Thursday, June 12, 2008

Teens prepare to represent Maryland in ‘Olympics of spoken word poetry’

Poetry slam draws top on-stage wordsmiths from around the country

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Brenda Ahearn⁄The Gazette
Poetry slam team coaches (from left) Patrick Washington, Tahira Joseph, SeKeithia Johnson and team member Eveluyn Kenner, 16, of Bowie listen as Von Bellows, 19, of Lanham reads a poem during a practice session Saturday at Washington’s home in Upper Marlboro.
Evelyn Kenner stood at the microphone, closed her eyes, and began to recite a poem about her father.

‘‘He might have took a bite of the apple from the forbidden tree, but haven’t we all,” she said, her voice and body moving to a steady rhythm. ‘‘Didn’t God forgive you and me when we made that fall?”

Kenner, of Bowie, said the poem, called ‘‘Daddy’s Lil’ Soldier,” is about feeling love for her father in spite of a troubled relationship.

‘‘I wrote it so I could forgive him,” said Kenner, 16, a Suitland High School student.

Kenner is one of six teenagers from the county and Washington, D.C. on the Maryland Youth Poetry Slam team training to compete in an international poetry slam – a competition where poets recite their work and are judged by audience members – being held in July in Washington, D.C.

To sharpen their skills at delivering their poems with rhythm and ease, team members perform at open mic events nearby and practice on Saturdays at the Upper Marlboro home of coach Patrick Washington.

The July competition, the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam, is expected to draw more than 450 top young spoken word poets on 43 U.S. teams. A team from England also is scheduled to compete.

‘‘It’s the biggest competition of its kind,” said Tahira Joseph, the team’s creator who coaches the team with Washington. ‘‘This is like the Olympics of spoken word poetry.”

Patrick Tatum, a 19-year-old Lanham resident, said the highlight of the five-day poetry slam is meeting and learning from other talented young poets from around the country.

‘‘The point is not the points. The point is the poetry,” Tatum said, repeating a refrain that he said is regularly passed around at the slam. ‘‘We’re just here to express ideas and share poetry.”

The team’s other members are 19-year-old Von Bellows, of Lanham; 16-year-old Angela Abadir of Bowie; 18-year-old Ivan Valdez-Osinyagi, of Riverdale; and 19-year-old Shaquetta Nelson of the District. Sekeithia Johnson, a 20-year-old from Capitol Heights, is a veteran of the team who now serves as a youth coach.

Members were selected from a group of about 30 teens who participated in local qualifying competitions throughout the year, Washington said.

‘‘These are the best of the best,” he said.

Poems for the event are original works that must be delivered in less than three minutes. Competitors must be ages 14 to 19 years old to compete.

Bellows said one of his signature poems, called ‘‘Psychological Stutter,” was inspired by his speech impediment.

‘‘It’s about my verbal speech impediment, and the psychological one that everyone’s born with,” Bellows said. ‘‘When people are challenged, they fall back from doing what they want to do. It’s like a stutter.”

Team members gave different explanations for how they got into doing poetry slams, but they agreed that delivering their work on stage is a crucial aspect.

‘‘The kids need an outlet. They need to express themselves. They have a lot to say,” he said. ‘‘For them to have this opportunity – three minutes on the mic – it means the world to them.”

E-mail Andy Zieminski at


Members of the Maryland Youth Poetry Slam team will be performing at two county events before July’s competition. They are:

Friday, June 13 at ‘‘Rhythm and Flow” open mic poetry at Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier. Starts at 8 p.m. Cost: $3 for students, $5 for adults.

Wednesday, July 9 at Peachez Café and Lounge in Upper Marlboro. Starts at 7:30 p.m. Free admission.

The Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam will be held July 15-19 at various venues in the Washington, D.C., area. For information, go to