Young Poets' Society

Playhouse Square program cultivates teens' voices

After school on a Friday, other high school students are playing video games or shooting hoops. But Cleveland School of the Arts junior Chris Webb is at the Idea Center reciting his poem “Hate Crime.”

The black of midnight suffocates me as I walk, barefoot, to death

My hands are tied up by the same rope that will go around my neck

The whip marks on my back are fresh; the pain runs through my arms and chest

As I am led to my own lynching, I’m exhausted, out of breath

Its not the 1920s, it’s 2005, we’ve overcome

We were supposed to be above this, but I’m still ’bout to get hung

This was the fight of my grandfather, this is not what life’s about

I thought that prejudice was over, but it’s ’bout to take me out

At the end of his spirited performance, instead of applause — the usual reaction Webb gets from his audiences — he hears critiques from sit-in judges. While his confidence and eye contact were both good, his delivery was rapid-fire. Pace yourself, we say. And watch your pronunciation.

“I’m sorry, I just got pumped,” he says.

There’s no need to apologize. Getting teenagers pumped about poetry is the goal of SLAM U!, a program of Playhouse Square Foundation Arts Education Department. SLAM U! captures the creative adrenaline of young poets and cultivates it, offering free poetry slams and workshops for kids ages 13 to 19. Students can also compete for a spot on the Cleveland National Youth Poetry Slam Team, where they battle other teens from across the country in a high-energy performance poetry competition. Webb and four others at this practice session in late March were preparing to represent Cleveland at Brave New Voices Ninth Annual National Youth Poetry Slam Festival in New York.

The man behind them is Michael Salinger, a local poet, educator and father of two teenage sons. He began the practice with a short Shel Silverstein poem to interpret and memorize. Then they performed it as a group — with their own emotion, inflection, improvisations and attitude.

They had 10 minutes.

Their fun little hip-hop doo-wop featured one student on the floor and three others behind him, humming a tune to accompany the words. These group exercises instill team unity, boost performance confidence and ease the students’ nerves.

Individual practices follow.

After Webb’s recitation, South High 10th-grader Donte Franks delivers a poem about being pregnant with poetry. It’s funny, especially since he’s male. The sit-in judges, who included Salinger, a member of the education staff and myself, suggest he let his body do some of the work for him. We don’t suggest that he actually become a pregnant woman, just that he use gestures to show how it feels to carry the weight of a poem.

Cleveland Heights High senior Brittani McClinton follows with a poem about cutting, a form of self-mutilation. Brittani performs the poem with great empathy, taking an activist tone, pleading with girls to find another way to cope with stress. We suggest she draw in the audience with her eyes and incorporate more gestures into her performance. The participants often use their poems to address societal dilemmas.

Practice ends around 7 p.m., and the team members, who also include Shaw High 10th-grader Jonathan Lykes and Cleveland School of the Arts junior Latecia Wilson, finally break their focus and relax. Franks briefly plays the piano in the room. Before leaving, the kids share jokes and Twizzlers.

“Too often, these teens and their peers hear negative things said about them in the news,” says Ray Gargano, Playhouse Square Foundation education outreach manager. “They come to SLAM U! with their own perceptions of the world, politics and school peers with a confidence that I certainly didn’t have at their age. They are so mature and tuned in to the pulse of everyday life, yet they still manage to be everyday teenagers.”

The Cleveland team didn’t make it to the finals at the national festival. The next SLAM U! session begins Jan. 19, 2007. Teens from any school district may get involved. For more information about SLAM U!, visit or call (216) 348-7909.

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