Slam nation

Chico teens go to national poetry championship and get a big surpriseEarly-spring sunlight angled through the tall, second story Epicenter window and spotlighted 13-year-old poet Isaac Miller crouched on a bench that was butted against a wall. His fist pr

FINDING THEIR WAY <br>Chico teen Tammika Forbes (above left) had her first trip outside of California while representing Chico in a national slam poetry tournament in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Chico teen Tammika Forbes (above left) had her first trip outside of California while representing Chico in a national slam poetry tournament in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Photo by Aaron Yamaguchi

Other young poets paced back and forth atop the matted shag carpet adorning the stage, muttering lines from jotted and wrinkled notes and being careful not to run into one another. Dust particles ebbed in and out of sunbeams and anticipation weighted the air as the specter of this year’s national slam poetry competition loomed. The youth were gathered here to practice before leaving for Michigan and the biggest event of their lives.

The dark-haired and lanky Miller took the stage first. He squinted at his notes and quipped with mock humility, “This is just a little something I’ve been working on.” Then his face became tense with focus as he began to speak with great force.

“Silence fills the room/ As you all assume/ That these are the words that I wanted/ Not to be flaunted without reason/ As we all commit verbal treason/ By keeping the beat from passing under our feet/ With silence….” Miller was now fully enveloped in his piece, using vivid gestures and expressions. His intensity was palpable.

By the end of this seven- to eight-minute performance, he had lambasted the Vietnam War, the dropping of the two atomic bombs, the Holocaust and the partial genocide of Native American peoples before ending powerfully: “Concentration is broken by consternation at the/ Open realization that the tapped streams have run out/ Silence solves nothing! / Silence means nothing! / Silence helps nothing! / Silence destroys everything!/ Through inaction comes disaster/ If you let your words be plastered over/ By silence … then all words are meaningless/ and everything will be expressed through… [nothing].”

Intensity is a rule with these kids. Other members Tammika Forbes, who’s 18, John Keating, 19, Sara Mathews, 17, and Jade Michael, 14, all took turns honing their chops and letting their emotions come forth. (The sixth member of the group, John Freitas, 19, was absent this day.)

The 5’7”, black-haired Forbes teased us with the gamut of emotions elicited by her poem “Anastasia": “I see some silly girl and say things like, ‘Gee, you’re so sweet, pretty, unique, don’t ever change!’ But what I really want to say is, ‘You’re a lame mediocre whore. With no personality, a gap, an overbite, strong stench and a lazy eye!'”

Following Miller’s powerful performance, Forbes didn’t hold back. The intra-group competition was apparent, although polite and unspoken.

As I watched the members of the Chico Youth Poetry Slam Team animatedly belt through their respective pieces and vie for attention, I began to realize just how vital this emotional outlet is for these young people.

As part of local poet Aaron Yamaguchi’s Chico Speaks Out youth empowerment organization, which he founded in 1995, this group is designed to empower youths via the slam—the competitive form of performance poetry. The kids get the venue, the encouragement and the guidance needed to explore themselves and society through self-expression. They learn not only about themselves, but also that self-expression is a good way to channel negative emotions. Self-expression frees people’s minds, says Yamaguchi, and allows them to grow intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

In their own ways, the members explore pertinent aspects of themselves and society in an attempt to make sense out of the world and their place in it. More important, they begin to create realities of their own choosing and in doing so bolster their self-esteem. They gain confidence and learn to become their own therapists and problem-solvers.

“At the school I go to,” explains the fair-skinned, rosy-cheeked Paradise poet Sara Mathews,” if you have anything to do with any kind of poetry, you are totally disrespected and looked down upon. And most of these kids don’t even know what poetry is. Sometimes it makes me really angry, so I write poetry about it. It helps to remind me of happier things like nature. If I didn’t have poetry in my life, I’d be screwed!”

Jade Michael had her first trip outside of California while representing Chico in a national slam poetry tournament in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Photo by Aaron Yamaguchi

Mathews’ yearning and heartfelt yet cynical delivery of her poem “Observed” stood in stark contrast to Keating’s scathing, almost hostile, rendition of his work “Ego.” Then the 14-year-old Michael added her distinctness.

This sandy-haired young woman had a composed and refined delivery laden with searing sarcasm. Her piece “Pledge” is a provocative chronicling of what she sees as the hypocrisy of our nation. “I pledge allegiance to the flag/ A flag that has come to represent a country/ contaminated with alleged freedom…/The United States of America/ Don’t you mean the united states of hysteria? / Episodes of fear and panic/ seems a good definition to me…” Her style, like that of the others, reflected the thoughts and emotions of someone much older.

Realizing the endless personal rewards and self-reflective value that poetry offers is what fuels these kids’ fires. But as they’re well aware, art and competition are often a hard mix.

“I don’t write my poems for the stage,” admits Miller. “I always write for myself and then go back over it later if I want to use it in competition. I’ll add the entertainment parts of my performance then. It is sometimes hard to separate the art from the entertainment, but I also realize that it is the competition that provides us the venue and the audience. So you have to balance the two but always be true to what’s in your heart.”

It was hard work to qualify for the national slam poetry championships, but the kids welcomed every aspect of the challenge and the risks associated with it, Yamaguchi says.

From perfecting their prose to earning their food and spending money—the Life Foundation ( out of Redding sponsored the rest of the venture—these youths had the courage to take what would become a cathartic journey into the unknown. And they defied the odds to get there. Not one of them had been outside of California until their trip to this year’s tournament, held April 5-8 in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“Standing in front of all those people was overwhelming,” gasps Michael as she remembers her performance at one of the team’s two qualifying bouts. “This was my first time out of the state, and it was the most people I’ve ever performed in front of. … My butterflies got so bad that five days before I swore I wasn’t going! But I didn’t want to let my family down, and they gave me the courage to go through with it. There were so many firsts for me on this trip, and I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.”

At the 2000 tournament, held in San Francisco, the 10 winning teams were ranked in order of finish. (Chico didn’t qualify for the finals that year.) This year something entirely new and unprecedented occurred.

First, Chico did make it to the finals this time out. And the team performed well. What happened next was shocking. Yamaguchi describes it well:

“After hours of practice, hundreds of miles of travel, two grueling preliminary rounds defeating solid teams from Austin, Texas, Ithaca, N.Y., and Washington, D.C., among others, and a crowd-packed, tightly competitive finals atmosphere, the competition was set aside.” The judges, in other words, declared all 10 finalists equal winners.

“It was the most ironic thing that I’ve ever seen happen at one of these tournaments,” Yamaguchi continued. “It was incredible! The audience responded so strongly to all of the participants that the judges were compelled to throw out the scores and declare poetry the winner! So we were all winners! Now, we can say that we are one of the top 10 slam poetry teams in the country. And that’s not bad for Chico.”

In fact, he’s convinced Chico was among the top five teams when the competition was abandoned. But the eventual result was fine with all the team members. They valued the interaction with the audience, getting to know the other poets and traveling out of state more than anything else. The experience was their success.

“These kids are mature beyond their years,” says Yamaguchi, “and they’re growing up faster than they ever did before. There’s no telling how much can be accomplished if art is used as a vehicle for education and self-exploratory creativity. These kids are the proof that art, and in this case performance poetry, is the ultimate tool to spark genuine interest in learning. It can help kids grow through problems and enables them to create palatable futures for all of us.”

For more information on Chico Speaks Out check out