→ I sat in the mostly empty Subway restaurant, reading my poems over and over again until they blurred together. My mom and my sisters split a sandwich, but I knew for sure that if I ate one bite of that teriyaki chicken on wheat, I’d see it again later at the poetry slam. I glanced out the window, then at my watch. 6:55. Not too early to check and see if the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft (KMAC) was open yet. I didn’t bother grabbing my umbrella from my sister, holding my notebook over my head as I ran next door.
Rows of black chairs faced a single mic in front of a large, pop-artish photograph blown up on a wall tapestry. A museum employee straightened the last chair, then unlocked the doors. I was the first poet at the poetry slam.
I paced, glancing at my poems, then my watch, then the doors as other poets trailed in. Lance Newman, the slam coordinator, arrived around 7:15 in a whirlwind of energy. A word search tattoo peeked out from his left cardigan sleeve, made of 42 words that all meant something to him. Lance has found less than half of them, so far.
“Oh, hey, you came back!” he said to me, instantly setting my nerves at ease. I’d gone to the November slam as an audience member; by the end of that night, I hadn’t been able to breathe from the beauty of it all.
“Yeah, I’m going to slam tonight,” I told him, awkwardly waving my poems.
He brightened. “Well, good luck to you! You’ll do fine.” Lance bustled over to the sound system, turning up the pop/hip hop music up until I could nearly feel the beat in my chest. I tried to focus on my poems and the music Lance had put on, but various Hamilton songs looped in my head instead as I tap danced in place to let out the energy electrifying my nerves.
At 7:45, Lance gathered all six of the poets that had arrived at the back of the room. After a brief, dizzying explanation of the slam’s rules, he held out a wire basket. Folded slips of paper barely filled the bottom. I held my breath as the other poets chose their numbers; I didn’t bother praying as I picked mine. Maybe I should have. I was the first poet at the mic for round one.
We returned to our seats as Lance officially opened the slam.
I admit I don’t remember most of the opening remarks, or the guest poet who performed. I do, however, distinctly remember the performance cues I’d written on my poems no longer having any meaning. “BREATHE” was just a collection of letters written in bright blue marker.
I shuffled my poems as Lance took the stage again.
“Please welcome your first poet, Kaelyn!” Lance bowed off the stage and I stood as gracefully as I could. I tilted the mic down and took a breath.
“I was so crazy nervous.” Jasmine Frederick, a 16-year-old poet from New Albany, IN, said, “Like I would get up there, I would kinda get in my standing and I would start shaking really bad. And at the time I was wearing heels, during my first one, so I was wobbling and I could barely stand but now the stage is like a second home to me.”
Young Poets of Louisville (YPL) is Frederick’s outlet.
“It’s a way of coping with everything that I go through as a female in this society,” Frederick said.
My eyes fixated on Frederick who stood at the mic at the November 18 YPL slam, the first one I attended. She surprised the audience in a way no one expected. She closed her eyes. Took a deep breath. And began to sing.
Sister, you know you’ve been on my mind, oh
Sister, we’re two of a kind, so
Sister, I’m keeping my eyes on you.
The audience perked up – breath hitched – eyes riveted on the stage. With her voice raised and words emphasized, she proclaimed:
Long live the queens!
The words flowed from her mouth as the audience remained captivated by her spoken word. Eyes half-lidded and a smile on her face, she spoke of beauty and dreams that will one day be made true. She wanted to empower girls her age and younger to develop the confidence they deserve. Frederick said she uses her poetry as a vehicle to speak her mind and express her feelings on subjects she is passionate about.
Frederick was one of six young poets YPL chose to send to Brave New Voices (BNV) in July 2016. She worked with YPL coaches Brandon “B. Shatter” Harrison and Naiyana Williams, and performed at the slams and experienced the workshops for BNV.
YPL partners with the BNV festival, which takes place in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif. every summer. Young poets from around the world come for the BNV four-day festival full of slams, workshops, showcases, and more poetry-related opportunities. YPL takes six young poets to the festival based on their participation in the slams through a point system. Poets can earn these points by winning or simply participating in the monthly slams now held at KMAC. First place poet earns five points, second earns four, third earns three, and participants earn one. The six poets at the end of the slam season with the most points are invited to attend BNV with the coaches and the executive director of YPL, Lance Newman.
YPL was created by Mackenzie Berry, who was 17 at the time, as an organization for young poets to use their voice and to ultimately help Louisville as the city that raised her.
A video of a poet named Kai Davis performing spoken-word poetry first inspired Berry, who is now 19 and a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to compete in poetry slams.
“What began as a selfish interest turned into the realization that Louisville needed this organization and this space for young people to speak their word,” Berry said. “Building something for the city that raised me became my vision.” In her work with the Louisville Youth Philanthropy Council, she was sent to Sweet Peaches, a recurring poetry slam on 18th & Muhammad Ali Blvd. She returned to Sweet Peaches and met Newman, who agreed to start hosting the YPL slams. Berry entrusted YPL to Newman once she left Louisville for college. YPL attracts poets of all ages and backgrounds.
McKenna Middendorf, a 14 year old eighth grader at Meredith Dunn, was one of the youngest performers of the night. She confidently walked up to the stage, her curly ponytail bouncing with every step. It was the eighth grader’s first time at a poetry slam.
“I came here with a leadership group and we were looking at the art. I happened just to turn around to see this stuff laying out on the counter and I picked up a poetry slam flyer,” Middendorf said. After looking up YPL on FaceBook, Middendorf decided she wanted to perform.
Slams are not just places to explore an art form and get to know the poetry community in Louisville, but also places to freely express thoughts and emotions without judgment. Newman’s goal is “to create young poets, very simply.” Youth are given a chance to share their work in a way that was difficult to find in Louisville before YPL was created. In giving them a platform to grow as artists, YPL acts as a place for emotional and personal growth that cannot easily be found in daily life. Their slams have drawn a variety of Louisville youth, the city’s black teens in particular. Poets address topics like anxiety, beauty standards, racism, religion, and personal identity, delivered with conviction and occasionally tempered with humor.
Most, if not all, of the poems are based on personal experiences.
I stood at the mic and remembered to breathe. Another poet nodded to me, almost imperceptibly, from the back of the audience and my heart settled back into my chest.
One shuffle of my pages later, I was taking a breath, relaxing my muscles, and launching into the most personal poem of the three I’d written for the slam. I remembered how I’d practiced the poem, matching the rhythm of the words to my stride as I walked from class to class.
Mackenzie Berry’s advice echoed in my ears.
“Make sure the poem is in your body first.”
I felt this poem in my bones and in the air as I performed, hands shaking less as I forged a connection with the audience.
In an age of insecurities
I cannot afford
Larger pockets for
When I finished, I walked as gracefully as I could back to my seat, where I promptly started trembling all over. My teeth chattered as Newman read off the scores from the judges, the audience booing the lowest score and cheering loudly for the highest score, as per tradition. I was shaking, but I had done it.
I was still shaking when the poetry slam officially ended. The slam winner had packed some powerful points with her poetry. I pulled a different slammer aside for an interview, congratulating her on her performance. Thirteen-year-old Princess Burney had slammed for the first time that night too – and had been absolutely amazing. I’d felt instantly relieved that I wasn’t the only first-timer there.
Newman pulled me into a hug.
“You did great!” he told me. “You had a little wordplay with that second poem. Keep doing that.” I smiled and promised to keep writing slam poetry.
We said our goodbyes and I gathered my family. The streetlamps glowed softly as we made our way to the parking garage. Creative energy buzzed in my bones.
I wanted to slam again. •