Slam poetry event in St. Louis has urban theme

Monday, November 30, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — This is not the work of Emily Dickinson.

Dozens of grade school students tested the boundaries of poetry on a high school stage Tuesday.

They rhymed about what rhythm means to them and stopped halfway through their poem to perform a step routine.

This is slam poetry, where the cadence and performance mean just as much as the verse, where sound adds energy to words. The participants in the fifth annual America SCORES Poetry Slam, held Tuesday at Metro High School, had their own way of expressing themselves through verse.

Four St. Louis elementary schools Nance, Lexington, Walbridge and Patrick Henry participated in the poetry slam, which was the final event of the fall for the America SCORES program.

The program hosts after-school activities, including soccer, creative writing and opportunities for community service. In the process, volunteers work with elementary school students, serving as mentors, coaches and teachers.

"The kids feel very accomplished after they've written, tweaked, practiced and performed their pieces," he said. "It's fulfilling for me to think that each and every one of those students after the slam were thinking, 'Yeah, I did that.'"

The participants had been preparing for the slam for months. At Patrick Henry Elementary, Shamelia Reece coached the students as they met after school every day to work on their poems. For the group performances, students worked together to come up with creative routines, adding movement to their performances.

Before the performance, the students ran through their poems with America SCORES education director Kathleen Hudson. She reminded them, "Smile! This is fun!"

Each school wore matching T-shirts. The room was in a state of controlled chaos as teachers shepherded students from the stage to their seats.

Patrick Henry students Nghiea Grey and Armony Warren were first-time participants in the poetry slam. Armony, 10, said she had been writing poetry for a long time and was looking forward to performing.

"I like poetry because you can rhyme, but you don't have to," she said. "Poetry can be about anything soccer, school, anything."

As Nghiea prepared to hit the stage, he insisted he wasn't nervous.

"I'm not scared at all," he said. "When I was 5 or 6, we did plays in front of our parents. Now that I'm 9, I'm not scared anymore."

He sees poetry in his future.

"It's really great when you think about it," Nghiea said. "It's great and amazing at the same time."

Meanwhile, Armony said she'd like to write a book someday about poetry.

The students knew that they would be facing not only their friends and families as they performed, but also a panel of luminary judges, including a Shakespeare Festival director and a Grammy award-winning producer. Master of ceremonies Tracie McGhee kept the mood light: "Can everyone cheer? Can everyone snap? Can everyone clap?"

After every performance, she high-fived the participants. Students cheered on their friends, and parents clapped along with the rhythm of the poems.

Students performed poetry about school, learning, fruit and love.

"E.D.U.C.A.T.I.O.N." rapped the boys from Nance Elementary. Wearing backpacks and miming jump-shots, they rhymed, "I do what I do as I learn the rules, it's like dressing yourself and tying your shoes."

The judges gave awards in categories such as funniest poem and best poem about soccer.

Armony's poem, "Inspirational Community," won the individual award for most inspirational poem. Her parents, Brian and Shalonda, leapt to their feet and cheered.

"I'm so proud of my baby," her father said afterward, holding her certificate of achievement out for everyone in the lobby to see.

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