves. Poetry slams are a way of reaching out.
“So much of what they write is their life stories,” Love said. “They are not performing pieces that someone else created. They are telling their stories, to be heard by diverse audiences. They are deeply immersed in the literary arts, reading and writing and critically analyzing life.
“With poetry, we tell them to go deeper. We want more layers. Not just the surface, but why did this happen, and how did this happen? Writing this way, and sharing it with an audience, really helps young people connecting with a world outside of their own.”
Niajiah Jackson was born in New Jersey but moved here when she was in grade school. She wrote her first poem about five years ago, inspired by the books of Doctor Seuss.
She said the creative process helps her deal with things that can be difficult or stressful.
“I feel lifted,” she said. “When I finish a poem, it’s like there’s nothing on my chest. I can breathe.”
She used to get nervous when she had to read one of her poems to an audience. Now she is used to it.
Jackson said she is looking forward to Saturday’s slam at Downing-Gross. She would like to win, of course, but most of all she just wants to know that she connected with the audience.
“You just do your best and hope you get your point across,” she said. “I used to be worried that they were looking at my outfit or how I look or something like that. But now that doesn’t matter. They don’t have to like me. I just want them to like my words.”
What: Teens With a Purpose poetry slam.
When: 4 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center, 2410 Wickham Ave., Newport News.
Admission: Free, but RSVPs are requested at downinggross.org.
Info: downinggross.org or 757-247-8969.
Holtzclaw can be reached by phone at 757-928-6479 or on Twitter @mikeholtzclaw.