#POETMOM: Angel City
By Heidi Siegmund Cuda
Two thousand people at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles thundered with applause each time high school poets shared their point of view on racism, sexism, anxiety, and the old poetic standard of love: love for mother, brother, father, country, and love for the skin they’re living in.
The event was the 5th annual Get Lit “Classic Slam,” and those who attended received confirmation that we are a city of angels, united by love for our children, love for uncensored speech, and love for the kind of free-range thought indigenous to palm trees and tagged up overpasses.
“That was one of the most beautiful, powerful, impressive, inspiring and uplifting experiences I have had in quite some time,” said Yosi Sergant, who judged the semifinals and is known for commissioning the “Hope” poster created by artist Shepard Fairey during the 2008 presidential election. “I am still haunted by some of those kids’ words and the whole experience…. What [they] are doing is pure magic, and I left feeling like we are going to be alright.”
Sergant said he had to come to the finals, held on April 30, just to see how it all ended.
“What started as an idea has become a part of the culture,” says Diane Luby Lane, the founder of Get Lit, a non-profit born ten years ago in L.A. high schools, jails and detention centers, where she went to encourage those on lockdown to open their minds to poetry and “get literature.” “People are now getting it. Audiences are reacting. Five years ago, they almost sat still.”
She says this year’s Classic Slam shows how the scene’s matured.
“I was downstairs at the Orpheum VIP party, and all the community leaders were there,” says Lane. “Poets like Buddy Wakefield, Andrea Gibson, Patricia Smith, Los Angeles poet laureate Luis Rodriguez. It literally felt like Woody Allen’s movie ‘Midnight In Paris.’ They were all there!
“The winning poems blew my mind,” she said. “The quality, depth, precision of those group poems, I was so proud. Thoughtfulness. Artistry. It blew people’s minds. They have not stopped sending me emails.”
The winning team, iLEAD Noho, an all-girl team that won the Classic Slam last year as well, sounded off on such subjects as rape. And in a riveting group poem, they revisited the murder of Kitty Genovese, who’s tragic 1964 murder triggered awareness of the “bystander effect.” Another subject tackled by the iLEAD team was empathy for the artist’s struggle, poetically displayed through the point of view of Van Gogh’s ear.
“This year, for our team, it was important that we had poems that showed our integrity as writers,” said Kelly Grace Thomas, who along with Crystal Salas is one of two teacher-coaches who led the iLEAD team to their second championship. “We only wanted poems that would empower and innovate. The poets went through lots of revisions where I said, ‘This is a good line, but you’re a great writer, see if you can improve it.’”
To not mention my daughter Mila was on the winning team would be to bury the lead. I’ve been following the youth poetry movement ever since she introduced me to it. Her team faced incredible competition from the talented teams of Cleveland High School, Harvard Westlake and this year, Animo Inglewood. Animo Inglewood was home to the top scoring single poet of the night, Rebecca Lopez, whose poem shone light on parents with addiction problems and the kids they leave behind.
Thanks to actor Tim Robbins who owns The Actors’ Gang, I have become a groupie of so many of the poets, who try out their latest works at his theater’s Culver City stage.
When I watched them on Saturday take the stage at the Orpheum with such poise and dignity, I jumped out of my chair whooping it up like I was at a Lakers game. These youth poets are champions in their own right, having performed at the White House, Lincoln Center, the Library of Congress and the Hollywood Bowl, opportunities derived from the dedication of Get Lit’s remarkable team of mentors.
The curriculum inspired by Get Lit, free to any high school that adopts it, teaches students to learn a “classic” poem, and then write their own unique response to it.
Thanks to the interweb, the poems that grew out of this program have now been heard by millions, and the works of Get Lit mentors and students are making their way into the annals of poetic history.
“As the internet becomes more of a fixture in our society, the words of our youth are reaching the ends of the earth at rapid fire speed,” said Veronika Shulman, Get Lit’s communication director. “World leaders are listening to our young people to create actual change, with no middle men. Social media has become social activism.”
To wit, Get Lit mentor Alyesha Wise’s poem, “To This Black Woman Body, Pt. 1,” has become so popular, it earned its way into the “classic” curriculum this year, showing just how powerful this movement has become.
Throughout this year’s three-day Classic Slam competition, young women recited their interpretation of Wise’s poem on the same stage as the words of Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson and Kendrick Lamar. To be a classic, as the hosts remind us, doesn’t mean to be old. It just means the words will stand the test of time. And after seeing about a half dozen teens recite the words of Wise, there’s no question this is a poem that will stand the test of time.
“Seeing those young women recite my words on stage in front of many who didn’t even know it existed was extremely humbling and lifting,” says Wise, one of a small group of poet-mentors that also includes Matthew “Cuban” Hernandez, Raul “Junior” Herrera, Marquesha Babers and Paul J. Mabon. “It was like, ‘Yup. This is my responsibility: to write these words for them.’” Not to mention that Nia Lewis, a poet from Larchmont Charter, responded to this piece as a sacrificial poet on final stage, with four generations of her family in the audience.
After 300 students from more than 50 schools competed for two-days straight at the Los Angeles Theatre Center downtown to make it to the Classic Slam finals, it came down to iLEAD Noho, Cleveland High School in Reseda, Harvard Westlake, and Animo Inglewood.
When teen poet Jamiah Lincoln was chosen as one of two poets to open up the festivities, I jumped out of my seat like it was my kid up there. Her poem was about a family member grappling with meth addiction. And when she was finished, the unspoken was now spoken. Another mirror held up to nature by a child of our city. And the night continued like that, as the great champ from Cleveland High School, Khamal Iwuanyanwu, recited an opus on anxiety that also touched a universal nerve.
It was my daughter and her teammates Ryann Ersoff and Ashley Flores’ poem, “Her Name Was Kitty,” about Kitty Genovese, that earned the evening’s highest score.
“It still hasn’t sunk in,” said Flores, back at school on Monday following the victory. “It’s like, ‘Did that really happen?’ It’s so surreal.”
“We stayed after school til 6 pm every day,” said Mila. “So to get the payoff is nice, but it always feels silly to put a number on poetry.”
Get Lit mentor Raul Herrera, whose poem with Gordon Ip, “Earthquake,” is one of the great poems to emerge from the Get Lit movement, says there’s a poetry revolution brewing but they still need more recruits.
“We haven’t reached a high enough velocity to get through the glass ceiling yet,” he says. “We’ve been a simmering pot.”
Kelly Grace Thomas says she coaches poets to help grow the next generation of leaders.
“We don’t get paid for coaching, which is long hours, and late nights, but we volunteer for other reasons,” she said. “The first reason is because we love these young poets.”
Even though coaches aren’t getting paid yet, she envisions a day when poetry coaches are hired like basketball coaches.
“Poetry and expression, is just as important as sports,” she said.
And just as nail biting.
When they named my daughter’s team as the winners on Saturday, I felt like a soccer mom at the World Cup.
And maybe that’s not so farfetched. Youth poetry is already selling out theaters. Our teen poets from the streets of Los Angeles have traveled to the White House.
“I love this city of Los Angeles so much,” said Lane. “I love to have been part of dropping these seeds. And I love to be a part of watching these trees break ground and now grow. These poems are like hit songs. People who hear them will never forget them.”
Author/screenwriter Heidi Siegmund Cuda’s latest book, The Definition of Down, a love letter to the hip hop generation co-authored by Darlene Ortiz, was recently featured in Sunday’s New York Times. Her serialized portraits of Get Lit players can be found on getlit.org in the monthly column #POETMOM. Previous posts include Fox, The Los Angeles Times, and countless others. She is now writing about music again for Easy Rider.