Late in April 2013, students filled the seats of Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre. Students from Booker High School, Sarasota Military Academy and Sarasota High School watched their peers participate in a spoken-word poetry competition, or poetry slam.
Teens spoke about failed suicide attempts, modern racism, abandonment, divorce or death of a parent.
Some spoke about happier topics, such as young love and coming of age.
This competition was one element of last year’s events leading up to PoetryLife Weekend. PoetryLife is a weekend-long celebration of poetry with educational initiatives leading up to it.
This year’s PoetryLife weekend takes place May 2 and May 3, at various locations and will include readings by famous poets Kevin Young and Mark Doty, a community poem reading, a young voices reading featuring winners of the student contest and more.
PoetryLife’s mission is to promote poetry in education.
After last year’s competition, participants’ peers congratulated them for their bravery. They saw their classmates with greater understanding and new light — and it built their teenage community.
Students find comfort in words
There are 1,100 students at Booker High School. Seven of these students participate in “Slam,” the inaugural spoken word club. Spoken word is like written poetry, but more visceral. Emotionally, it’s in the moment, and it’s often improvised.
Slam founder Chandler Powell, 17, is one of these seven students. She founded the club with the encouragement of her teacher, Hellen Harvey, following last year’s poetry slam.
Before she found spoken word, she says she wasn’t a talker. Today, Powell has a blog dedicated to spoken word, which she updates daily.
She stands up to read a poem to her peers at the weekly Slam meeting.
“Did you write that?” one of her peers said in disbelief.
This year, Powell will participate in PoetryLife’s poetry slam contest for the second year.
She uses poetry as a positive outlet for self-expression, and she thinks other students could use it, too. She says it has helped her become a positive leader.
Poetry sneaks into curriculum
Through PoetryLife, poet Alexis Orgera and poetry slam professional Cedric Hameed offer three workshops of varying levels that teachers can volunteer to attend. They become poets in these sessions and tap into their own creativity.
Hameed also does weekly poetry outreach for students in their classrooms for two months prior to PoetryLife. In addition to the spoken word contest, students are encouraged to write and submit their traditional poetry for a contest. The 20 winners read in the Young Voices Poetry Reading.
Angela Hartvigsen, fine arts program specialist for Sarasota County Schools, is glad to witness the spark PoetryLife is beginning to create.
“Poetry meets students where they are,” Hartvigsen says. “If they have issues with punctuation or limited English language skills, it can sometimes be less threatening, yet very rich in what a student can gain from it.
“When we look at what employers look for in attributes for potential job candidates, creativity is way up there on that scale,” she says.
Poetry helps build this creativity, which students can use later in life to solve problems and think outside of the box. Poets, she says, are the types of thinkers we want running the world.
Aside from educational components, Hartvigsen believes poetry builds resilience in a person. It helps people find ways to talk about the difficult and unexplainable parts of life.
Helping students fall in love
Georgia Court, founder of PoetryLife and owner of Bookstore1Sarasota, was inspired to emphasize the educational component when she met writing teacher Joanna Fox.
Fox walks barefoot among the kitchen tables and chairs that make up her classroom at Booker Middle School. Instead of fluorescent overhead lights, soft-glowing decorative lamps light the room.
The classroom wall is cluttered with handwritten lines of poetry, two snakeskins, magnetic poetry and dragonfly exoskeletons. Fox, with her eclectic, homey classroom, creates a setting that invites poetry.
Fox thinks PoetryLife is the perfect name.
“Poetry is the condensed language of life,” she says. “The poet looks at what everyone else looks at, but sees what others miss and then helps others to see what they missed.”
She points to a bumper sticker on her doorframe that reads “Metaphor be with you.” Fox thinks understanding metaphor helps students gain a deeper understanding of the other non-poetry text and literature they read. Through writing poetry, her students learn to write concisely and apply the word choices and arrangements they use in poetry-writing to their other classes.
In addition to reading poetry daily and writing poetry in her classes, all of Fox’s middle school students participate in Dragonfly Café, a nickname for their live poetry readings. This explains her dragonfly earrings, necklace and sporadically placed dragonfly decor.
At last year’s PoetryLife event, Fox’s Dragonflies performed menu-inspired “Pop-Up Poetry” at four downtown restaurants. For instance, one girl performed a coming-of-age piece about how now that she’s 13, chicken fingers can’t exist in her world.
Through poetry, she helps students discover what they believe and stand for and how to voice it. It also teaches them to tune in and notice the subtle nuances of human nature.
Fox takes her students into nature to count the 27 shades of green they see, to notice the fuchsia portulaca, to hear birds in conversation. The students — like the birds — learn to listen to each other, and develop a sense of community through poetry.
Sometimes, when one student reads his or her poetry, another might cry, relating to it. Through poetry, she has seen students climb through the dark — whether they’re dealing with broken families, drugs or normal hormonal angst — and into the light.
“When you share your poetry, you’re sharing the thumbprint of your soul,” she says.
IF YOU GO
When: 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 1
Where: Two Senoritas, Clasico Café and Bar, Café Epicure and Caragiulos Italian Restaurant
Young Voices Poetry Reading
When: 10 a.m. Saturday, May 3
Where: Florida Studio Theatre (Keating Theatre), 1241 Palm Ave.
Cost: Tickets $15
Info: Call 365-7900 or visit poetrylife.org.