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Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Many will extol the benefits of spending the summer in the city. They will tell you of all of the wonderful events, many free, how much less crowded things are, and how tickets for events are more easily available since many New Yorkers are away. This is all true. But a long wait on a subway platform or a walk in the blistering heat amid concrete and garbage will quickly reveal why so many are away and you have the "city to yourself."

I was really not very enthused about trekking all the way to 236 East 3rd Street between Avenue B and C in this type of heat and humidity to go to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where Urban Word NYC was sponsoring the Regional Teen Poetry Slam. A segment about this event had appeared that Sunday morning on TV. The host, an older white man, was extremely effusive about the poetry of a young person who was part of the event. He read some of his work. I was impressed.
I respect poetry and I have read things I like, but I do not seek it out. This event looked to be some hybrid between rap and poetry, written about issues germane to kids a fraction of my age. But why not give it a try?

It was so hot, with the kind of humidity that makes your skin crawl, and a shower is really just a foolish formality - undone the moment you set foot on the street. Surely it would not be crowded. Who is left in the city on a hot summer's day, and who will venture out to the East Village on Sunday at noon to see poetry?

We were the first and only ones in line, and although the prospect of waiting 30 minutes in the heat was very unappealing, after making the schlepp, my companion and I decided to wait. Soon, kids began to arrive and fraternize on the street - apparently many were known to each other in this subculture. I met the DJ and took his photo. By 1 PM, when the doors opened, the line had increased sizably.

The space itself had been reviewed negatively by some online, so I imagined a seedy basement space with no A/C. After paying a nominal $7 admission, we entered the space itself which was a big surprise - clean, cool and comfortable. We had a choice of tables and were joined by a couple who were New York City High School English teachers. They had attended many poetry slams here before and had even brought their classes. They assured me that I would be very pleasantly amazed. Soon the room became full, and in no time, every table was taken and people were sitting on the floor or standing.
My attitude was already changing.

I thought that after four years of writing this blog that my skills and command of the English language had improved and that I aspired to becoming a wordsmith.
Until Sunday.
The command of the English language, the vocabulary, the insights, the creative writing, the rapidity of delivery, the rhymes, the rhythms, the memorization skills, the passion and theater were all nothing short of astounding. I was awed by these teenage kids.

What really struck me was that, when examined closely, this entire activity was a celebration of the word. The event was sponsored by Urban Word NYC. Linguistic fluency and interest in language and writing is not a common association made regarding inner city youth. This phenomenon is really flying under the radar. It left me slammed...

Note: Technically this event was a slam, and like all poetry slams, that means a competition. Winners will go on to Los Angeles for the national competition. However, it was announced early on that the competitive aspect of the event was not the focus. This was a regional event and teams had come from Connecticut, Boston, Philadelphia and the home team from New York City. Poetry slams are regularly performed in New York City. The leader in this art form has been the Bowery Poetry Club. You can read my posting about it here.


Someone Said said...

As a poet I appreciate this article a lot. The youth and adult slam scenes in many cities around the country, including my home of Columbus, continues to show fast paced growth and acceptance in the communities.

Kenon Thompson said...

Awesome post. I love poetry slams! I attended my first poetry slam in Denver (Slam Nuba) and it is juts amazing the way poets use linguistic and rhythmical flows of words.

Alexis Marie said...

Thank you for this article. I was on the Urban Word NYC slam team in 2008 and am pleased to see it is not only the usual crowd that's paying attention. For those young poets to have changed your views so radically is a beautiful thing. If I may make a small correction: Although regionals is a competition, the winnings and placement have no bearings on who goes to the national competition. All teams featured at regionals go on to L.A this summer. Although it is a slam, regionals is more of a pre-nationals meet and greet :)

Lublin said...

Thanks for the great piece! I work at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and am asking for your help... we're in the Chase Community Giving campaign this month. The top 200 charities receive at least $20,000. Please VOTE for the Nuyorican here:

The money will help us do more amazing programming at no/low-cost such as our collaborations with Urban Word!

Please VOTE and spread the word(s) widely!!

Naomid said...

This place is an institution and not to be missed when visiting the city if you are interested in language or music. Only good things come from this place, and I'm happy to see it still buzzing.