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Teens get creative for poetry slam 'lite'

Natriece Spicer steps onto the stage wearing a white-leather jacket and sporting rings on eight fingers. The African-American teen begins reading from her poem "Rivers Crossed," in a clear, forceful voice: "Sitting, lying, now I think of the pages/ as they have been yet to be written...."

Her poem is one of several offered by young people at this demonstration poetry slam - the first in the newly formed national Youth Poetry Slam League, launched here in January.

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Organizing the league is the Writers-Corps, a nonprofit group that promotes writing programs for at-risk youths in New York, Washington, and San Francisco. Team members have been recruited from housing projects, after-school programs, juvenile-detention centers, and other locales. The goal: to encourage the pursuit of education among at-risk teens.

Some 150 young people on 25 teams will perform in monthly poetry competitions in their home cities, complete with Olympic-style judging and national playoffs.

Adult poetry slams, which began 10 years ago in Chicago, follow a similar format of performance poetry judged by a panel of experts. But they often involve fierce competition and less-than-polite language.

The youth league, on the other hand, "is poetry-slam lite," says Marvin White, a poet and teacher. "This is not the beer-bottle-throwing slams with people getting up on stage and doing angst-ridden routines for 15 minutes."

The league will encourage young people to meet other poets and improve their work. "It's less competition, and more an opportunity to share with other kids," Mr. White says. Students will compete with poems they've written ahead of time.

Improved academics

Janet Heller, coordinator for Writers- Corps in San Francisco, says when young people publish or perform their poetry, they become more focused and improve academically.

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"Accessibility to stage and print, really helps kids learn, be more self-confident, be more self-directed," she says. In many cases, she says, students go on to finish high school and enter college.

The San Francisco teams spent weeks practicing for the kickoff slam on Jan. 23. One of the teams was made up of teens from the Sunnydale housing project near San Francisco's Cow Palace. Many students at Sunnydale are doing poorly in school and have little motivation to continue their education. White, who also teaches for Writers- Corps, says sparking their interest in learning is crucial. And it's not easy.

He has trouble getting the girls in the all-female, after-school program he works with to transfer their colorful, African-American oral tradition into writing.

"The girls tell wonderful stories among themselves," he says, "but when they have to write it down or say it front of class, fear sets in."

White encourages students to write about their own experiences and discover their own voice. "I try not to scare them with the 'p' word - poetry," he says.

Natriece became interested in writing even before joining White's class. She carries a journal/poetry book with her everywhere and writes her poems at home or even while riding the bus. Like many Sunnydale children, she is being raised by a single mother. She has friends who have died violent deaths and has a family member with AIDS.

Many of her poems express the anguish and hope felt by her and fellow Sunnydale residents.

She says she excels in English classes. But the WritersCorps program also gives her confidence to tackle math and science. "Through writing, I was able to focus and get up the nerve to say I can do this and get a good grade," she says.

She and five other young women from Sunnydale formed one of the Youth Poetry Slam League teams. At each competition judges will hold up cards, rating the poems on a scale of 1 to 10. Winners will get an all-expense paid trip to Washington for the national playoffs May 15.

Professionals weigh in

Genny Lim, a prominent San Francisco poet and playwright, says she initially saw such poetry competitions as antithetical to her art. But she has subsequently seen some slams encourage young poets.

"It's like sports," she says. Poetry slams can "be a way of developing a community [and] acknowledging each other's gifts."

Working cooperatively was certainly the ethic at the Jan. 23 demonstration slam. Professional poets such as Ms. Lim and White joined the teens for this special performance. (Only youths will participate in the actual league competitions.)

Sports, political, and community leaders acted as judges, though the scores they held up after each poem were mostly the object of audience derision.

Both teams intermixed professional poets with teens. That was fortunate for the professionals, according to Lim. She says the young poets have a passion and commitment unmatched by the professionals.

If a poetry slam pitted a pro team against the teens, she says, "youth would win hands down."

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