Use your words

Students channel their experiences through spoken word    
By Benjamin Leger
August 31, 2012

We ask a lot of our kids. We ask them to perform on standardized tests, in the classroom, on the football field. But we rarely ask them to perform as writers, as communicators, in front of their peers, in front of a mic.

Forward Arts’ WordPlay program, formerly housed under Big Buddy until the beginning of this year, aims to create poets and writers out of local high school and middle school students using the hip factor of spoken word. It’s a performance style sometimes linked to hip hop or rap, and it’s a strong, tight-knit presence on the Baton Rouge club and coffee shop scene. But supporters and students are trying to get residents to see it as much more.

“Spoken word is a hard sell,” says Chancelier “Xero” Skidmore, executive director of Forward Arts. “A lot of people don’t understand the magnitude of what our kids can do on a stage. They don’t understand the magnitude of what our kids can do with a piece of paper.”

WordPlay wrapped up its biggest event, the All-City Teen Poetry Slam Festival, in May. In its sixth year, All-City brought 11 teams from schools across the parish for preliminary bouts leading up to a final competition at the Manship Theatre. The winning team went on to compete as part of an all-star team at an international poetry slam in San Francisco this July.

It’s a huge achievement and opportunity for any young person, let alone a student in the oft-maligned East Baton Rouge public school system. To see students from schools like Broadmoor, Episcopal and Istrouma command a crowd with fast-paced, witty metaphors in revealing original works is, as Skidmore says, “mind-blowing.”

Rickey Charbonnet, a sophomore from Istrouma, has been performing at All-City for the past two years. He wasn’t sure about writing poetry when he first heard about his school’s competing team, and he was even less sure about his own abilities as a writer. “At first, I didn’t like the poem I wrote,” he says. “But I came here and everybody just exploded when I did it.”

He performed again in May at a semi-final bout in the BREC Administration Building, sharing the stage with fellow Istrouma student Benjamin Washington. They bounced verses off each other, zipping through a poem about the arbitrariness of scoring someone’s personal expression.

It was a gutsy move—especially with the judges right in the front row—and Istrouma made it through, in part because of how well the young men’s poem was received. “My heart’s still beating fast,” Charbonnet said after hearing his team would go on to the finals.

These competitions are the culmination of what starts in the classroom. Skidmore and other writer-mentors with WordPlay serve in-school residencies at about 10 schools a year, working alongside teachers during poetry units. Teachers often serve as coaches for school teams that go on to compete at WordPlay events.

“It becomes a very large responsibility [for the teachers],” says Donney Rose, program director for Forward Arts. “You become their chaperone, their coach, their caterer. There are plenty of outside-of-school days.”

WordPlay lessons in the classroom nod to modern hip-hop wordsmiths like Eminem, but compare them to someone more old-school—like, say, Edgar Allan Poe. From there, the students are exposed to other classic poems and even take part in recitation contests and regular competitions throughout the year. WordPlay teams often perform in events like the Louisiana Book Festival, Fest For All and Art Melt.

But what’s the draw for students who may already be swamped with after-school programs and sports? Skidmore and Rose say their students do better on the writing portions of standardized tests, are better at expressing themselves, gain a stronger respect for literature and become better writers and communicators. They write poetry for an audience, for their peers, and the resulting pieces are far more original and personal than what students might turn in for only the eyes of a teacher, they say.

The flip side, though, is that the content isn’t always pretty. At the semi-final bout, an Istrouma student examined her strained relationship with a mostly absent father, a McKinley student’s poem asked why churches aren’t more accepting, and a poem from an EBR Lab Academy student looked at an interracial friendship with a boy in her childhood. Sarah Webb, an English teacher at Istrouma and coach of that school’s team, explains that while they don’t allow profanity, “The way we see it, if the kids can live it, they should be able to talk about it.”

And as passionate as students become about their poems, performing on stage like they’re doing dramatic readings for a theater class and applauding when a classmate spins a clever phrase, the Forward Arts team is just as passionate about providing those opportunities. To hear Skidmore and Rose talk, it’s clear they want to make up for what was lacking in their own formative years in Baton Rouge.

“I know as a young poet or hip-hop artist, those opportunities weren’t there for me here,” Rose says. “And I never want to see a young person deprived of opportunities.”

Rose and Skidmore have been on the local spoken-word circuit and music scene for years—Skidmore also performs with the Michael Foster Project and Rose is an emcee and event promoter.

And when they aren’t molding young poets, they are stretching their own craft in regular shows at places like M Bar downtown or Northgate Tavern. The poetry scene may seem underground to some, but local venues often host regular spoken word nights, many of which are organized through the Poetry Alliance of Baton Rouge.

The Mocha Room at Southern has featured Wednesday night events for more than two decades. As host of many of these shows in the early 2000s, Rose is credited for helping several local poets get their start.

Skidmore and Rose occasionally perform out of state in bigger cities, competing for cash prizes and trying to gain exposure with bigger audiences. “To a certain extent, if you’re trying to sell young people on the fact that you can make art as a living, it doesn’t make sense to not be performing for a living,” Rose says.

A poetry slam Skidmore emceed at M Bar this spring found Rose competing with local poets as well as other WordPlay mentors, including a former student: DeAndre Hill, who was a member of the student team at Broadmoor and now volunteers with WordPlay. Hill has become one to watch locally, and it shows in the serious concentration he brings on stage.

He’s learning to take his role as mentor seriously. “Some of the students, when they saw me perform, they started sending me their own poems to look at and critique. It makes me happy to know I have ?the knowledge to help them now,” he says.

Webb, the Istrouma teacher, sees her mentorship role this way: “As a coach, you have to realize it really is their talent that makes the team,” she says. “This is such a small school and there are limited opportunities. The students really have a story to tell, but maybe don’t have the outlets to tell them. Poetry is something they cling to.”

She recognizes that her school, as well as the EBR Lab housed within Istrouma, is facing a dim future, but it hasn’t affected the students’ creative process. “Even if you go to a school that’s considered failing, you don’t have to internalize it,” she says.

And it’s clear they don’t. Istrouma won this year’s All-City tournament for the second year in a row. Istrouma student Benjamin Washington joined the local all-star team, including students from McKinley, EBR Lab, Scotlandville Magnet, BRCC and LSU, to compete in San Francisco in July.

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