High schoolers reveal power of poetry at competition
Dramatically performing her poetry before a crowd for the first time, Centennial High School student Akaisha Williams won first place in the first Verselandia! East Side Slam on Thursday, May 16, at Mt. Hood Community College.
"Verselandia! East Side Slam was my very first, but definitely not my last" poetry slam, she said.
Despite her feeling "scared and hopeful and excited," Williams, 15, managed a delivery that judges found powerful, confident and emotional.
Allison Riddle, a Reynolds High School sophomore, came in second and Anne Holder from Gresham High School came in third in the event, which featured 11 poets from Reynolds, Gresham, Centennial, Fir Ridge and Parkrose high schools.
In a poetry slam, participants perform their original works before a panel of judges. Using a 1-to-10 scale, they rate the student's performance and writing. Ratings are publicly revealed after each recitation, much like figure-skating scores.
Verselandia! followed standard national rules for poetry slams, with students performing original work without props, costumes or music.
Desmond Spann, a Portland teacher, writer and musician who served as emcee, called poetry slams a literary "blood sport" because of the competition. Although an iPad Air was at stake for first prize, the atmosphere was supportive, with the poets all chatting together and hugging at the event.
Eleven students performed in the first round, the highest five scorers then went to a second round and the top three in that round were winners.
Williams prefers poetry as her form of expression because it's "a way to make a statement without needing to hit a certain pitch, draw a certain shape, do a specific move, or flesh out a 60,000-word novel," she said. "Poetry, to me, is a novel."
Williams' first poem was about sleep, and the second discussed the impact of the death of her friend Gabrielle.
Verselandia! East Side Slam participants included Juliette Tello-Gomez and Allison Riddle of Reynolds High School; Raven Eldridge Smith, Luke Yang and Anne Holder of Gresham High School: Aliya Travis, DeMya McDaniel and Akaisha Williams of Centennial High School; Crystal Handke from Fir Ridge Campus of David Douglas High School, and Haven Worly and Coral Worley of Parkrose High School.
Gresham High student Rowan Spillman acted as the "sacrificial poet," opening the competition without actually competing.
Second-place winner Riddle has been the sacrificial poet in other slams, but this was her first time actually competing.
"I've been writing poetry since I was in elementary school, but I preferred other forms of creative writing, mostly narratives," she said. "It wasn't until I was in seventh grade that I fell in love with poetry. It started with Shakespeare, the way he used rhythm and strong words to build passion and tell a story."
"I never actually picked slam poetry as my medium to express myself," she added. "It coexists among my many forms of self expression. Before I wrote poetry I was an actor. That was how I got introduced to Shakespeare. My acting experience influences my poetry in many ways. But I also create things that aren't words. I've expressed myself through graphic design, using software to create images that tell stories, with more than words."
The five poetry slam judges comprised poets, teachers and literary types except for Multnomah County Commissioner Lori Stegmann, who seemed a bit surprised to be judging the students.
"This is so much fun. It's all new to me," she said.
"It is so great to see these kids come out and express themselves and hear what they have to say," Stegmann said.
The poetry is often raw, exposing searching and anxiety relating to sexual identity, abuse and the angst of finding one's place in the world.
The performance was sponsored by Portland's Literary Arts, a nonprofit organization that builds community around literature, books and storytelling and "the essential ideas and issues they raise."
In April, Literary Arts held a Verslandia! at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland primarily for Portland Public School students.
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