A total of 20 poets took the stage at Franklin’s seventh annual poetry slam on April 12. Poets were competing for two slots at Verselandia (the city-wide competition later in the month), as well as various cash prizes. The most valuable aspect of the Slam isn’t the money or the competitive element, though; it’s the chance for these young poets to have their voices heard, their work critiqued, and to immerse themselves in a community of other artists and creators that can be as diverse and welcoming as the school’s population itself.
Franklin librarian and media specialist Sandra Childs is the “lead coordinator and communicator, planner, host, fundraiser, and sheepdog” behind the Slam at Franklin. This amount of responsibility may seem staggering, but Childs will be the first to say she isn’t alone in organizing: “We [as a staff] have a little system. I’m really lucky because when we first started [the Slam] I wasn’t librarian yet and I felt like it shouldn’t be just me doing it, so we had a little team. Some of those team members have stuck on, and I at least have people I can tap.” Someone will handle judges’ gifts, someone else will lead workshops for the poets, but Childs is at the head of the entire operation. She sees it as an important tradition for the Franklin community, and one that dwarfs similar events at other schools with just its size and attendance. The 2017 Poetry Slam drew an audience of 280, according to Childs, and this year not only was the floor seating of the building’s library full (stretching back all the way to the front desk), but the ring of balcony seats surrounding the performance area was also used for supplementary seating. “I think it’s so important to get kids hearing and celebrating each other’s voices, and beyond that, seeing that libraries are so much more than just places for reading and research; that there’s a whole community part to them,” says Childs. This is the spirit that keeps the Slam up and running, and what motivates Childs to continue putting in all the time and effort necessary to uphold the tradition—although, she’s hopeful that with the systems she and her team have put in place, the Slam can keep going on strong when she’s “long gone.”
The poets agree about community being a key part of the event. Kalyn Street (10), who won first place in the competition this year, says, “People are so supportive and always know what to say, even when people mess up, and there’s an amazing diversity of topics that are discussed which is awesome.” These various topics include, but were not limited to: mental illness, gender identity, society’s refusal to deal with school shootings, and pet fish. Street went on to say, “I think it’s really incredible that the entire room gets filled, and people get really into [the Slam].”
Street competed in the 2017 Slam and didn’t qualify for the second round of competition. She was stunned by her success in this year’s event. “Last year, I was completely blown away because I’ve never been in a slam that was [that] intense. I felt overwhelmed and underprepared, so this year I feel like I stepped up my game because everybody else is just that amazing.” Furthermore, she explains that, “Anybody can go, anyone can see or participate. If you’re an a**hole, maybe not. But slam poetry is about expressing yourself, saying who you are and what you think, and everybody should have a chance to do that.”
Beyond the performance itself, each year’s poets have ample opportunity to have their voices heard by teachers, their fellow students, and other individuals from the Portland literary arts community. This occurs largely in the slam workshops and clinics offered by the library and the Slam organization team; the environment here is a constructive one based around group activities that encourage students to perform their poem drafts for one another and the professionals sitting in with them. While the attendance at many of these events is just a fraction of the total poets that register to compete, the experience proves valuable to those who choose to use it. “I went to one workshop and it was really helpful,” says Lucinda Drake (11), who took home the second place prize and was one of this year’s first time “slammers.” “There was a professional poet there and he told me which poem to do first and to slow down and other things that would help with presentation.” The lead-up to the Slam can be nerve wracking for some; as artistic inspiration isn’t exactly the kind of treasure one can find on a map. One of the event’s MCs, Nathan Wilk (11), openly recognized this reality, joking at the beginning of intermission, “Poets: now is the time to finish your round two pieces.” Lucy Walker (11), the third place winner, spoke to this, saying the experience of getting ready for the Slam is, “terrifying, just terrifying.” “I had poems, and I scrapped poems, and I don’t think I had [written] either of the poems I performed by [the weekend before the Slam]. I started the second one on Monday [April 9], and I would drill and drill and drill, and I have all this other stuff happening in my life. This can’t be the center. So it was stressful.” This pressure proves to be too much for some potential poets, who find themselves dropping out of the Slam up to the day of for a variety of reasons. Other events at the school would be utterly destabilized by this kind of trend in its student participants, but the Slam draws so many hopeful student writers that still with some losses the event can go on entertaining its hundreds of attendees with its three hour run.
And so, the Slam goes on for another successful year, with Street and Drake, the top two poets, going on to perform at Verselandia, Walker their alternate. This achievement is staggering to all three of them, but the anticipation and excitement is undeniable. “I’m really, really, really surprised; I didn’t think I’d make it into the second round, let alone the finalists. I’m gonna keep putting everything I have into my poems and do them justice so they turn out the way they are in my head,” says Walker.
These champions of slam encourage the student body to follow in their footsteps, even if it may be frightening or offputting (Drake: “I had a lot of fun after I stress vomited!”). Walker suggests that, “If you don’t like slam poetry, or like to make fun of it—because it’s kind of easy—definitely come see it, or even give it a try, because it’s super different to see people actually talk about things that are meaningful to them in this format.” Furthermore, Street wants to communicate the value of slam poetry as an art form and as a community to an even younger crowd, specifically middle schoolers: “Those younger people are going to be the ones up here performing. If not for the support and bolstering of events like these in my middle school, I wouldn’t be here right now, and that kind of environment isn’t the standard in lots of places. I want to use this platform to change that.”