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High-school slam puts teen poets in the spotlight

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This is the moment. The keyed-up teens packing the auditorium of Santa Rosa High School have patiently endured 30 minutes of welcomes and introductions and explanations. Now the lights dim and the crowd falls silent. Sophomore Maayan Simon takes a long, deep breath and then almost sprints into the spotlight's glare.

She halts before the microphone and turns to face the crowd.

"If people will pay a dollar-ninety-nine for wheat grass, why won't they pay for the dandelions in my back pocket?" Simon begins with a confrontational shout. "Or the mud on my left shoe? Sheep may say bah, but so do most other animals . . . when they are in . . . extreme . . . pain."

The first annual Santa Rosa High School Poetry Slam has begun.

After less than 60 seconds--and exactly 101 politically charged words--Simon is finished, and the audience rewards her with a boisterous round of applause. Smiling, she steps away, allowing 10th-grader Chelsea Busch to take her place in the spotlight.

By day's end, that intimidating pool of illumination at the front of the stage will have played host to the feet and sweat and words of 34 nervous young poets, all competing for cash prizes and a serious shot of self-esteem.

The event is the brainchild of Laurie Lovekraft, a Sonoma County musician and writer who's been a visiting poet at SRHS for more than five years. The poetry slam is sponsored in part by the school's groundbreaking ArtQuest program, best described as a way for qualifying SRHS students to major in arts-based disciplines.

ArtQuest is working in tandem with the Santa Rosa Symphony to create visual art and poetry to accompany the symphony's presentation in the spring of Sir Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time. (A similar collaboration in 1999 yielded a critically acclaimed production of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem.)

Many of the poems heard during today's event were written on that theme, attempting to illuminate what it means to be a modern "child of our times." But others bubbled up from the collective triumphs and tragedies of the student body. Case in point: A handful of poems touched on the stunning suicide last December of a well-known SRHS sophomore.

As if tensions weren't running high enough, the poetry slam is being filmed by Academy Award-winning documentarian Tommie Dell Smith (Broken Rainbow). Her finished film, targeted for broadcast on PBS, will capture the enormous challenge of bringing A Child of Our Time to the stage.

But for now, all eyes are on the girl in the spotlight.

"Sugar clouds frost the periwinkle sky--not bad for mid-October," Busch recites, perched at the edge of the stage. Her untitled poem compares taking a solo swim in a pond to taking bigger chances in life. As Busch speaks, she begins to remove her shoes and socks. She ends her poem with a leap from the stage to the floor.

She, too, is bombarded with applause.

And so it goes. The poems run the gamut from sad and sorrowful to angry and confessional. Some are even silly. Some performers stand still, calmly reading their work from handwritten pages, while others dance, scream, toss glitter, wave beribboned spears and fishing poles, or fall down writhing on the floor.

Raychelle Bell, pacing forward and back like a caged animal, eyes blazing with fury, recites "Ride to Destiny," a passionate reaction to homelessness. She ends the poem with a polite curtsy.

The audience eats it all up, rarely responding with anything less than a deafening roar of approval. Many poems--such as Michelle Bourret's "An Average Day," which includes the phrase "My face burned like forgotten toast and my eyes boiled in their tears," or Pacal Ezaki's emotion-packed "News Flash from the Emergency Broadcasting System"--are received in pin-drop silence and rewarded with standing ovations. In one way or another, every poet is a winner.

But this is a poetry contest, and once the last poem is performed--Brennan Brockbank's outrageous "Clothing Limit"--the panel of judges award the prizes. Bourret and Ezaki take third and second place, respectively, and Bell--who has read her poems in public exactly twice, counting today--takes the $100 first prize.

"Till now, my biggest fear has been getting up in front of people," she admits after the show. "But once I got up there, it all just flowed. I always believed I'd never share my poetry with anyone.

"But now," she says with a grin, "now, I'm hooked!"

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From the February 14-20, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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