Slam poetry channels Hawaii’s youth, speaks volumes

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—Teens may not be strangers to speaking their minds, but with internal rhymed schemes and free verse? That takes a little something more: An unabashed willingness to shape their own stories, not just tell them with whatever sloppy language that won’t tax them too much.

These are slam poets; their visceral experience spills out through their mouths as their hands twitch, accenting the cadence of each piece, helping to hit the audience squarely in the solar plexus. Through Youth Speaks Hawaii (YSH), these teens fearlessly hold up mirrors to look at themselves, the external world, and us. They freely mix politics, social commentary, and personal reports of their life conditions with precise economy of speech and an often wide open emotional availability most adults either could never muster or can only vaguely remember.

Slam poetry may be the vehicle to unburden angst, but it’s also our way back to a time when we didn’t need to be right so much as just heard. 

From its mid-1980s Chicago origins, slam poetry proved that spoken word competitions could find plenty of poets and an audience—an important difference and often widely criticized part of the competition as the panel of judges is chosen from audience members. The populist poetry democracy is instant and binding. Now an international movement, slam still has plenty of headroom for authentic voices and rich cultural experience not limited to the teen psyche.

In the six years of its existence, YSH has grown from a good idea and a few key members to a healthy group of teens ages 13-to-19 linked through several public and private Oahu schools. There are some, but not nearly enough, neighbor island outreach efforts. YSH offers weekly writing workshops, monthly poetry slams, and special events throughout the year, including a competition team.

In 2008, the squad won the 11th Annual International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Washington, DC and caught the eye of HBO producers who featured them in a 2009 documentary. 

Hannah Matsunaga is a more recent YSH addition. At 17, she has just completed junior year at Punahou as the 2011 Hawaii grand slam champion, the YSH competition that determines the travel squad. She admits she’s always had a background in “talking,” meaning traditional speech and debate, but only “went to my first slam back in December. I saw the Youth Speaks poets performing and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I want to do that.’” 

Slam poetry may not have the formal rules of oratory or debate, but it has a structure. It takes time and talent for a performance piece to make it to a stage: For every finished poem there may be at least six rewrites according to Matsunaga. This isn’t something you can call in, do halfway, or fake.

“It’s definitely a lot more genuine,” says Matsunaga. ”You use some of the same skills—communication and there is some research—if you’re telling someone else’s story you want to be sure you get it right—but slam comes from a deeper place.”

Helping to find the path to those emotional reserves is Darron Cambra’s job. As the YSH arts and education director, Cambra has helped coach the YSH squad since 2007. He’s also the head facilitator of the Wednesday writing workshop and currently spearheading a new Substitute P.O.E.T project featuring writing instruction similar to what is offered in the after school program.

For most of the teens Cambra mentors, the public speaking aspect is the toughest hurdle to overcome. “But the idea of them believing that their story is important and that they have a story to tell,” Cambra explains, “is something that they really latch on to when given the opportunity.”

Cambra has been where many of his students are now. He represented Hawaii at the National Poetry Slam for three consecutive years.

When the poets travel to perform at other schools, Cambra says part of the fun is witnessing the teens’ appreciation for the poetry process happen right before his eyes.

Cambra explains: “[The fun starts when we] first walk in and say ‘hey we’re doing poetry’—the look on their faces—to the first example poem when some eyes light up, to getting them active and putting up some vocabulary up on the board, and watching the inertia of production change. It’s not like there are pockets of resistance. The whole class goes with it.”

And so do the teachers.

“[Teachers] see interest and motivation from students that they had a hard time reaching during the school year,” Cambra says. “These are just students who are finding an outlet to allow them to be themselves. Because this is free write, that’s a big part of their thought process, and once that becomes legitimized, it becomes a lot more relevant.”

One of Cambra’s mentees, 19-year-old poet Harrison Ines, is soon to age out of the program. A graduate of the Farrington High School class of 2010, Ines has been a member of YSH travel squad for the last three years including the 2008 national champions.

Ines says topics pick him. Perspectives he hasn’t thought about before beg for a little more exploration and often wind up in a poem. And sometimes, when life is simply bad, Ines says, slam poetry “can save your life. Sometimes, you have to sit down and write everything out. As you’re letting everything out, then you start writing more and more things. And then that leads to more and things. And then you’ve gotten it out.”

Ines writes reality as he sees it, and he can write lightheartedly, too.

Cambra says writing a comedic piece is tougher. Yet even in the more whimsical poems, there are often still bittersweet elements. Ines can capture both in the same piece, a skill Cambra says many of the slam poets don’t posses. Ines says that he’ll keep writing. Ideas pop into his head and he doesn’t have much choice.

Purists may scoff at the freedom of slam poetry, or perhaps wish they could engage with it, but there is no denying how the powerful words and emotions behind them can transcend form and deliver raw human experience. Whether that experience is real or perceived doesn’t matter.

For these teens, slam poetry may be good therapy, but mostly, it’s just good.

The full interview with Darron Cambra, Harrison Ines, and Hannah Matsunaga is on the Town Square archive. The show also features several performance pieces.

Youth Speaks Hawaii will offer its 2nd Saturday Slam at 3:00 p.m. at ARTS at Mark’s Garage in June and take on the adults in July for the annual David v. Goliath Slam. Weekly workshops are held at the ARTS at Mark’s Garage every Wednesday from 4:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Workshops are open to all students between ages 13 and 19. Admission is free. The biannual interscholastic slam is June 24 at Farrington. For more information, email [email protected] or call (808) 306-7197.