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Northampton High School’s annual Poetry Slam celebrates 15 years of ‘joy’ and ‘intensity’

  • Northampton sophomores Jake Ross and Missie Maiewski, students in Suzanne Strauss's English class, talk about the poetry "prop" they created to honor poet Emily Dickinson during a presentation of the class's works in the school library Friday. Though Dickinson did not title or number her poems, the poem they chose to feature is numbered 260 in the Franklin edition of her works.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Northampton sophomores Jake Ross and Missie Maiewski, students in Suzanne Strauss's English class, talk about the poetry "prop" they created to honor poet Emily Dickinson during a presentation of the class's works in the school library Friday. Though Dickinson did not title or number her poems, the poem they chose to feature is numbered 260 in the Franklin edition of her works.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Shane Pinkham, left, Ben Murphy and Andrew Tacy, students in Suzanne Strauss's sophomore English class at Northampton High School, view a model of Emily Dickinson's house as one of the poetry "props" their classmates created to honor the Amherst poet. The class presented works in the school library Friday in advance of the anniversary Wednesday of Dickinson's birth.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Shane Pinkham, left, Ben Murphy and Andrew Tacy, students in Suzanne Strauss's sophomore English class at Northampton High School, view a model of Emily Dickinson's house as one of the poetry "props" their classmates created to honor the Amherst poet. The class presented works in the school library Friday in advance of the anniversary Wednesday of Dickinson's birth.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jagy Riesz, left, and Lauren Borsuk, students in Suzanne Strauss's sophomore English class at Northampton High School, write comments about this poetry "prop" one of their classmates created as an interpretation of Emily Dickinson's poem 513 (as numbered in the Franklin edition of her works) sometimes known as "Spider Web".<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Jagy Riesz, left, and Lauren Borsuk, students in Suzanne Strauss's sophomore English class at Northampton High School, write comments about this poetry "prop" one of their classmates created as an interpretation of Emily Dickinson's poem 513 (as numbered in the Franklin edition of her works) sometimes known as "Spider Web".
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Northampton sophomores Jake Ross and Missie Maiewski, students in Suzanne Strauss's English class, created this poetry "prop" as an interpretation of one of Emily Dickinson's poems. Though Dickinson did not title or number her poems, the poem they chose to feature is numbered 260 in the Franklin edition of her works and often referred to as "I'm Nobody".<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Northampton sophomores Jake Ross and Missie Maiewski, students in Suzanne Strauss's English class, created this poetry "prop" as an interpretation of one of Emily Dickinson's poems. Though Dickinson did not title or number her poems, the poem they chose to feature is numbered 260 in the Franklin edition of her works and often referred to as "I'm Nobody".
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jagy Riesz and Lauren Borsuk, students in Suzanne Strauss's sophomore English class at Northampton High School, created this imagined scene from Emily Dickinson's room to interpret one of her poems, known as 476 in the Franklin edition.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Jagy Riesz and Lauren Borsuk, students in Suzanne Strauss's sophomore English class at Northampton High School, created this imagined scene from Emily Dickinson's room to interpret one of her poems, known as 476 in the Franklin edition.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Northampton sophomores Jake Ross and Missie Maiewski, students in Suzanne Strauss's English class, talk about the poetry "prop" they created to honor poet Emily Dickinson during a presentation of the class's works in the school library Friday. Though Dickinson did not title or number her poems, the poem they chose to feature is numbered 260 in the Franklin edition of her works.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Shane Pinkham, left, Ben Murphy and Andrew Tacy, students in Suzanne Strauss's sophomore English class at Northampton High School, view a model of Emily Dickinson's house as one of the poetry "props" their classmates created to honor the Amherst poet. The class presented works in the school library Friday in advance of the anniversary Wednesday of Dickinson's birth.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Jagy Riesz, left, and Lauren Borsuk, students in Suzanne Strauss's sophomore English class at Northampton High School, write comments about this poetry "prop" one of their classmates created as an interpretation of Emily Dickinson's poem 513 (as numbered in the Franklin edition of her works) sometimes known as "Spider Web".<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Northampton sophomores Jake Ross and Missie Maiewski, students in Suzanne Strauss's English class, created this poetry "prop" as an interpretation of one of Emily Dickinson's poems. Though Dickinson did not title or number her poems, the poem they chose to feature is numbered 260 in the Franklin edition of her works and often referred to as "I'm Nobody".<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Jagy Riesz and Lauren Borsuk, students in Suzanne Strauss's sophomore English class at Northampton High School, created this imagined scene from Emily Dickinson's room to interpret one of her poems, known as 476 in the Franklin edition.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

— When Heather Brown and Suzanne Strauss began teaching at Northampton High School 15 years ago, they decided to launch an experiment they hoped would spark student interest in poetry.

