Behind the Scenes of a Teen Poetry Festival

It’s mid-morning on a Friday at Tacoma’s Science and Math Institute (SAMI). A group of nine high schoolers huddle around a table, reading through two group poems that they have written together in the last few weeks. They read a handful of lines, then stop and edit. They talk about the flow of the words. They make notes. They begin again.

These students, who range from first years to seniors — and from reserved to outspoken — are preparing for a poetry slam called Louder than a Bomb Tacoma (LTAB-Tacoma) that begins this Friday. They make up one of 13 teams across the South Sound competing against one another over the course of the next two weekends in a festival modeled after one that began in Chicago in 2001.

“The points aren’t the point, the point is the poetry,” said Michael Haeflinger, who first brought LTAB to Tacoma in 2016 after spending several years working with the event in Chicago. “It’s more about giving them a platform to show off what they can do than to compete with each other.”

SAMI’s nine students who are going to LTAB this year — three of whom have performed in the festival before — are warming up to show off at the preliminary rounds later this week. Two group pieces, one duo, and six individual poems are drafted on paper; now, the students are starting to practice their work out loud in front of each other.

“(It’s great) to have a space where (we) can have hard conversations in a safe environment,” said Layla Monahan, 18, who is spearheading the group for her senior project. “We don’t have a debate team or other places where we can talk about controversial ideas. We can in our humanities classes, but this lets us take those conversations and ideas out into the community.”

The ideas that the students at SAMI have chosen to focus on are heavy, smart, and satirical. One group poem aims to destigmatize mental illness; the other pokes fun at the nihilistic mentality of poets. A week out from the first day of the competition, everyone practices the group and individual poems for each other, reading or reciting poems about school shootings, feelings of not belonging, and anxiety.

In this preliminary practice round, some are confident, and some are nervous. Nevertheless, each of them stands before one another, exposed and vulnerable, and recites their own poetry. At the end of each poem, other students snap their fingers and voice their support. Their teacher, Kristen Orlando, gives them small pieces of feedback and encouragement.

“One of the things that is really important is that we’re fostering an environment that builds a community in a school building,” said Haeflinger. “There have been students in Tacoma as recently as last year who were only coming to school because they were in the slam. I know that sounds a bit hyperbolic, but that’s what teacher(s) (have) told me.”

The chance for teenagers to express themselves in a vulnerable setting where their creativity can be supported and celebrated by peers and community members alike is somewhat rare.

“There aren’t that many opportunities for teenagers living in mid-size and large cities to express themselves in a creative way,” said Christina Butcher, LTAB Coordinator through Write253, the nonprofit that is responsible for organizing the festival. “Tacoma does have a few outlets for that, but any time you can give teenagers more options to express themselves positively as a part of a community, that’s a good thing.”

LTAB-Tacoma has doubled in size with each year since 2016 and now offers a creative platform to more than 100 youth in Pierce, Thurston, and King Counties.

The festival — which is open to the community — begins this Friday, March 15 with preliminary rounds at the Museum of Glass (9 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and the Washington State History Museum on Saturday (10 a.m. to 7 p.m.) and Sunday (3 to 5 p.m.).

The final round of the competition will be held at Alma Mater’s Fawcett Hall on March 23 at 6 p.m.

 

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is a staff writer at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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