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Sonnets from the underground

By August 4, 2008 No Comments

Teen poetry: Sonnets from the underground – Schools, Education – The Independent

Many children run a mile at the mention of poetry – but not if they’ve been turned on to verse through ‘slams’. Bill Hicks reports on competitive bouts of performance poetry to which even the Poet Laureate is lending his support

It’s a Saturday afternoon, and seven teenagers take the stage of the Stratford Circus in east London. They’re handed a trophy, and the crowd goes wild, stamping and chanting, “Lam-mas! Lam-mas!”

This is not a basketball match, but the finals of the London Teenage Poetry Slam, and these pupils from The Lammas School in Leyton have just won a cup for the quality of their poetry. Specifically, for writing and performing blistering poems about living in London E10, and their family roots in Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, Turkey – and Waltham Forest.

Welcome to the world of the poetry slam, a competitive form of performance poetry that is overturning notions of how to engage children with the spoken, and written, word.

Poetry slams emerged in Chicago in the early Eighties as the sibling of hip-hop music. It was a collision of mostly black freestyle rappers and mostly white performance poets, working to a tough point-scoring, knockout ethos lifted straight out of the world of sport. While hip-hop mutated into gangsta rap and went corporate, slam poetry moved into inner-city schools, as teachers latched on to its appeal to disaffected teenagers.

Chicago poet and teacher Peter Kahn brought his teenage poetry slams to London in 2000, with the help of the East End youth charity, Lynk Reach. Around the same time, the Poetry Society was setting up its own youth slam with the support of London’s Mayor, Ken Livingstone.

There are slams held in other UK cities, at literary festivals, and even on Radio 4. What is it about slam that attracts kids who would once have run a mile at the mention of poetry?

Over to slam fan and Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. “It offers a way through a lot of the problems and prejudices which surround poetry for pupils in secondary schools,” he says.

Joelle Taylor, co-ordinator of this year’s Rise Londonwide Youth Slam, is spreading the slam message through Inset courses with teachers in London and beyond. “It’s an extremely valuable aid to literacy. But more than that, it crosses all the boundaries of the curriculum: English, history, citizenship. It pulls them together in an exciting way.”

Motion has witnessed how slam, as he puts it, “hit lots of buttons at one and the same time”. To see just how many buttons slam can hit, I sat in on coaching sessions at The Lammas School in the last few weeks before the finals.

The Lammas was one of nine schools to reach the finals. English teacher Asma Guenem first encountered the slam at the Lister Community School in Newham, and saw the positive impact it had on children’s confidence and schoolwork. She was determined to get The Lammas involved.

Her advocacy paid off when the head teacher, Shona Ramsay, coughed up the £4,000 entry fee out of school funds. Once she’d seen the slam’s galvanising effect on the school, Ramsay, too, was a convert.

Guenem also worked on the slam organisers: “They offered us a female coach, a very good one. But I wanted to get boys on board, to break the stereotype that all they’re interested in is football. I knew the only way to do this was to have a male coach. And that’s how we got Nick Makoha.”

A charismatic performance poet, Nick coached last year’s winning team. After poetry, his chief passion is basketball, and this shows – both in his physical presence, and in his hard-core coaching technique.

The Lammas team had three boys and four girls. Success, Ms Guenem? “Yes. Well, at first the boys looked at me in disbelief, so I told them it’s just like football – football with words.”

On that day, 16 days before the final, several of the team hadn’t done their homework, and Nick was angry. Excuses were about to be offered, but Nick was in no mood to hear them. Instead, he told them to list their happiest and saddest experiences, eight of each.

He talked them through their choices, and when he detected a chink in the street-hardened armour to catch a glimpse of the worried child within, he homed in, relentlessly. One boy said his saddest day was “the day my dad didn’t turn up for my football match”.

Nick: “Why was that so bad?”

Boy: “I’d told all my friends my dad was coming to watch me.”

Nick: “Circle that one. Research bragging, research dads, research lies.”

