Teens take the stage in D.C. slam poetry scene

by Emily Holland | Culture Editor

Media Credit: Tatiana Cirisano | Hatchet Staff Photographer
2Deep, a slam poet, often mentors teens when she isn't performing or hosting open mic and slam poetry events around the District. Tatiana Cirisano | Hatchet Staff Photographer

Updated: May 22, 2014 at 11:21 a.m.

After her long career in slam poetry – kickstarting the Busboys and Poets team in 2008 and hosting weekly open mic nights – “2Deep” is now finding inspiration from a younger crowd.

2Deep, who requested that she only be identified by her stage name to keep her slam poetry interests separate from her day job, said verses written by younger poets have started to inspire her more than those of adults.

“I love the people that are my peers, but there’s something about the truth in the youth," she said. "They don’t sugar coat it in anything, they don’t do well with metaphors, they’re like, ‘Here’s the bluntness of it all.'"

It’s a scene that's spread across social media: Poems like Neil Hilborn’s “OCD” and Mark Grist’s “Girls Who Read” have more than 7.5 and 3.2 million views, respectively, on YouTube after a year of making rounds on Upworthy and Facebook.

But slam poetry, and youth slam poetry in particular, was not always popular. When Youth Speaks Inc., a national organization that aims to give young people a voice in social issues, hosted the first youth slam competition in 1997, only 43 poets competed. Now, 500 students from 50 cities participate in the Brave New Voices national competition every year.

2Deep said since she left the D.C. slam team in 2009, she has most enjoyed the opportunity to mentor budding poets.

For instance, 2Deep said she is often taken aback by the lines of 17-year-old Eve Smith writes, pointing to a poem stylized as a letter to Rihanna that reads, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but a backhand makes me submissive.”

“I was like ‘Why didn’t I think of that?'” 2Deep said.

The D.C. Youth Slam Team, supported by national nonprofit Split This Rock, is open to anyone enrolled in a D.C. middle school or high school.

Youth programs coordinator and coach Jonathan Tucker said he focuses more on skill and the sense of activism behind the poems than on the number of competitions his team wins, but the D.C. group is known for its prowess, earning second place at the Brave New Voices youth slam festival last year.

With slam teams at 20 high schools in the area, Tucker hopes poetry will help students become more involved in local issues, tackling somewhat taboo topics like discrimination, poverty and politics through spoken word.

“Just like every high school has a basketball team that competes, I want every high school to have a poetry team that competes,” Tucker said.

The goal, he said, is to empower young people through performance.

Tucker said stereotypes of angry, yelling poets can mischaracterize the spoken-word genre and hold back some students from getting involved.

“The popular depictions are not always accurate,” he said. “Just go out and experience it in the city. There’s tons of slam events every week for you to see.”

Many open mics or larger slam competitions have circulated online, with the Huffington Post picking up D.C. Youth Slam Team feminist poem.

2Deep said she sees a similar trend of openness and activism on colleges campuses across the city.

“I notice that the college students, just like the younger kids, haven’t been tainted by the world yet,” 2Deep said. “So they are the key to a lot of the answers that a lot of the adult problems complain about, but never fix. And I notice that the college kids always have the answer.”

Many schools already have slam or spoken-word teams, like American University’s Mightier Than Swords, University of Maryland’s Terpoets and GW’s Spoken Word Collective, which formed this spring.

Robyn Di Giacinto, a rising sophomore and the president of the Spoken Word Collective, said she hopes the organization will grow on campus and give students not only a platform to voice their opinions but also learn the skills necessary to become spoken word poets.

The group, though still in its early stages, will host workshops and open mic nights in the fall to spur more student interest, Di Giacinto said.

"I think college students have a lot to say. It’s a time in our lives when we’re exploring things a lot and spoken word poetry is a great channel in which you can explore a lot of these burgeoning ideas," she said.

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Jonathan Tucker said stereotypes, like the idea that the stage is only open to black poets, sometimes prevents slam poetry groups from gaining popularity. He meant stereotypes of angry, yelling poets. We regret this error.

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