Word power – Poetry educators bring expressive message to Nevada Union
He shuffled toward the microphone Friday in front of a hushed crowd at the Don Baggett Theatre, blinked twice into the lights and riffed.
As if emptying bullets from an assault rifle’s magazine, Josh Bagley fired shots at the political establishment and rappers who ghost-write lyrics to their songs. He even busted some flowin’ rhymes about a media empire he said has stripped youth of their ability to think for themselves.
His message was loud. It was clear. Tight, some students said.
And when he was done, the theater beside Nevada Union High School rumbled with applause and appreciative shout-outs, as if the students had just seen the end of an OutKast concert.
But there was no music, no DJ or scratchy beat-box behind Bagley or the other members of a group bringing the power of the spoken word to students Friday.
Bagley and his fellow rappers have spent years spreading the spoken word to campuses across California. Their group, Youth Speaks, hopes to awaken students who doodle poems and prose in the margins of their homework and on the backs of their binders to take that message out of their mouths and into the ears of their peers.
“We’re not asking you to be the next Toni Morrison or Shakespeare,” said Michelle Lee, one of the student educators with Youth Speaks. “We just ask you to be yourself.”
That way, members of Youth Speaks said, poetry becomes more than just an exercise in memorizing the cadence of stanzas written by a bunch of dead white guys.
Literature Alive, a Nevada County nonprofit charged with promoting poetry and creative writing, sponsored Youth Speaks’ visit to Nevada Union High School in conjunction with the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Office.
Poetry doesn’t have to be boring. It just needs to be relevant to your audience, the poetry educators said.
“We, as poets, have a responsibility on our shoulders to take the words that we read and put it on the microphone,” said Alan Maramag of Vallejo. “Youth tends to be silenced by their peers, by their classes.”
It can be overcome by drive and interest and a compelling zeal to incorporate rich detail into your story, he said.
One of the poets spoke of unrequited love, of how his ex-girlfriend’s hands were scarred by his memory, and that the poetry she once etched on the back of his neck actually was the words she always wanted him to say.
The poets later asked challenged students to try a bit of spoken-word poetry themselves, by recreating a time in their lives when they were scared, imploring them to write with the clarity and detail found in the raps they’d heard only moments before.
Brooke Sylvia, 17, wrote about how she slipped and fell 100 feet from Mt. Tangarico on New Zealand’s North Island during a trip there last summer. She wrote of the blood dripping from her body and how she feared the snow on the mountain would trap her during the ordeal.
It turned out to be an experience, she said, that was difficult to put into words.
Whitney Giles, 17, wrote about shattered glass she saw falling during a family argument.
“I think writing is very therapeutic,” she said. “It helps you better understand whatever situation you might find yourself in.”
There’s no formula or procedure to follow, either, said Grace Totherow, a San Juan Ridge-area resident who joined Youth Speaks last year.
“The more we challenge ourselves and keep our brains active, and not get stuck in a box, the better we are to express ourselves. The art of telling a story is so intense.”
Nevada Union teacher Pat McClain, who has used the words of those dead white poets for years in her classroom, branched out several years ago with “Naked Poetry” readings – not literally, of course – at the high school. The program was so popular that students have used it to form the basis of their senior projects.
“It’s like discovering your own voice,” she said. “The fact that it’s spoken adds to the urgency of your message.”
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