“If you can’t be the poem, be the poet,” goes a twist on a quote by the late actor David Carradine. Arguably, the youth poets who join HomeWord’s workshops and slam events manage to be both. The local spoken-word organization is “committed to using spoken-word poetry as a catalyst for creating a safe, competitive and encouraging space for youths that fosters social awareness, artistic development and self-empowerment,” according to its website. And not only does HomeWord help young writers prepare for the annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival, it galvanizes a community around language.
HomeWord hosts its second Youth Slam of the season on Tuesday, Nov. 14, at N.C. Stage Company. Poets ages 13-19 are invited to compete or perform at the open mic at the beginning of the evening.
“The work that we do is important, and we’re really lucky because we get the chance to interact with so many people who also think it’s important,” says Heidi Freeman, who, along with teacher and poet Steve Shell, started HomeWord six years ago. At the time, Freeman was leading a poetry group at Asheville High. She and Shell took a group of students to Brave New Voices. Though the trip was intended as a sort of reconnaissance mission, the Asheville team was one of just four chosen to be featured on the final stage.
“It ended up being this incredible experience,” Freeman remembers. “It was a weeklong festival with a lot of social justice engagements and workshops and all the poets creating artwork.” The group decided to launch something similar in Asheville, first with monthly slams — a competitive format in which poets read or recite work and are awarded points by a panel of judges — and later with a workshop series, mentorships by alumni poets (previous team member Bryan Head, currently an MFA student, serves as youth programming director and assistant coach for HomeWord), and sending a team to BNV. The 2013-15 and 2017 teams advanced to semifinals.
HomeWord’s monthly slams are open to all interested students, and the slam team is selected, based on points accrued, from those events. A pool of 50-75 youth poets is culled to the six who represent Asheville on the national level. The cost to send the team to BNV each year is covered by fundraising, grants and other opportunities. “Last year we were asked [by Youth Speaks, the literacy nonprofit that created BNV] to put on a forum on education reform from a student perspective,” says Freeman. The ReThink High School panel took place at N.C. Stage in May. For that effort, the group received a stipend that covered most of its expenses to attend the festival in San Francisco. This next BNV takes place in Chicago.
Cade Wooten, the only returning slam team member, began attending the poetry club at Asheville High when he was in ninth grade, though he didn’t start writing poetry until he was a sophomore. These days, he names Danez Smith, Eve Ewing and Franny Choi among poets he’s inspired by.
Also on that list is Matthew Olzmann, a former teacher in the Warren Wilson College undergraduate program and current MFA faculty member at the school. Freeman says the HomeWord students often work with Olzmann’s poetry to learn about style and presentation. When Wooten won last year’s Grand Slam, his prize was a Skype session with Olzmann.
“That was awesome,” says Wooten, who sent a packet of his work to the poet. They discussed Wooten’s poems “and we also talked about college and publishing and submitting to places.”
The imitation of works by writers such as Olzmann is part of HomeWord’s approach to the performance of slam poetry. “It’s become much more refined and intentional,” says Freeman. “There’s definitely a focus on moving away from things that are appropriation or are triggering … poetry [that] opens up wounds instead of trying to close them in some way.”
She adds, “There’s a huge movement in the past year to make sure art is being used to deal with trauma not in a way that retraumatizes people.”
In his own work, Wooten — who writes about mental illness and destigmatizing that challenge, among other topics — says, “There’s a tendency, in performance, for it to be very loud and aggressive, which is fine, but it’s not who I am as a writer.” He continues, “I learned that performance, above all, should be honest and reflective of what the work is trying to accomplish.”
Previous Grand Slam winners such as Devin Jones have moved on to college, making room for new poets to hone and share their work. Freeman says that the youth poets who showed up to the first slam of the season “were so confident and so beautiful.”
Along with cultivating the 2018 team, Freeman and Shell are also at work on starting a youth poet laureate program in Asheville, inspired by the National Youth Poet Laureate initiative — another way to elevate emerging voices.
To young writers thinking about trying a slam, Wooten says to go for it. “It’s really scary, but it’s definitely worth it,” he says. “You’ll have a lot of people there to support you.”
WHAT: HomeWord Youth Slam, homewordavl.org
WHERE: N.C. Stage, 1 Stage Lane,
WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 14, 7-9 p.m. $5 students/$7 adults/free for performing poets