DENHAM SPRINGS — Aspiring young poets were afforded the opportunity to share their creative talents with fellow students and guests at the first-ever Poetry Slam– Spoken Word Contest held at Denham Springs Junior High School.
Twenty-three middle school students presented their original poems before two judges and a large crowd consisting mainly of their fellow students on Feb. 15. The poets read their creations in front of an elaborately decorated wall in the school’s cafeteria, the venue for the Poetry Slam. Spelled out in large letters on the wall was the event’s slogan, “I Like P.I.E.” The P.I.E. stood for “Poetry in Effect.” At the event’s conclusion, the contestants and audience were treated to slices of pie in keeping with the theme.
According to Charae McMorris, who teaches gifted and talented students, a poetry slam is the competitive art of performance poetry. It puts a dual emphasis on writing and performance, encouraging poets to focus on what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. In competition, the poets are judged and given scores based on the poet’s content and performance.
The Poetry Slam was conceived and brought to fruition by McMorris, who teaches sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at the school. McMorris said the Poetry Slam was the culmination of a course she taught on public speaking. She said the slam was based on, and true to, the National Poetry Slam held every year.
McMorris said the winners of her school’s contest would not be advancing beyond the local event, but she wanted her students to have the opportunity to present their work in front of an audience and experience the feeling of sharing their compositions with others.
“This is new for our students, and we will have mess-ups and will muddle through some of it … but I think everyone will enjoy the efforts these wonderful students have put out with their poetry,” McMorris said.
McMorris, who taught school for a number of years in Austin, Texas, said she returned to Denham Springs to help care for her aging grandmother. She said she was excited about the potential shown by her Denham Springs students.
“These young people are extremely intelligent, and the important thing is that they really think through things,” McMorris said. “They are knowledgeable about the world around them, and they are very much aware of society’s imperfections. They know about politics, discrimination, poverty, divorce, abortion and the many challenges some face in today’s world. Some have had to endure deaths in their families. They are very much aware of the world around them.”
She said her students “have a firm grasp on what’s realistic and what’s fantasy. They understand that ‘style’ is just ‘stuff,’ and it’s not what the real world is all about.”
To prepare her students for the task of writing poetry, she said they studied the works of Walt Whitman, Edgar Alan Poe, Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King Jr. and others. “I set the bar extremely high for them, and they did not disappoint,” McMorris said. She said her students also studied history to gain knowledge about how today’s world came to be.
The content of many of the students’ poems reflected what their teacher had to say about them. The subject of many of the poems dealt with social issues and matters of injustice.
First-place winner Kaylie Wood’s poem, “The Story of A Broken World,” examined how many are treated unfairly in today’s society. The poem reflected the thought that “we are in a world made up of people who don’t care about others.” A repeated refrain in the poem was, “The world is a mess!”
Second-place winner Henry Barnett’s poem, “No One Cares,” explored a similar theme and was an examination of a society “where no one cares about who is ill, who is different, or for those with special problems.”
Madeline McCauley, who won third place, presented her poem, “Telling Your Story To Society,” which also was a reflection on today’s challenges for those who face serious problems in life.
Erin Stringfellow’s poem was a plea to protect and care for the physical world. The poem was a call to respect nature and repeated a theme of why a tree should not be chopped down. Rowen Johnson offered a poem that touched on the hypocrisy of some in today’s society.
Judging the event were Anna Schwab, of the Arts Council of Baton Rouge, and Donnie Rhodes, of Forward Arts Inc. in Baton Rouge. At the contest’s conclusion, Rhodes congratulated the students on their efforts and confessed that choosing the top three from among the almost two dozen contestants was a difficult task. She encouraged the students to continue with their efforts and praised their creativity and abilities.
“My students are amazing, their poetry is amazing. I am sometimes loud, I am demanding, even sometimes obnoxious but above all caring,” McMorris said before the competition. “Preparing for the Poetry Slam has been a special experience. I don’t know if I am a great teacher, but the one thing I strive for and hope for is that I make my students better persons, better human beings. I want them to understand what is really important in life, and I think that their poetry reflects that. This has been a great experience.”