More Than Words
By Keith Martin, Assistant Editor

A new kind of "sports" league is pulling in kids from all walks of life and it doesn't rely on athletic power, but instead the power of the mind. The competitions test the ability and strength of participants through poems written by the kids themselves and delivered in front of a live audience - the better the performance, the higher the score. Beyond the competition is a chance for at-risk youth to express themselves in an artistic format that many would never have otherwise.

"It gives them the opportunity to perform in front of youth and others in the audience and a chance to share their ideas, personal stories and visions about their personal life and what they want the world to be," says Janet Heller, Project Manager for the San Francisco WriterCorps, a non-profit group that promotes the power of writing for at-risk youths nationwide.

As part of that mission, WriterCorps, along with sponsorship from Borders bookstores, formed the Youth Poetry Slam League in 1999, with teams in San Francisco, New York and Washington D.C. Teams are comprised of youth ages 12 to 19 who are recruited from various locations such as after-school programs, housing projects, and juvenile detention centers with the common goal of using their words to express their feelings and thoughts.

The various teams from each city square off monthly in poetry competitions, better known as "slams." Based on adult poetry slams created in the late 1980's, poem's must be original compositions and be performed within a three-minute time limit. Judges rate the poems on a scale from 0-10, based not only on the poem but the performance as well. The highest scoring performers move on the next round.

After months of slams in their own cities, two team members from each city head to Washington D.C. for the "All Star Slam," where they compete against well-known writers and celebrities. For these young people, the experience is more than a plane trip and hotel stay, but a chance to interact with kids from across the nation.

"The biggest thrill for the two kids we sent [to the All-Star Slam] was for them to meet two kids from the Bronx," says Heller. "They were able to read each other's works and really share things and in the end, they made cross-country friends."

The Power of Performance

According to Heller, one of the benefits of the program is that at-risk youth not only improve their writing skills, but also their self-confidence. This boost aids them in school, in the arts and, in many cases, carries over to their lives. "It helps them feel a sense of accomplishment and the readiness to take on the next task in their lives," she says. 

Of course, performing in front of people can be nerve racking, but the after-effects can last a long time.

"At our last slam, we had a team of incarcerated young men and women who were on their own and had been involved with the juvenile justice system," says Heller. "These were kids with maturity and sophisticated, but it was still risky for them to show themselves in a real way like this. The best part of the performance is when they finish and get to hear the reaction and the applause from the audience, which includes other kids."

Working with the young men from the Log Cabin Ranch, a boys' juvenile detention facility, was Kim Nelson, the Poet In Residence for the facility and for WriterCorps. Through her work, she was able to see first-hand the power of poetry and the ways in which her five students took to this outlet for their expressions.

"It's a great experience, because it gives them something to work for," says Nelson, who has been with WriterCorps for three years. "Beyond getting the chance to leave the ranch, they get the opportunity to do something exciting and challenging, yet legal. They get the chance to represent themselves in a way that will help them later. They write about what's inside and then take that and present it in front of the public. That whole process is important for them."

Nelson adds that the opportunity to write and compete also gives these young adults power, in a form they have never experienced before. She recognizes the power they have had in the past to react to situations, but through the league, they are able to refocus that power, look inside themselves and present their true feelings.

"They so surpassed the expectations I had for them," she says. "It really shows me that if we give them something structured and they know what to do with it, they'll take it far and find success. It's rare for [at-risk youth] to have something they're excited about. Their families come to the performances and I really think it is a healing experience for everyone."


For more information on WriterCorps and the Youth Poetry Slam League, go to:

Janet Heller, Program Manager, San Francisco WriterCorps, (415) 252-2546
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339