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West Jordan Journal

Passionate poets promote performance participation

Aug 06, 2019 01:58PM ● By Jet Burnham

Well-known slam poet Jesse Parent speaks in support of high school poetry slam clubs. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Dr. Steve Haslam, of Copper Hills High School; Sally Wilde, of Herriman High School; and Amanda Kurd, of Kearns High School, are passionate to put poetry slam clubs and classes into all Utah high schools. They formed the Utah High School Poetry Slam Initiative to campaign for poetry slam to become a sanctioned activity through the Utah High School Activities Association.

“We said, ‘Let’s do something more; let’s do something bigger; let’s do everything we can to get it in every school that we can because we have watched poetry literally save lives, and so that is our goal,’” said Haslam.

Poetry slam is a competition where students perform a three-minute, 10-second original poem for five judges. Teachers who coach poetry slam clubs claim it provides a forum for students to express their experiences and emotions to a responsive audience. While poetry slams are popular in coffee shops and on YouTube, only about six Utah schools participate in inter-school competitions, and only two offer poetry slam classes.

The poetry initiative  hosted a gala May 2 to educate teachers, administrators and district officials about the benefits of the activity in hopes of encouraging participation in more schools. Their goal is to get 30 schools to participate, which would meet the UHSAA requirements for gaining an Emerging Sport/Activity status.

The Emerging Sports Policy was recently introduced by the UHSAA for the 2019–2020 school year. Currently, only 10 girls’ sports and 10 boys’ sports and three activities—music, theater/drama and speech/debate—are sanctioned by the UHSAA. In response to requests from many participants and coaches of a variety of school activities, such as poetry slam, the UHSAA has created a student participation survey.

“We are trying to gauge what types of activities the students in Utah are participating in outside of those sports and activities that are already sanctioned by the UHSAA,” said UHSAA Assistant Director Jan Whittaker. “If enough schools meet the requirements spelled out in the policy [20% of the 150 member schools], they will be placed on the Emerging Sports and Activities list.”

Once an activity or sport becomes fully sanctioned, UHSAA can offer a state championship event. Schools from Jordan, Alpine, Davis and Granite districts currently participate in locally sponsored poetry slam competitions and workshops. The small but passionate community has drawn the support of well-known slam poets who were invited to teach workshops and perform their poems in conjunction with the state poetry slam competition hosted by Copper Hills High School May 3. This year, high school students from American Fork, Bingham, Brighton, Copper Hills, Herriman, Kearns, Paradigm and Skyline high schools participated.

Members of the poetry slam initiative insist that poetry slam needs its own activity category and cannot be run under the umbrella of another activity, such as theater. Wilde said the judging criteria for individual theatrical performances doesn’t rate for original work, while slam poetry ratings put a greater emphasis on the poem rather than on the performance.

RJ Walker, professional slam poet, teaches workshops in schools, recovery centers, detention centers and prisons. He has seen the benefits of slam poetry.

“People need these spaces—especially youth,” said Walker. “People need healthy ways to express themselves and to listen and to feel what other people are saying.”

Haslam said a misunderstanding of poetry slam has been a stumbling block to participation. Some educators and administrators fear what might come out of students’ mouths when they are turned loose to express feelings and “edgy” experiences in front of a live audience. There are rules restricting language and certain subject matter at the high school level.

Administrators Todd Quarnberg, of Herriman High School, and Kim Searle, of Sunset Ridge Middle School, both spoke in support for poetry slam at the gala. They said their students have been able to tackle complex emotions and work through difficult experiences without abusing their trust.

“Historically, we thought that if we talked about suicide then kids are going to kill themselves, and we know that’s not true,” said Searle. She believes poetry slam can help students deal with their feelings in a healthy way.

“We start sharing in classrooms with the adults we feel safe with, who can train our kids to use their voices to develop those skills that give them the gift of speech and listening and language,” she said. “They increase their relationships and their support systems, which means they live healthier lives. Isn’t that what we want for our kids?”

That is the mission of UHSAA—to help students to succeed in their lives. By introducing the new policy, UHSAA board members hope to be able to support more sports and activities, and benefit more students.

“This policy is intended to find ways to increase female participation as well as look for ways to meet the interests and needs of all students in Utah,” said Whittaker.

Professional slam poet Jose Soto said slam poetry appeals to a wider variety of students, as well. He said it exposes them to more culturally diverse poets than what they read in English class. As a Venezuelan immigrant, he doesn’t relate to Shakespeare and Poe.

“The problem is, those words and those people don’t mirror my words, my experiences and just aren’t my people,” he said. “Poetry slam is a space where people like me have a voice, where students that have never been able to listen to people who look like them, get to.”