From perfection to patriarchy, young poets in St. Louis tackle big themes, keep the art alive
April is National Poetry Month and before we flip the calendar page, St. Louis on the Air wants to celebrate two local organizations working to make sure that poetry continues on in the lives of young people.
Listen to the full interview and hear poetry from the young poets themselves:
UrbArts VerbQuake Poetry Slam
UrbArts is a local performing arts non-profit founded by MK Stallings, which hosts the VerbQuake poetry slam for high school students aged 13-19. Students write and perform slam poetry. This year, participants are competing for a chance to go to the Brave New Voices international competition in Washington D.C.
“Our youth poetry slam provides a project for poets to focus on and hone their skills as they think about audiences and write to hopefully move those audiences in a profound way,” Stallings said.
Often, UrbArts will pair young artists with mentors already doing their art professionally.
By linking them, one being a mentor, the other being a student who wants to learn and absorb, then we create and learn from each other,” Stallings said.
Stallings, a poet himself, said that themes emerge ranging from issues about being black, transgender to dealing with the police and violence. “They touch on anything that is powerful for them,” he said.
He said you might be surprised at how many youth are already interested in poetry — they just need an outlet for it.
“They’re writing already: they’re pre-writing in their minds and sometimes they put pen to paper or they’ll begin typing it on their phones,” Stallings said. “What we do is get them in community. We say: we’re listening, here’s a platform. If you want to enhance your writing, to write more powerfully, that’s when we’ll connect them with mentors. They open themselves up to be coached. We just needed to create a program they could self-select into.”
7th Grade Poetry Foundation
The 7th Grade Poetry Foundation is in its sixth year as a non-profit. The organization, founded by Aaron Williams, donates comprehensive poetry-writing contests to schools as well as lesson plans, contest materials and incentives to host such a contest.
“We transform lives, improve classrooms and unite communities through student poetry writing,” Williams said.
The program is written word-driven and comes at a time in students’ lives, seventh grade, when poetry is being drilled into them in school.
Over the past years, the program has published 550 poets on themes ranging from imagination, bullying, self-harm, politics, environment and beauty standards.
Williams said the key to getting students interested in poetry is to have them write and discuss their own words.
“The role models have a lot to do with it,” Williams said. “If you only have poetry that deals with romance and is 100 years old…that’s a struggle. Our program uses seventh graders’ poems to teach poetry in the classroom. You have them writing about anything and that’s what you get them to buy in.”
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