Detroit youth poetry slam offers competition in a safe space

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — A Midtown museum filled with the sounds of snapped fingers and loud whooping, even before Kennedy Byrd, 18, had spoken her first word Sunday.

"Louder Than A Bomb," the name for the Michigan Youth Poetry Festival, lived up to its name as five teams competed in a four-round Grand Slam poetry competition at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design. For the fourth year in a row, the event was hosted in Detroit by InsideOut Literary Arts, a nonprofit that works with Metro Detroit youth through in-school and after-school creative writing programs.

The five teams — Detroit Youth Poetry Slam, Fire (Kalamazoo), the Arts Academy in the Woods (Fraser), Main Library (Detroit) and the Neutral Zone (Ann Arbor) — performed original poems on issues common to the age: parental alienation, sex, harassment and bullying, and even school shootings.

That five was whittled from 16 when the festival began Saturday, said Suma Karaman Rosen, executive director of InsideOut Literary Arts. 

Sunday's competition was five rounds. For the first four, one poet represented each team. On the final round, four poets would present a group work. 

The mostlyteen audience at MOCAD hailed from throughout the state, but had gotten to know each other over the previous day.

Fellow poets and audience members applaud after the poem by Kennedy Byrd of the Detroit Youth Poetry Slam team at the "Louder Than a Bomb" poetry festival at MOCAD.

When a poet's line landed well, the crowd cheered and snapped; when someone flubbed a line, their peers snapped even more and cheered even louder.

Five judges scored the event, but the high and low scores for each contestant were discarded, leaving the three middle scores, up to 10 points each, for a total of 30.

The "Louder Than A Bomb" concept originated in Chicago in 2001 and quickly migrated to Michigan. Before coming to Detroit, the Michigan festival was held in Ann Arbor and hosted by the Neutral Zone, which placed second.

Byrd's poem, "Coming of Age," detailed the struggles of a girl on the cusp of official womanhood —but already viewed and treated as a grown woman by the men she encounters — to relate her situation to her father.

"There comes a time in every father's life when he realizes his little girl has blossomed into a woman," it begins. Further down, Byrd writes: 

"We pull up to the corner store and daddy slaps a crisp 10 dollar bill in my hand, an absent look as he ponders what pop he’s about to indulge in today.

I leave the car smiling and come back with the most repulsive face he has ever seen.

He asks what happened.

I say just some man.

Dad gets it but doesn't get it. He offers advice he thinks will keep her safe: just make conversation with the man. Tell him you're underage. That'll fix it.

The poem ends with the daughter still trying to be understood by her father, even as she realizes what's happened at the store is not some freak occurrence, but a new normal. 

I explain to him this is not the first time

I once had to walk an extra block down the street just so a man begging me to get into his car didn't know where I lived and that's when I realized what it's like to be a real woman.

To have no say in my existence.

To feel powerless while going to get a fucking pop and acknowledging that this is something

I will have to live with, for the rest of my little life

"Coming of Age" was the second poem read Sunday and scored 29 points out of 30, a number that wouldn't be topped until teammate Elric Laron scored a 29.8 in the final individual round. With two other scores above 28, the home team coasted to victory. 

After the win, coach LaShaun Phoenix Kotaran said the team had only been together about a month, but had been practicing regularly. The team meets for seven hours a week, on Monday nights and Saturday afternoons, in addition to what the youths do in their own time. 

Sunday's success was just the start of a busy spring and summer for the group, which will culminate in an appearance, against 50-60 other teams, in the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Las Vegas.

"All we do is help them enhance their performances with movement, making sure their language is precise," said Kotaran, a winning coach in her first competition with the group. "But all of the emotions— those are experiences they’re having. We sometimes make kids feel like they don’t know anything or they haven’t been through anything. But some of the things that come across that stage are deeper than what I’ve seen in my 42 years on the planet Earth."

Competition was only one aspect of the weekend, Rosen said, adding that at heart the event is about fellowship between young people from all over the Lower Peninsula. (The Upper Peninsula is not excluded but was not represented.) 

"There’s this interaction with peers, who are all sharing their authentic voices with each other in this beautiful, safe space," Rosen said. "Through poetry and authentic voice, you’re sharing who you really are. To say your truth, out loud, in a group of people, and have it responded to in a positive way? That’s what I’m most excited about."