Doors “slam open” at Des Moines Teen Poetry Slam

Leah Waughtal, who attends North High and Central Academy, performs at the Des Moines Teen Poetry Slam. She is one of six students who will represent Iowa at the Brave New Voices Festival this summer in Chicago.

Can doors slam open?

Last night at Hoyt Sherman Place a bold bunch of DMPS students charged out of their comfort zones at the first annual Des Moines Teen Poetry Slam, the latest groundbreaking event under the auspices of Run DSM/Movement 515. Those mold-shattering programs are the brainchildren of Harding teachers Emily Lang and Kristopher Rollins who will take the team selected at last night’s tryouts to the Brave New Voices Youth Poetry Festival this summer in Chicago.

Slams are competitions but it’s hard to see any of the competitors who took the stage at this one as rivals. “Energetic Reciprocity” demands that everyone exhort everyone else to do their best.

Yes, there are judges. For this event they scored all the poets on a scale that ranged from 8-10. In that respect it’s a bit like Olympic gymnastics or figure skating. Except if someone loses their balance under the spotlight beam or stumbles during a dizzying spin onstage the rest of the field comes to their rescue. They’re all rescuers.

They take the jagged stuff of life that might otherwise lead to counselors’ offices and courtrooms and recycle it like broken glass made into windows that afford views of bright futures. They make art out of ugliness and turn tears into ovations. Occasionally the language strays beyond PG-rated but never gratuitously and besides, one of the recurring topics in their poetry is the lack of PG ratings they see at work in the world around them. Some of the material may not be suitable for children but that’s often the point: there’s too much happening that’s definitely not suitable for children. Listen close and you hear a lot about scars, but baring them somehow makes them more bearable.

In Round One fourteen contestants were pared to ten. Round Two reduced the field to eight. After Round Three the six poets who will represent Des Moines in Chicago in August were announced:

  • Leah Waughtal (North High School/Central Academy)
  • Hatte Kelly (North High School)
  • Mia Windsor (Roosevelt High School)
  • Torianna Buttrey (Harding Middle School)
  • Davonte Binion (Harding Middle School)
  • Julio Delgadillo (Harding Middle School)

Waughtal racked up nothing but 10’s in the final round and was crowned Grand Slam Champion. A junior, she is the oldest member of the team. The rest of the squad consists of two high school sophomores and three eighth-graders. Eighth graders! If this were a basketball team the coaches would be drooling over a juggernaut in the making. And if it had a name it might be The Goosebumps. It is a spellbinding force to be reckoned with.

Maybe doors can be slammed open. “Get free!” is shouted at slams as much as “Let’s go!” is at ballgames. So it’s freedom that Lang and Rollins are teaching. And their students are learning. Last night was their greatest escape.

Photos of the Des Moines Teen Poetry Slam

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