Monday afternoon the auditorium at Central Campus was empty. On stage, an overmatched box fan whirred. The space was warm. The air was unconditioned. Microphones stood by, waiting to be grabbed by the throat.
Then the exceptional septet that emerged from last spring’s RunDSM/Movement 515 Teen Poetry Slam Finals arrived. Finishing touches were scheduled for the repertoire the team is taking to the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival this week in San Francisco.
Maddie Johnson (Roosevelt), Julio Delgadillo (North), Elhondra Brazzle (East), Jalesha Johnson (East), Miavliag Lee (Lincoln) and Tiana Warner (East) are all seniors. Shaddai Johnson (Roosevelt), a freshman when she qualified, is the lone team member returning to DMPS in the fall.
Leah Waughtal and Words Taylor coach the tight-knit team.
Leah was the Grand Slam Champion at the district’s first slam finals in 2013 and led the first district team to compete at BNV that summer in Chicago. Now she coaches during summer break from the University of Iowa where she studies creative writing.
Words coordinates the Half Pint poetry program at seven DMPS elementary schools that will keep the poet pipeline flowing in the years ahead.
The two make for an effective and complementary coaching duo.
“Words focuses on the performance aspects with the team,” Leah said as the group gathered for its last rehearsal before flying west early Tuesday morning. “My emphasis is more on the writing process.”
Maddie Johnson is this year’s Grand Slam Champ, but Julio is the most veteran voice of the team. He has qualified for all five of the squads that have represented DMPS at BNV, the only poet who can say so.
He noted Monday that he is just now growing into the t-shirt he brought home from his first BNV competition in Chicago when he was between 8th and 9th grades. That could prove to be the perfect metaphor and omen as Des Moines aims for its first appearance on the prestigious finals stage at BNV, a distinction narrowly missed the last two summers when strong bids fell fractions of a point shy in the semifinals.
These seven are determined to get there. They are as committed to one another as if they were a family or a football team.
“We see each other every day,” said Jalesha. “Our poetry heals us. We are activists trying to make a positive impact on our community and create a heathy outlet for feelings like anger and fear.”
Since the team was named at the slam finals in early May the poets have practiced three times weekly with coaches and once each week, poets only. Everybody writes and everything is considered. Gradually pieces take shape and are honed to sharp edges until they are both pretty and powerful, like swords polished before battle.
With the heavy lifting done, Monday was a chance to tweak fine points like how high to set the mics. Also, to blow off some nervous energy while retaining enough for conversion to the adrenalin the team will feed off of when they start competition on Wednesday.
Maddie, Mia and Julio ran through a piece on homicide in Des Moines, staged like a TV newscast.
In another, Maddie and Julio faced off like a pair of Wall Street statuary icons, he the longstanding bull and she the feisty newcomer, Fearless Girl.
Elhondra, Jalesha and Shaddai joined fierce forces in representation of their race and gender.
Other pieces addressed everything from the use of GMOs in their agricultural home state to the consequences of national elections.
The BNV festival is not strictly a competition. Youth from around the country and the globe mingle and share perspectives. There are workshops where secrets and tips are shared and friendships begin. And all of those things are worthwhile. But make no mistake.
“I like to compete,” said Elhondra, firmly. Then she grinned. So did everybody else. Is that how they all feel? Yes, it is.
After all, if the shirt fits…