Slam it: Academy of Music to host its first Youth Poetry Slam 

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 04-22-2023 5:14 PM

There are poetry readings, the workshop leader said, and then there are poetry slams — and it’s important to know the difference.

“Slam poetry,” said Lyrical Faith, “is about winning. It’s a very competitive sport.”

Faith should know. She began performing spoken poetry at age 12 and now, in her late 20s, is ranked third among women poets worldwide, as of the 2022 Women of the World (Virtual) Poetry Slam.

For years, she’s also been running writers’ workshops, working as a teaching artist in schools (including here in the Valley), and curating poetry events.

These days, Faith — that’s the stage name of Imani Wallace, a native of the Bronx, New York — is a doctoral student in education and social justice at the University of Massachusetts. She’s also the host of the Academy of Music’s first-ever Youth Poetry Slam, an April 29 competition that will feature 18 high school students from the region.

Late on a recent weekday, Faith met by the Academy stage with 10 of the students to go over basic ground rules for the coming competition: the time limit for presenting a poem (three minutes); what is and isn’t allowed when you’re on stage (beatboxing is OK, playing an instrument is not); and how the contest would be staged (three rounds of elimination competition, overseen by five judges, leading to three finalists).

Above all, she stressed, spoken poetry is as much about the overall presentation as the words: using emotion and different tones of voice, and using movement with your hands, head, or whole body to tell a story that grabs listeners’ attention and ideally speaks to a larger issue.

“This is not a coffee shop reading,” Faith said. “You are a performer, an entertainer, and you’re on stage to give a show.”

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For that reason, she told students, it’s best to have your poems memorized. Reading from a sheet of paper is permitted, she noted, “but it can also limit what you can do.”

Some of the students had a little past experience in poetry slams, but others indicated they hadn’t performed in one before. In an interview before the workshop, some talked a bit about what it might be like to do so in a place like the Academy.

“I’ve never done it in a place this big,” said Lucy Castoldi, a ninth grader from Hartsbrook School in Hadley.

Oliver Somers, a 10th grader from Hartsbrook, said he found his way into poetry through an interest in rap. He’s since written poetry and also studied it at school, and that got him to thinking he’d give spoken poetry a try, too: “I think it could be fun.”

And Cecelia Allentuck, an 11th grader from Springfield, said she’s been involved with theater for some time — yet the idea of being in the spotlight at the Academy by herself was a little nerve-wracking.

Yet she wanted to try it. Through a connection of her mother’s, she had previously met Faith at a poetry slam and had attended a number of live events. Performing at the Academy of Music “should be a good opportunity,” she said.

‘On the edge of their seats’

Debra J’Anthony, the Academy’s executive director, said the idea of hosting a youth poetry slam was born in early spring of 2022 when the theater hosted a presentation by Denice Frohman, an acclaimed New York poet and performer, along with two young local poets: Marissa Perez of Florence, who won the Glascock Poetry Prize at Mount Holyoke College in 2020, and Rio Santos, Northampton’s youth poet laureate.

J’Anthony said she saw several students from Amherst Regional High School “on the edge of their seats” during the event and later asked them if they’d be interested in taking part in a youth poetry slam at the Academy. “They really liked that idea,” she related.

She eventually reached out to regional high schools to find possible participants, with teachers making recommendations. Students from several towns and schools, including Springfield and West Springfield, and the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School and ARHS, will be part of the April 29 competition.

J’Anthony connected with Faith after a couple of people, including ARHS English teacher Kate Kuhn, recommended her as a host for the show. (Faith is also a co-producer of the popular Valley Voices Storytelling Slam that the Academy hosts in conjunction with New England Public Media.)

In an interview, Faith, who began her doctoral work at UMass in the late summer of 2021, joked that she agreed to host the Academy’s youth poet competition “because I tend to take on a lot of projects — it’s kind of what I do.”

But she said she’s also deeply committed to the idea of helping young people, especially in historically underrepresented communities, develop their skills in spoken poetry, both as a means of self-expression and more generally as a tool for social justice.

She was introduced to the genre by her sixth grade English teacher, she said, and quickly found it a “natural progression” from her interest in reading and writing. “I really liked the performing aspect,” she said.

To give the students a sense of that, she played video clips at the Academy of presentations by three highly ranked spoken poets, all of whom related disturbing personal experiences in dramatic ways.

In “Adrenaline Rush,” for instance, Rudy Francisco begins with an observation of the extreme sport of volcano surfing, then moves to a fraught encounter he had with a police officer when he was driving at age 18 — ultimately concluding that “Being black is one of the most extreme sports in America.”

“Being black in America is knowing there’s a thin line between a traffic stop and the cemetery,” Francisco says, his voice a mix of outrage and fear, his hands moving on either side of a microphone.

Faith showed two other clips, of a woman named Anita D. relating her grim experience in a psychiatric hospital, and one by Blythe Baird, describing how she battled with anorexia in her effort to lose weight and make herself more acceptable to the world.

“See how they use emotion, different voices, different facial expressions to tell their stories,” she said “We see the journey they’re on ...We feel like we’re in that psych ward, we get the fear and the sense of helplessness [of Anita D.].”

To de-emphasize the competitive aspects of a slam, Faith also had the high school students do some writing at the workshop and, for those willing, to present what they’d composed and get feedback.

J’Anthony said she hopes the youth poetry slam could be the start of a new series at the Academy. And Faith reminded the students that there would be cash prizes for the top three finalists: $250 for first place, $100 for second, and $50 for third.

“Plus you get eternal bragging rights,” she said, smiling.

The Youth Poetry Slam takes place on April 29 at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy of Music. Tickets are $10 for students and $15 for others.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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