Suicide, racism, feminism, justice.
Those are just a few of the topics covered by students between the ages of 11 and 20 who performed at last week’s Youth Poetry Slam at the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center.
The event, which first began five years ago, is the brainchild of both Lamont Parker and Bronx-based rapper and poet Erik “Advocate of Wordz” Maldonado. Parker is chair of Community Board 8’s youth committee. It’s designed, Parker said, to provide young people with a space to talk about their own experiences and emotions.
“I think the arts are a safe zone for people to express themselves without being judged,” he said. “This is normal to them. It’s like second nature for them. This is what they do.
“It’s amazing how they feel comfortable coming to discuss something that is close and dear to them.”
The slam is a two-round contest, in which participants had a chance to perform original poetry, followed by an open mic session after the winner was chosen.
The winners chose between two video game consoles — Xbox One or a PlayStation 4.
“We are not in a library, we are not in an English class. We are at a poetry slam,” Maldonado told the crowd. “Also, if I mispronounce your name, correct me. You deserve to be heard and you deserve to have your name spelled correctly. We respect each other here.”
Most of the recent participants were students in a weekly community center poetry group, led by spoken word artist Luke Nephew.
“It’s a place where everyone builds an atmosphere of love and respect and freedom of expression,” Nephew said. “I live in this neighborhood so it feels great to be working with kids in my community center.”
John Herrera is one of those young people. The 14-year-old got involved with Nephew’s class because he couldn’t find a program or class at KHCC that really spoke to him.
“I didn’t really like going to the gym that much,” Herrera said. “The only thing left was poetry. It opened my eyes to something that I really love to do.”
But while the slam and poetry classes were meant to instill a sense of community and safety for the students, it was still a competition, and someone had to win.
A panel of judges, which included Parker, scored each poem in the first two rounds, and eventually crowned Duly Rosenberg that night’s champ. Rosenberg performed an untitled piece about suicide and her own sexuality.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the prize ceremony.
Rosenberg, 16, asked that night’s second-place poet, Aarron Torres, which of the game consoles he wanted. Torres had shared a poem about what it felt like to be a young, Hispanic man in New York City, and all of the racial tensions — including his interactions with police —that come with that experience.
Shortly after, the third place winner was supposed to go home with an iPad Mini, but Odelia Fried — whose poem “Suicide Girl” discussed the ways in which poetry helped her deal with her depression — told Parker she already had won a prize from last year’s slam and didn’t need a second. So she gave her prize to a first-timer.
The whole ordeal, Parker said, was an embodiment of the lessons the poetry slam and classes are supposed to instill.
“We are just trying to bring everybody together,” he said. “People want to hear your story … regardless of whatever you may think.”