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Poetic lives III: NYC’s Youth Poetry Scene

The Bringing the Noise youth open mic doesn’t start until 6 pm, but already teenagers swarm the sidewalk outside the venerable Nuyorican Poets Café. Julio blocks the entrance for all except the signed up performers, as DJ Reborn gets the music spinning- a cool out mood mix of hip hop and R&B. Once inside, the crowd settles into the warm orange glow of the café. They sit and stand anywhere they can- at the old tables, against the seasoned wood bar, on the floor, lined up against the brick wall- or they heap up to the open balcony to grab whatever seat or standing room is left. All eyes are on the low center stage, empty but for the banner that identifies the organization and the concept behind this open mic: “Youth Speaks- because the next generation can speak for itself.”

                  For the next three hours, in a space as full as it gets, over 30 teen poets will hit the stage to perform their poems, freestyle, and rap. With a range of poetry and performing skills, they captivate the mostly young audience, which is just as varied and complex as the performers themselves. Drawn from the five boroughs, the crowd criss-crosses racial, ethnic, gender, and lifestyle lines. From Brooklyn to Queens, from the housing projects to the Lower East Side to the townhouses of the Upper East Side, out of public and private schools, teenage poets come forward and speak up. Backpacks loaded with composition books and ballpoint pens, they swap rhymes and heroic couplets after school, memorize their poems on subways and street corners and perform them in venues across town.

                  Like any new community, the youth poetry scene in New York has grown through word of mouth: poets bring their friends as well as their crew or cliques from school, although few bring their parents. Sometimes teachers bring students to the open mic series in order to expose them to a world in which writing and poetry can take on a new life. There are poets mentors here too, both old time performers and newcomers to the spotlight.

                  Although many of the youth poets at Bringing the Noise are the “regulars” who provide much of the reason for the event’s success, some are stepping up to the mic for the first time. Rita J., a young poet from Staten Island, stands nervously on stage with crumpled paper in hand and reads a poem about difficult familial relations and feeling isolation and loneliness. No matter what’s said on stage, the crowd greets each poet with enthusiasm and support – all of it genuine. The same is true for any poet who takes the mic for the first time; they seem to know it won’t be their last. Describing her debut, one poet says: ”now I am a confident performer, and I am able to share my words with an audience, without an ordeal of shaky legs and a palpitating heart. After walking off the stage for the first time I knew that I would be back again and again and again. The rush that I feel from a performance is what skydivers look for or think they have found.”

                  Is it surprising that so many teens are taken to poetry? The truth is that almost every teenager writes, but often in isolation and without the sense that what they’re writing is important. In the face of so much negative hype over what the next generation is doing and saying, it’s an amazing experience to watch teenagers represent themselves with such poetic sophistication and personal insight. They come to the open mic because there’s a community in the room with which they can identify. They get inspiration- some have said they’ve come up with a list of new things to write about after the exposure to new circumstances and perspectives they’ve gained through others’ poetry.

                  People tend to think of teens as closed off because they don’t like school, but in reality they’re open to most everything.

                  In the few short years that I’ve been directing Youth Speaks, a non-profit organization that brings young people together through the written and spoken word, I’ve seen every type of teenager develop into a poet. Since 1999, over 200 youths have participated in our free after-school workshops, and thousands have performed at the ongoing open mic series, a lot of them culled from the program.  In the chaotic world of high school education, Youth Speaks offers a community of young writers an after-school arts program structured around the creative needs of teenagers.

                  Many of these teens are natural performers, rhythmically moving in and out of language; others are quiet observers of the world around them. They come in every form- as rappers, street poets, closet artists. Most recruitment is done through word of mouth, teen to teen, either through our public events or our in-school presentations. Because the resources are free and open to everyone 13-19 years old, every kind of teenager comes in search of a community of other young writers. As one youth poet says, “The aspect of Youth Speaks that has helped me the most as a writer is diversity. Rappers need to be around poets, poets around essayists and essayists around novelists.”

                  They come to the open mic because there’s a community in the room with which they can identify. As one youth, who took part in the workshops through Pride Site One, a drug rehabilitation program we linked up with a year ago recalls, “It was destiny. At first, I felt like a rebel because I thought that I had a harder life story than the others. But what I found out was that we all had similar experiences. I realized that I could begin to accept other people for who they were despite our differences in background. I figured if these people could hear me, then those from my background could hear me too. The response to my poetry was like a dream.”

                  Teens don’t receive school credit for coming, but they can list their achievements in the program on their college applications. All participants do so out of their own desire, because writing is their main tool of expression.  Youth Speaks also publishes all of the workshop participants poetry in an annual anthology called Speak Your Mind, and 40 poets are featured on our first self-produced live spoken word compilation CD, Verbal Fabric. Many of them have gone on to win local teen writing competitions, and most, if not all, have performed in both public performance/ open mic events and in at least one teen poetry slam (a judged competition where poets are scored).

                  At the first Youth Speaks teen poetry slam in 1999, one young woman left the stage crying, frazzled from forgetting some lines she had memorized for her performance. After returning to the workshops, some months later she found her voice, won the second annual teen slam last year and went on to represent New York at Brave New Voices, the national teen poetry slam in San Francisco. Her advice for new youth slam poets: “It’s not about the score and it’s certainly not about who will eventually make it to the nationals. Your purpose is to speak to another… to tell someone your story. Words are priceless. You either use them to dance for someone else, or you use them to state yourself.”

                  On a national level, teenagers are writing poetry with more drive and enthusiasm than ever before. At this year’s Brave New Voices national teen poetry slam in Ann Arbor (MI), I heard voices covering every subject under the haze of American culture: dating, living in the projects, girl-empowerment, gender political poetry, hip hop music, mustard in a hay field, immigration, the perils of public education, poetry as life force. The entire time I was in awe of their steadfast commitment to poetry as form, substance, change, and movement.

                  One of the most explosive offshoots of the weekend happened outside of the organized slam events. Youth poets in numbers from 25-50 huddled up in “ciphers” (poetry circles) and recited, performed, freestyled words, music, beat boxing- all of it poetry. These ciphers lit up after every organized slam event. No scores, no adults, no censorship- just teenagers feeling their way through the rhythms of language. Policed only by the astoundingly progressive politics of the group. Anyone willing to grab the free air and breathe a poem into it was encouraged to do so. If a young poet stepped up with a sexist or homophobic rhyme, the group would take away his sacred airtime or sometimes end the cipher completely, as happened only once while I was watching, thus sending the message that only love and respect were honored here.

                  Youth Speaks offers access to the thoughts and rhythms of the next generation of writers, activists, artists, and leaders. Those who care about the reality of teenagers today, meaning those of us who reject armchair solutions and media distortions, know that only active involvement in the education of today’s youth will change anything for the future. Teenagers are angry, articulate, focused, motivated towards change, and poetically fearless. Our hope is that the world will open its ears.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________YOUTH SPEAKS OFFERS ITS FREE SUMMER WORKSHOPS FOR TEENS 13-19 BEGINNING JULY 11, 2001. THE YS BI-WEEKLY SUMMER OPEN MIC AT THE NUYORICAN POETS CAFÉ STARTS JULY 3, 6-9 P.M.



By Morgan Cousins

Hip Hop must die to be

Be reborn in the

New millennium

Cause everyone’s tired

Of the same old idioms

Mixed on new beats

Or new beats and

Dum-dums on baby


We had French vanilla,

Butter pecan, to the

Peta- ricans. From

The “brrr’s of pigeons

To unfaithful women

Who called themselves

Widows cause suburban

Doors could breathe

Minds of so called

Prodigies remained

Blunted and stunted

Cause that’s how hits were made

We had Machiavelli

Rebirth of history

2000, millennium, and end of days

self destruction went

through convulsions

and transformed our cities

our urban suburban ghetto


which painted the impenetrable

picture of who we should be

we rocked gold chains to

bug clocks and now

blue diamond rocks

symbolizing our

superficial status

as we continuously fail

to hear cries of Hawaiian Sophie

carters dying

cause of lack of Christ

Hip hop, oh this hip hop culture

That changed from self worth

Is now self murder

We rocked Pumas to tims

Girbaud to Iceberg

But blunts stayed the same

As our hip hop culture

Slowly fused together with the

Crack game

You’ve gone from

Poppin’ cheeks to casio beats

While heads bopped


You made vocabulary

Incoherent phrases of

Mixed tenses, and brick fences so we

Could not escape

By way of Spiga

You’ve released a

Money hungry,

Food secondary;


Created fiends

Hungry for names

Unable to pay

To fill their


I think you’ve got me

Singing the blues

Got fools looking for the

Red stripe on the heels

Of shoes

Made us proud of project


While we lived in worlds

With no doors

As you became the only


Raped us, turned

Us into new creatures

Into the best

Non-paid advertisers,

She rocks Gucci on

Her coochie, but

Gucci’s not paying her

Hung those nooses

Round our necks

As we became

Platinum flaunters

In the projects

You through my independence

Out the door

Called me bitch

Gold digger

Money sexer

15 min. diggin’ pleasure


dick rider

baby father havin’

diamond ring rockin’

giving that ass

low class to no cash

pigeon, chicken

the mistress, the ghetto


I don’t want a record deal

Cause I can’t spit

Rabid spiel

And then preach

God when I’m done

Perform rehearsed

Spiritual factors when

I’ve won the prize

The prize of Africa

But not sure where I went

It’s not a country

It’s a continent

Not looking for the talent

I’ve got

Looking for the hardest


The loosest twat

The who can

Spit a verse that

Don’t mean squat

“nah mean” em and

awe, like they’ve never

been taught

walk around bustin’

shots, wavin’ a Rolex

watch and swear it’s

fame they got

and that

cross they rock,

God know them not

It’s you. You, the gaudy seed-bearer,

The hardship hearer, the music maker.

The death bringer, ears ringer

Soul shaker, movie maker

Unity sayer

You take,

And manifest them into

Devilish dreams

That seem like what is


As words lay spoken

We are named token

Hopes stay broken

Oh hip hop

Where did your love go?

You who preach this unity

Purely for show.


Jen Weiss

Jen Weiss is the director of Youth Speaks NY. She is co-author of Brave New Voices.


The Brooklyn Rail


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