Portraits by Matthew Coughlin, shot on location at Virginia Dillard Smith / Toulminville Branch Library
Poetry, like most art, comes in many different forms, with a majority of people having a strong preference for one over another. Some lean towards more traditional works, composed of flowery vernacular and conveyed to an audience through a structured, rhythmic delivery. These types of poems are just as alive on paper as they are in speech. Some prefer the more recently developed form of poetry performance: the poetry slam, which consists of something completely different, yet just as impactful.
The poetry slam, popularized by Marc Smith in the 1980s in Chicago, often includes the use of modern-day language to express the performers’ emotions and is relayed through a direct, almost casual, delivery. These elements in combination create a poem that has just as much impact as the classics we enjoy, albeit through contrasting performance styles. While traditional poetry is written for the page, slam poetry is written for the stage. And it may be just the introduction to poetry many need.
In that spirit, the annual Slam-O-Rama began in 2004 at the Toulminville Branch Library. “I have been able to see so many young people become interested in this art,” says Gertrude Laffiette, a youth specialist and assistant manager with Parkway Branch Library and one of the founding members of the Slam-O-Rama. “The library’s goal was to give these young people an outlet and a voice and to encourage them to use their voice in a positive way to communicate their feelings.” This year’s competition, held during National Poetry Month, was the first one the library has hosted in person in the last two years, a celebration made even more special by occurring in conjunction with the library’s 120th birthday.
Experience writing poetry is not a prerequisite to enter the Slam-O-Rama. Some participants wrote their first poems for the competition and several learned about it through school. “Many of the teachers got involved by encouraging their students and even helping them to use what they have learned in class along with their own creative gift,” says Laffiette. “This gave many of them the confidence to stand before a crowd and speak; it was great practice for them.”
Teaching participants about poetry is certainly a goal of the Slam-O-Rama. However, teaching young people how to express themselves creatively is the key mission. Throughout the years, Laffiette has encountered not only poetry that needs people to express it, but people who need poetry to express themselves. “I believe poetry is important because it allows people to speak their opinion,” says Laffiette. “It stirs up creativity in them. It can also make a positive change in the direction they’re going.”
School: Burroughs Elementary
Poem: “They Did It”
First place winner in the 8 -11 age group
They Did It
Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat She did it. George Washington Carver Helped with peanuts He did it Harriet Tubman Lead slaves to freedom She did it Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Had a dream to come true He did it Being brave, creative, determined and a visionary. They did it
One Wednesday after school, Kaci told her mom about a poetry contest, saying, “Mama, I’m going to write a poem and I’ve got to go say it on Saturday!” That night, she wrote her first poem, “They Did It,” which depicts prominent figures throughout Black history. And, just three days later, she won first place in the 8-11 age group of the competition. When writing and reciting a poem for the first time, stage fright is all but expected. However, the spotlight doesn’t seem to faze Kaci. “After a lot of times of saying poems, I just got used to it,” she says.
School: Dawes Intermediate School
Poem: “The Cold Soccer Night”
Third place winner in the 8 -11 age group
The Cold Soccer Night
The cold night of Mobile. We burst through the gate Whistles blowing constantly Balls going swish Yellows and reds Swish, 5 – 5 Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one It’s down to penalties Swish, swish, swish The crowd goes wild The game ends at 10 – 9 AFC…wins for Mobile
For some, it takes time to decide what to write about. It took time for Shepherd, too — about five minutes. The topic for “The Cold Soccer Night” was obvious for the player for Association Football Club (AFC) Mobile, and the words to describe it came naturally; so did winning third place in the 8-11 age group. Ever-competitive, he is upfront about his reason for entering the contest. “I just did it because I heard we were going to get a prize,” he says. He enjoys repetition, which he learned from his teacher at Dawes Intermediate School and is evident in his poetry. And, like soccer, poetry is a performance Shepherd does not back away from. “I like being in front of people.”
School: Saraland Elementary
Poem: “Wonderful Day”
Second place winner in the 8 -11 age group
The birds fly high in the sky It’s a wonderful day. The wind blows on my face. I’m in the park having a picnic by the benches. The dogs bark behind the fences. I plant fruits and vegetables at the public garden. I look down at an ant bed that has got harden. I got in my car, drove back home, Got on the couch and slept To the crack of dawn.
When asked what inspired his poem “Wonderful Day,” Shaun doesn’t hesitate. “I just made something up,” he says. That’s all it took to win second place in the 8-11 age group of the poetry contest. The positive subject matter is not surprising given his bright, happy demeanor, and writing it distracted him from the neighborhood dogs, which he is afraid of, barking outside. Poetry gives him confidence. “When I’m talking to people, I’m nervous and stutter,” he says. When he recites his poem, all that goes away. “I’m comfortable.”