Duluth youth gear up for poetry slam


Pens and pencils quickly scratched across notepads and sheets of paper in the quiet art room in the Area Learning Center High School last Wednesday afternoon. Although it was the middle of their winter break, three Duluth high school students were busy responding to the writing prompt: "2016 is _____?"

"Write whatever comes out of you, this is just a freewrite to get you thinking," said Kyle Tran Myhre, programs manager of TruArtSpeaks. "Don't overthink it, just write."

The students were gathered for a spoken word poetry workshop with members of TruArtSpeaks, a nonprofit arts organization based in the Twin Cities, dedicated to "supporting, encouraging, developing, and creating spaces for youth and community voice while utilizing elements of hip hop and spoken word culture," according to founder and executive director Tish Jones.

Five spoken word artists traveled up from the Cities to meet with students in the newly formed Duluth Schools Poetry Crew. Local artist Daniel Oyinloye has been working with the school district to create the poetry crew.

"We've been meeting once a week since October to work on writing, sharing their work, critiquing their performances," Oyinloye said.

Oyinloye has worked with TruArtSpeaks to bring their annual Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam Series to Duluth.

"We brought a slam up to Duluth right after the organization started in 2006, but it's been 11 years since we've had one up here," Jones said.

What's a poetry slam?

"A poetry slam is essentially a competitive poetry reading of original work. For this youth slam, young people between the ages of 13 to 19 are invited to create original works and read them as individuals on stage," Jones said.

The poems and performance will be judged on a 1-10 scale by five different judges, three of which are local. Judges will take into consideration flow, originality, stage presence and content. Contestants have three minutes to perform and are penalized for going over the 3:30 limit. There are two rounds in every slam, so speakers must be prepared with two poems. For the official rules for the slam, visit truartspeaks.org.

The Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam contest, on Jan. 21 in Duluth, will be a preliminary competition or bout. Through a series of eight poetry slams, the Be Heard slam contest seeks to identify six youth poets who will both represent Minnesota at the annual international Brave New Voices youth poetry slam and festival in San Francisco in summer 2017.

The workshop on Dec. 29 focused on how to develop a slam poem. Students were given the opportunity to respond to prompts and receive feedback on their ideas.

"It was really helpful to learn about how to start a poem with concrete things then use those concrete items to explore ideas and thoughts," said Sannah Arvidson-Hicks, a junior at East High School. "I think it's too easy to want to start something with a bombastic idea, but you might lose your audience."

Kyle Tran Myhre, stage name Guante, performed a poem for the students and used his example to examine how to form a spoken word piece. He started with a "concrete" experience — a handshake — then used the handshake as a way to talk about bigger themes such as masculinity, identity and relationships.

"One of my pet peeves is that people think poetry has no form, but really it's a lot about structure. Poems have maps. There's a lot of intention. Poems have beginnings and middles and ends," Tran Myhre said. "One suggestion I have is to always start with a specific image, as opposed to an idea or thought. Start with something people can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch."

After the workshop, students were invited to Trepanier Hall at AICHO for an open mic night to practice their performances.

"Use this time to get comfortable performing your pieces in front of people," Tran Myhre said. "You don't have to be memorized yet, but get used to reading and performing the hell out of your poem."

The TruArtSpeaks Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam Duluth Preliminary bout will be held at 7 p.m. on Jan. 21 in Trepanier Hall at AICHO, 204 W. Second St. Performers are asked to arrive by 6:30 p.m. at the latest. Interested poets can register at truartspeaks.org up until the day. As of date of publish, nine out of 20 spots are filled. If all spots are filled online, Jones encourages interested poets to show up on the day regardless, in case other speakers do not arrive.