They’d heard about live poetry competitions known as slams held in Chicago and New York that were “almost like boxing matches” in their intensity, Strauss said.

The two English teachers reserved the high school’s Little Theater space, recruited a few colleagues to help and crossed their fingers that the first NHS Poetry Slam would draw at least a few participants.

“At first, people weren’t sure about it,” Brown said. “I remember the principal peeked in at one point and by the end, people were running around the halls and gathered around the doorway, wanting to come in.”

Since then, the annual slam, where students perform original poems in a friendly competition, has become a high point of the school calendar. The event routinely packs the school’s 700-seat auditorium and draws scores of young writers, as well as poets from the community who act as judges. One reason it hasn’t been open to the public is that there’s not enough room in the auditorium, Brown said.

With roots that go back to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, poetry slams encourage students to take risks with their writing and express themselves in new ways, teachers say.

To help encourage students to summon the courage to perform, various events are held leading up to the event. This year, veteran slam poets, including some NHS graduates, were invited to perform at a student assembly.

Veteran NHS English teacher Ernie Brill also performed, reading an original poem he wrote for the first NHS slam that reimagines the character of Snow White as a “welfare queen.”

“The students loved it,” Brill said. “It’s a story they’re familiar with, but with a twist.”

This year, 60 student poets are on the bill for the slam — set to

run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. today — and more than a third of those who have signed up are freshman, Brown said. They’ll compete for a top prize of $100 and the unmistakable cool that comes from being a slam winner.

Since the first NHS slam was held in 1997, organizers estimate nearly 1,000 students have performed, including a few who went on to gain wider recognition as poets.

The winner of the high school’s inaugural slam, Christan Drake, now 30, went on to become a National Poetry Slam finalist. The national competition is held in a different U.S. city each August and features poetry teams from across the U.S., Canada, and France.

Another high school slam winner, Chris Gonzales, a 2011 NHS graduate, now hosts a weekly poetry reading at The Hinge and a monthly reading at The Haymarket in downtown Northampton.

Gonzales, 20, a city native who entered his first slam as an NHS sophomore, said the experience helped him find his voice as a writer.

“There’s something about being able to get onstage and use words,” he said. “The spoken word is so direct and accessible. Gaining an appreciation for that changed who I am.”

The number of high-quality poems performed rose each year he participated, said Gonzales, who is studying English at Greenfield Community College.

“The first year, there were maybe two poets that people were blown away by,” he said. “By my senior year, there were so many talented poets. It’s just an amazing time.”

Even students who don’t win a title or perform a poem benefit from the event, teachers say.

“It’s about joy and a sense of language and a feeling for different kinds of poems,” said Brill. “I get a lift from it for about a week afterwards.”

How do students feel getting up onstage to read original work?

Earlier this month, several students in MicheleBernhard’s freshman English class said they were planning to submit poems for this year’s slam.

“It’s a way of getting your thoughts out,” said Samantha Leahan, who has been writing poems since the 6th grade. “If you’re writing for a slam, you’re putting your ideas out there.”

“I’ve never done anything like that before but it sounds like fun,” agreed classmate Angela Soule. “I’m definitely going to enter.”

Fellow freshman Charlie Denhart said he would probably wait another year before participating in the slam. Still, he was struck by the work of slam poets, including Gonzales, who read at last month’s kickoff event.

“They were more emotional about writing,” Denhart said, “It was inspiring.”

Bernhard said one of the best things about the slam is that it attracts students from different social groups at the high school.

“All sorts of kids get up to read,” she said. “I think it’s a very safe space and they feel supported.”
In previous years, the high school produced an anthology of each year’s slam poems. More recently, Northampton Community TV has been recording the event and video of past slams is available on the NCTV website.

Since the first slam was held at NHS, performance poetry has grown more popular nationwide and the high school’s event has also “grown up,” Strauss said.

“In the beginning we had a lot of poems along the lines of ‘my boyfriend loves me and I love him,’” she explained. “Now, it’s about big ideas and ‘who am I?’ Poetry is alive at Northampton High School.”

Administrators say the fact that the slam has thrived for 15 years is a tribute to the school’s teachers and students.

“It says something about our school that it’s continued for so long,” said Assistant Principal Christopher Brennan, former head of the English Department. “The slam takes poetry out of the academic realm and makes it something the kids see as real and a part of their life,”

Slam poet Sofija Kas, a junior at Hampshire College and a judge for today’s event, agrees the slam is enriching for both performers and audience members.

“This gets students to be creative outside of the academic scene,” she said. “Judging’s going to be hard, but it will be intense and fun.”

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