From the beginning to the end, the poets’ voices never waver. They are powerful, well-versed, and proud.
At a slam in February, four Girls High girls walked on stage and silenced the auditorium at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia. They held each other’s hands. They breathed in and out. The mike boomed: “Dear Philadelphia School District. What are y’all doing!” they recited in unison. Their words pulled in a crowd of teens, waiting for the next word.
Slam poetry has become a movement for teens and young adults. Alexis Tucker, a junior at Pickett, describes slam poetry as “freedom.” Idiatou Barry, a junior at Academy at Palumbo, describes poetry as “when no one can tell me what’s wrong or what’s right.”
Philadelphia’s Slam League is the only league of its kind in the country. The league draws teams from local high schools. The Philadelphia Slam League, formerly the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, has won the national youth slam competition Brave New Voices three times, in 2007, 2011, and 2015. In 2015, the championship team did all its poems on #BlackLivesMatter. Those poems and poets are still talked about among poetry fans in the city.
Matthew Kay, the founder of the Philadelphia Slam League, said, “I’m not trying to build writers, I’m trying to build confidence.”
Sitting in a crowd watching a poet speak his or her truth is what Barry would call “a rush of energy.” Although not on the stage, an audience member can feel the same kind of high. Many of the slam league teams are speaking on powerful subjects.
Girls High’s team went on stage big and bold, specifically speaking to the School District of Philadelphia about the lack of preparation for college: “We got a new system, but fail to receive new books, updated bathrooms, enough teachers, computers, printers, etc.”
The girls continue to raise personal issues that affect their education. One poet said that after being given an SAT practice test, she had no idea how to take an SAT or knew any materials.
For teens in the poetry scene in Philadelphia, one might think their words wouldn’t resonate with older listeners. Alexis Tucker says otherwise. “[They] wish they had something like Philadelphia Slam League when they were young,” she said.
Lotus Shareef-Trudeau, a senior at SLA, believes there is “power in poetry.” Poetry, she said, helped her to learn how to stand tall. “Slam League forced me out of my shell and face other people,” she said.
Shareef-Trudeau described poetry as fun and insightful. “A call to action should be spoken, not written, because it’s less effective,” she said. “You need an audience; it’s a call to action, after all.”
At the slam, the topics ranged from street harassment (“Street Harassment is still on the rise”) to the lasting effects of slavery (“Lashes can change gods into vessels”).
According to the Washington Post, 223 black people in the United States were killed by police in 2017. Two poets discussed police brutality with bold voices and strong tones: “Another black boy dead, for nothing.” At the end of the competition, the Palumbo team took home the victory.
Many poets on the Philadelphia Slam League team couldn’t imagine themselves not slamming.
Bronwyn Goldschneider, a junior at SLA, has been a slam poet for three years, and in that time she has learned many things. She said that without Slam League, her life wouldn’t be culturally integrated, and she wouldn’t be as aware of experiences unlike hers. She sees poetry as “a sort of art, an environment that people analyze what you say, where things are accepted, and norms are broken.”