It’s billed as a competition, but as long as poetry is shared at the end, it’s all good.
Kingsbridge Heights Community Center hosted its annual Youth Poetry Slam, but the first performance of the night wasn’t from one of the dozens of youngsters, but instead from a teacher, Lu Aya.
Addressing the crowd as “family,” Aya mused about a woman he saw singing one day on the D train. But he also could have focused his creative stylings about the event itself, a collaboration between the community center and Community Board 8 that began six years ago as a way to let young people express themselves.
This year’s competition started with open mic before moving on to two rounds of the “slam,” essentially an open mic, but in front of judges.
In the end, a panel of three judges determined winners who took home prizes like $50 gift cards accepted at restaurants like Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse.
Alexander Cabata was the first to step up to the open mic. While nervous at first, the 12-year-old received cheers of support, giving him the encouragement he needed to recite his feelings into the mic.
His poem, entirely in Spanish, focused on his love for his family. It was inspired by his mother’s advice that “family is the best thing that you can have in your life.”
Sitting next to Cabata in the front row was Fladi Nerys, 21. She, too, was somewhat timid at first. Yet, she found her way to the microphone to read a poem she wrote about her dad.
The small crowd loved it, giving Nerys the necessary boost to try her luck in the slam later, ultimately earning her second place.
“I was pretty nervous, pretty scared,” Nerys said. “But it was a beautiful experience, especially because I love the community center.”
Nerys was joined by seven other poets during the competition portion, sharing work on a variety of topics including immigration, abortion, romance and teen pregnancy.
Aya looked on with pride, knowing that many of these young voices were based on a foundation he would teach in his poetry workshops.
“They allow them to explore their own poetic voice,” Aya said, “to appreciate each other’s voice, and learn how to show love and respect to each other as well as just to create beautiful, powerful poetry that expresses their truth.”
The young poets seem to agree. Dante Diaz attributed Aya’s weekly classes for his desire to enter the competition.
“This is actually the first time I’ve been to a poetry slam,” Diaz said. “I’ve performed poetry, but in an activity. And when I saw that I kind of have a little gift, which is to express myself and to give another perspective, I was like, ‘You know what? I should do the slam.’”
The 14-year-old shared two emotional works. The first was written from the perspective of a fetus being aborted. The second was about his mother’s struggle with fibromyalgia, earning him third place.
The first place prize ultimately went to Ivy Isaac, and the 18-year-old admits she is no stranger to performing in front of an audience. She has always loved singing, referring to herself as a “theatre kid.” But this was Isaac’s first time taking the stage in a poetry slam.
For her, the opportunity to connect with the audience on such a personal level is what made the slam special.
“There’s different types of people in here, it’s not just your peers, but it’s also adults, some people that you don’t even know,” Isaac said. “So, you’re talking to your friends, you get to tell them how you’re feeling. But at the same time, a total stranger could walk in and they’re just like, ‘Wow, this is what you’re feeling, this is what you’re thinking.’”
After the winners were announced, Aya beckoned the crowd to link arms in a circle, and one by one, say a single word to describe how the evening made them feel.
“What you experienced tonight was actually us tapping into the power of community,” Aya said. “The power of truth, and the importance of our stories.”