During Taz’s performance, he choked on his words a few times. While there was a noticeable hush throughout the very crowded theater, Taz’s nervousness was due more to the fact that although he’d been writing for a while, this was the first piece in which he’d really found his voice. Taz is a big, hulking and clowning kid who, at that time, felt much more comfortable bopping his head to hiphop and fooling around than performing poetry about anything other than his enormous appetite. It was the Semi-Finals of the first Teen Poetry Slam in San Francisco (now an annual, international competition known as “Brave New Voices”), and Taz had somehow maneuvered his way that far solely on the strength of his sense of humor.
But this piece was different. He had found something. Truly. Taz had found a way to tell his story — at least his story as it was in that moment. And the audience responded hungrily by leaning in, gnawing on each of his lines about a grandfather dying of liver disease but able to keep a young, suicidal male alive through just a few whispered words. And Taz was enjoying himself, enjoying the energy the crowd was giving back to him, which flowed particularly strongly from the front corner of about 12 seats, where a group of teenagers from throughout San Francisco sat, holding each other and holding onto the words Taz was letting slip into the air. They were his workshop mates, and had just finished 12 weeks of after-school poetry workshops, the first any of them had ever been to. It had, I think, changed all of their lives.
When I first stepped into a high school to talk about poetry, I figured there was no real way I was going to express to these teenagers how much I loved writing, reading, performing and listening to poetry. To be honest, I didn’t even know if I could tell them what poetry really was. I had just found it a few years previously myself, while looking for things that could improve my fiction writing. I remember being in high school and learning that poetry was a rarified thing, something that wasn’t really available for us to read, much less write. And, five years ago, unaware that poetry was about to reach teenagers in an entirely new way (and that teenagers were about to do brand new things with and to poetry) I figured I’d battle through a number of blank, bored stares, perform a quick piece and be gone. It was September 1996. I had just started Youth Speaks, based on little more than the tagline moniker that “the next generation can speak for itself.” I had a bunch of friends who wanted to run some poetry workshops for teens, and we all wanted these teens to have the same passion for words and sounds that we do. We wanted them to know that they could breath in the world and breath out poetry just as millions of others throughout the world and throughout history have done, and that poetry was something that they were going to have to define for themselves. And, the thinking went, if we can work with a lot of youths from different backgrounds, we can bring them together in conversation, diversifying the cultural dialogue.
Now poetry is booming across the country, and teenagers are leading the charge. I would guess that in every neighborhood, every school, in every community there are teenagers writing and performing poetry. As shown in the documentary film Poetic License, which aired nationally on PBS in 2001 - 2002, teenagers across racial, class, gender, sexual orientation, language and school lines have been picking up the pen and taking hold of the microphone with a new passion, energy, talent, and commitment. Since we’ve been visiting schools, I’ve gotten over two dozen letters from teachers talking about how much poetry has helped in the classroom. By asking students to find a way to express themselves, we are asking them to think carefully about who they are and what they want to represent in the world. And they, in turn, are gaining a true appreciation of the power of language.