Another boy was worried about his sick mother. Nick coaxed out the full story. The boy was in tears by now. Nick hugged him. “It’s hard, you’re scared. Can you write about this?”

Maybe he could. The group had been together for a term, whittled down from 30-plus hopefuls who signed up for the slam back in the spring. They found Nick hard, but they trusted him. They had started to reveal things they would not feel safe saying anywhere else.

At this point, Nick introduced the notion of epiphany. How the best poems reveal something about you, the author, that you didn’t want anyone to know. He read his own work about being uprooted from Uganda when his parents were forced to flee the regime of Idi Amin, and asked the group to pinpoint the epiphanies.

“Epiphanies – every poem must have one!”

A week before the final, the team spent a whole Saturday together, plundering images and storylines from each other’s work, writing and re-writing until they had two diamond-hard,56-line poems.

The experiences they had revealed the previous week were embedded in the finished pieces. They had also been quizzing their parents, aunts and grandparents about their early lives in the West Indies, Guyana or England, tapping into collective memories reaching back to the days of the slave trade – the theme of this year’s slam.

In the last few days before the event, Nick and Asma brought in extra help. Chicago poet Langston Kerman – at 20, already the slam equivalent of a Nobel laureate – read the opening of the team’s slavery poem, to electrifying effect. A girl took the floor, faltered over a line, squirmed and giggled. “You have to stop trying to look cool,” boomed Nick.

Stop looking cool? Don’t teenagers exist to look cool? She took this in her stride.

Later, the team’s group performances were refined and energised during sessions with the choreographer Latoya Satrine. The children loved her. Slams hit the physical and the dramatic buttons, as well as the emotional, verbal and intellectual. That is perhaps why it will never be accepted as “real” poetry by the sort of purist poets who regard performance as a distraction, and competition as inimical to art.

And yet, they could be persuaded by Pie Corbett, the poet, children’s author and literacy consultant, who was one of the judges of the slam. He singled out The Lammas team’s work – in particular, these lines:

This is for those of us who age by mobile airtime minutes

where one night call equals the rest of your life.

And these:

I have always known

how to curse, how to place spears at the end of my tongue.

And these:

I’m from the cow foot, soursop, red bean and dasheen

I am the wave that rippled right in the middle of the Atlantic.

“The children who wrote those lines are poets,” Corbett said.

Whether or not the slam had turned them into real poets, The Lammas youngsters were eager to tell me how it had changed their lives for the better.

“I speak more clearly, I don’t hide my problems,” said one. “Before, people didn’t notice me; now, I’m getting respect,” said another. “I was lazy before, now I’m more driven, now I can open up,” said a third.

And finally, “I realise I’m braver than I ever thought, and that I’m cool!”

Enough said.

‘There are no losers here’

“Welcome to the church of slam.”

Jacob Sam Le-Rose, artistic director of London Teenage Poetry Slam, welcomes the hundreds of friends, relatives, teachers and poetry nabobs to the finals with some advice: “This is not a poetry café. If you like someone’s lines, let them hear you!”

Big shouts went up for all teams. Newcomers, including Dylan’s Slammin’ Disciples from Wales, got some of the most rousing welcomes.

Slam’s hip-hop roots are important, yet only a few finalists adopted a rap style. Some pieces were as sombre and moving as any classical elegy.

The overall winners were from Kingsford Community College, Newham, the school attended by Adam Regis, who was stabbed to death in March. This team’s second poem met youth-on-youth violence head-on, ending with a grim litany of the names of teenagers already killed in knifings and shootings this year.

Their coach, Dan Cockrill, was struggling with emotion as he summed up his team’s achievement: “What hurts is when at breakfast you hear on the radio that one of your pupils isn’t going to turn up at school that day…”

The Kingsford Team will visit Chicago, the birthplace of poetry slams. They’ll get to perform their work to the slam aristocracy.

But as Le-Rose points out, “there are no losers here today”