Poets Before Profitsby Eleanor J. Bader
It’s the first day of classes at Urban Word NYC’s Brooklyn site. Rain is falling hard, in sheets rather than drops, and walking outdoors requires puddle jumping or wading across small rivers. But despite the near-Biblical storm, Willie Perdomo—winner of PEN America’s 2004 Beyond Margins award for his book, Smoking Lovely—is ready to teach, a stack of photocopied materials on his desk.
Perdomo’s once-weekly workshop, Word to Everything I Love, runs for 12 weeks three times a year at St. John’s Recreation Center in Crown Heights. Students ranging in age from 13 to 19 pay nothing for Perdomo’s time and attention—the program is funded by foundation grants and individual donors—and learn of the class through social media and word-of-mouth referrals from friends, teachers, and school counselors.
Seventeen-year-old Zaira, a senior at the Academy for Young Writers in Williamsburg, arrives first. Aliyyaa, an 18-year-old veteran of Urban Word, now a first-year student at Medgar Evers College, enters a few minutes later. They’re the only two who show up for the day’s lesson, but Perdomo seems unfazed. After brief introductions and a course overview, he gets down to business.
“Plato once said, ‘At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet,’” he begins. Using an exercise developed by Teachers & Writers Collaborative, he asks the students to rephrase the sentence as many times as they can. “It’s a way for them to see that there is more than one way to say or write something,” Perdomo tells me. “Robert Frost said that all poetry is play and I try to get my classes to understand that they can have fun with language, that it is there to be re-created.”
Zaira and Aliyyaa respond immediately to Perdomo’s initial assignment, and so he shifts gears, asking them to read Hell A, a poem by Jonathan Holden:
You will wake up / in the class you hated / most in high school. / Everything will be / the same / as it was, / the same disgusting / students doing / the same / disgusting / things / they used to do. / Even your desk / a typical high school / desk in a typical high school / room, will be the same.
After Hell A has been read aloud, Perdomo notes that Holden has conjured a generic scene, bereft of specifics, and asks Zaira and Aliyyaa to zoom in on the particulars of their own secondary school hell. “Write a poem,” he urges, “but include some details. The power of poetry is often in the specifics.”
As the minutes tick by, Perdomo notices that Zaira is staring into space and intervenes. “What are you stuck on?” he asks. As she speaks, Perdomo slowly helps her find the words and imagery that have eluded her. Her relief is palpable.
Finally, each girl has a draft, albeit rough. Aliyyaa’s hell is a trigonometry class. “You don’t know the value of X / You only know the value of time,” she reads. Zaira’s poem has taken a different tack: “There will always be people who bully for kicks / High school was the darkness I was falling into.”
Perdomo urges the pair to continue working on their poems, refining them by showing them to an English teacher or creative writing instructor, and editing them until they say exactly what they want them to say. Revision, he stresses, is key.
“The passion you find in a young poet’s unmediated voice is refreshing,” Perdomo says once the class is over. “It gives those who listen a window into the pulse of the city. You can see and hear the angst, urgency, and disillusionment of their lives.”
Indeed. Perusal of works penned since Urban Word began in 1999 reflect intense frustration and bitterness. In fact, the poems frequently rail against the many wrongs in their communities and lives: sexual abuse and harassment, racism, parental neglect and abandonment, betrayal by friends, educational inequities, violence, and gentrification.
Trish Hicks has been the coordinator of Urban Word’s Brooklyn program since it launched in 2007. A jovial woman with a huge smile, Hicks knows that Urban Word has garnered a reputation as the go-to place for teens eager to hone their skills as slam—or competitive spoken word—poets. Nonetheless, she is adamant that slamming is not the program’s purpose. “Urban Word is a writing program. A lot of kids are attracted to the idea of the lights, the technological hoo-ha. They want to perform on YouTube and develop a following of fans. Other kids find that idea intimidating. The challenge for me is making sure that the kids understand that Urban Word is about each person finding a voice, being in a room with others, and talking and writing about the things that shape their world. Connecting to other people is everything; community building is what matters. Even if they never go on stage, if they’ve connected with someone else, and learned a little bit about language and expression, they’ve gained something.”
That said, the slams—and the financial prizes they offer—are an undeniable draw. According to Urban Word NYC’s website, 85 percent of the approximately 15,000 students involved in the program each year—whether through residencies at public junior and senior high schools, SAT prep courses, or through afternoon or weekend workshops, like Perdomo’s, that are offered in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan—come from low-income households.
The Knicks Poetry slam, a collaboration between Urban Word and the New York Knicks—yes, the basketball team—takes place each fall and is step one in the teen slam process. Each poet—this year more than 200 participated—auditions before a three-judge panel; winners are encouraged to enroll in Urban Word classes to refine their craft. Then, as the year progresses, challengers move from winter preliminaries to spring semi-finals at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The culmination is the selection of a six-member team that travels to the grandmother of slams, Brave New Voices. There, teen poets from across the country compete for the championship title. The New York team—including several Brooklynites—took first place in 2010 and second place in 2011.
Jay Davis, a recent graduate of the High School for Enterprise, Business, and Technology (formerly Eastern District High School) will begin Wheaton College in January. Davis was on the 2010 team and credits Perdomo with helping her develop as a writer and thinker. “He taught me not to be afraid to do something new, that I was capable of branching out into different kinds of poetry,” she says. Although Davis did not compete in this year’s Knicks slam, she was there to cheer for poets she’d met through Urban Word.
Nineteen-year-old Marlon Cadore, a Crown Heights resident studying at the College of Staten Island, thinks he has a shot at making the final cut. But even if he doesn’t, he says he’s proud of his output, proud of how much better his poetry has become thanks to Urban Word. “Willie, in particular, taught me that I could work within the lines without sacrificing my creativity,” he says. “He showed me that structured writing doesn’t have to be inflexible. I can still be as creative and imaginative as I want to be.”
Amani Breanna Alexander, another slam competitor, made it to last year’s semi-finals. Now a senior at the Academy for Young Writers, she, like Davis and Cadore, acknowledges the role Urban Word has played in helping her sharpen her skills. “Poetry is not just words. When I write I realize things I did not know I knew,” she boasts.
Coordinator Trish Hicks agrees that the workshops are transformative. “They’re one of the only places where teens can talk about and debate things that matter,” she says. They’re also a place where friendships flourish. “A few years back a girl in our workshop was murdered,” she continues. “She was a really big part of our community and got killed in a domestic dispute. When she died the kids poured forth to support her mom and came together to honor and celebrate her life through poetry. It was astounding. Seeing how young people love, seeing their unadulterated ability to embrace each other, was phenomenal. But the truth is, every week in class is phenomenal. Amazing things happen.”
Teens from all boroughs can sign up for Urban Word workshops at urbanwordnyc.org or by calling (212) 352-3495.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader