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Poetry Slam Hits Schools with Literary Force

How A Writer Enlisted Educators To Bring Students To Poetry Performance

Found in: School Life

The Voices of Youth program is all about slamming the schools.

That's "slamming" in the poetry sense -- writers performing works in competition, before panels of judges. To Bob Nelson, who's been encouraging high school students to perform poetry since 2001 through the Voices of Youth program, the slam style seemed a natural way to bring young writers out into the open.
"It's a chance for teenagers to get up and receive positive attention for expressing themselves," says Mr. Nelson, a Phoenix area writer and publisher of the on-line literary magazine "Anthology." "That's the most central focus for us."

"It's a chance for teenagers to get up and receive positive attention for expressing themselves," says Mr. Nelson, a Phoenix area writer and publisher of the on-line literary magazine "Anthology." "That's the most central focus for us."

In its short existence, Voices of Youth has done much to encourage high school writers. Each year the program, in conjunction with the Essenza Coffeehouse in Mesa, Arizona, hosts young poets from across the community.

Together the teens meet in a program that's part performance art and part frenzied literary festival. Families and friends join to promote the poets, as they stride up to the microphone to make their voices heard. After several nights of competition, winners are chosen as competitors and audience members cheer in celebration of writing.

A Chance To Speak Out

By pitting students and schools against each other, the slam adds excitement and competition on a par with a sports event. But it's also about art and expression.

Harm Theunen, a student at Desert Hills High School in Gilbert, Arizona, and Voices of Youth competitor, calls the program a positive opportunity to speak out. "Normally, teenagers aren't heard," she says. "This is a chance for us to express ourselves."

That's poetry to Mr. Nelson's ears. He sees Voices of Youth as both a complement to education, and an expansion of it. "We want students to be excited about it and to feel that their teachers are enabling them to do this," he says. "We want to provide an extra opportunity for teachers, outside the classroom walls."

Last October's fest garnered such attention that this year Mr. Nelson plans to add a writing competition without the performance element, giving voice to poets who aren't ready to get up and slam. He and the Essenza crew also offer contacts to schools interested in hosting slam demonstrations.

Schools can register up to four students each and pay a $25 entry fee per student to enter the Voices of Youth competition. Participants all read original works. "Freedom of speech is an important issue to us," says Mr. Nelson, so nothing is edited. Everything in the way of creativity is encouraged. Prizes have included savings bonds and art museum tickets.

Tips for Starting a Student Poetry Slam

Find a supportive venue. A comfortable coffee house or non-intimidating venue like a café, deli, or bookstore makes a great environment for a slam. "It needs to be a place where teens feel comfortable hanging out."

Find a supportive crowd. Most cities and towns have a community of artists and writers. Make contact, perhaps through a bookstore, university, or coffee shop, with writers interested in encouraging young people. Voices of Youth draws many local artists interested in seeing high schoolers "slam."

Educate the educators. Build a relationship with other teachers, in person, on the phone, and through distribution of registration packets. Send out documents describing the program, with schedules, judging criteria, rules, and fees.

Follow up initial info. Two to three months before an event, send a follow-up fax to schools with reminders about registering for your slam. Two weeks before the fest, contact those who haven't responded to see if they have questions. Assist them with last-minute registration.

Set up a support network. Ask teachers if they'd like veteran performance poets to come into their classrooms to demonstrate slam techniques. Solicit writers to participate. Assist in scheduling the visiting poets into interested schools.

Check out the web. Peruse websites devoted to poetry slamming, including and Nelson's website,
Contact Bob Nelson for more information at

About the Columnists... Sandi J. and David R. Miller are Phoenix-area writers and educators who have lived and worked as teachers in Japan.