TUCSON — There’s a trend catching on with teenagers in Southern Arizona that is making their English teachers happy. Poetry — spoken word poetry — has a growing following in high schools.
Eleven teenagers recently competed in Tucson’s youth poetry slam championship. The contenders included a broad-shouldered 18-year-old named Jose Manuel Martinez.
“This is not your everyday poetry,” Jose said. “It is a lot more fun. It is active. It is crowd involving. You get up there and you get hyped.”
Jose has been participating in monthly workshops and slams put on by the Tucson nonprofit organization Spoken Futures.
The organization’s events are open to kids ages nine to 19. Some 90 young poets, coming from 15 schools, participated in Spoken Futures slams during the last year, according to organizers.
Today is the culmination. The championship slam.
“I used to be in so many sports, and then now I don’t do sports,” Jose said. “But I get the same adrenaline up here on the mic.”
About 150 people filled an auditorium on the University of Arizona’s campus to watch the competition. Five judges in the front row scored each poem on a 10-point scale.
There were verses about heartache, identity, parents and puberty.
Lydia Havens, a 16-year-old from Florence, Arizona, took the microphone:
I thought I was breaking when I rose from my middle school gym’s floor and blood slipped down my leg like a secret everyone came to know at once. I was 11. I had never felt more betrayed by my own body, I was 11.
A few local young people have channeled spoken word poetry into activism.
They’ve slammed poems to protest cuts to school bus routes, and at public meeting on community college tuition rates for immigrant students.
Many of the young poets, like Eva Sierra, are bilingual, and so are their poems.
“In recent years, I had my mind fixated on the idea that I was too cool to embrace my Mexican culture,” said Eva as she began her poem. “Which looking back is pretty stupid considering just a few years ago I couldn’t speak proper English.”
The crowd snapped appreciatively for the high school junior.
Eva wore red ballet flats and bangs swept to the side. She’s from the border town of Douglas, some 120 miles away. Her poem continued:
In third grade, we covered a unit on Latino poets and I could just not relate. However, I could relate to German expressionism, I could relate to Russian literature, I could relate to Japanese haiku. But how could that be when I never rubbed dirt off my bloody knees in Germany, I was never given a bath with a garden hose in Russia, and I never rode a burro in Japan? I notice now I get a little angry when people tell me, are you Filipino? Do you speak Spanish? Me llamo Eva. Not Eva.
Afterward, Eva said writing poems has allowed her to explore topics she says she wouldn’t talk about openly otherwise, like cultural identity and sexuality.
“It is a very different type of outlet that many people still haven’t looked into that lets you talk about those very, very personal issues in a non-personal setting,” Eva said.
The slam also featured noted Mexican-born poet and activist Yosimar Reyes, who came to the event from California.
Jose wound up winning first place. One of the poems he performed is titled "The Ten Commandments of Being Mexican." Here are commandments five and six:
Look into your mother’s eyes and swear to her that you will make it in this world. And you will make something of yourself. And every burrito she rolled, every taco she served. Every restaurant she worked in. Every insult spit in her face by bosses who abused the fact that she had no papers. Every trailer park. Every sleepless night counting numbers that will never make ends meet. Making sure we had a damn tortilla in our stomachs, will not go to waste. Because that one tortilla, my stomach has become a fire. And I will redeem myself, mom. I will redeem myself that everything you did for us will not go to waste. Number 6, don’t forget where you came from. Whether you are a Chavez, Cruz, Reyes, Martinez, Garcia, or any other name, don’t forget where you came from.
As for his new championship title? Jose said afterward that winning isn’t what motivates him.
“I write for that one person in the room that comes after me afterwards who says, 'hey, that poem meant something to me,'” Jose said.
For Jose, performing poetry is about connecting. And maybe even helping someone else with his words.
Lydia took second place in the competition. Valerie Villalobos, a 17-year-old whose writing is peppered with references to the Sonoran desert landscape, won third.
To see more videos of the championship performances visit the Tucson Youth Poetry Slam YouTube page.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been modified to reflect the correct spelling of Yosimar Reyes' name.
Updated May 1, 2014 at 9:14 a.m.