Word ninjas

Chico teens compete in poetry slam-off

MOUTHS OF BABES Your 2004 Chico Youth Slam Team: Isaac Miller…

MOUTHS OF BABES Your 2004 Chico Youth Slam Team: Isaac Miller…

Photo By Tom Angel

These teens don’t need weapons; they’ve got words.

They wield images with the precision of martial artists. They cut through a crowd’s complacency with every well placed poetic kick.

…Lori Van Laan…

Photo By Tom Angel

They are the Chico youth slam poets, who “slammed off” to a packed house at Moxie’s, each vying for a spot on the local team that will head to the Brave New Voices National Slam Competition in Los Angeles this April.

Some spat hip-hop metaphysics, while others simply moved sounds and intonations around. Filling out an evening bursting with talent, guest poets Jared Paul and Khiry Malik, both nationally known slam poets, delivered their own controversial and at times politically charged poems.

As you may already know, slam poetry is the art of competitive performance poetry, with a dual emphasis on writing and performance. The format encourages poets to focus on what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.

…Anthony Arreaga…

Photo By Tom Angel

Anthony Arreaga, Isaac Miller, Lori Van Laan and Ulysses Dorantes took the four top spots in the slam-off; however, youth slam team coach Taz Yamaguchi said Erica Mendoza, Dora Kibbee and Chelsea Beights will also participate in the L.A. competition. “The goal is to immerse them in an environment of their poet peers,” he commented.

A poetry slam veteran, Yamaguchi has worked with teen slam poets the past half decade, taking teams to the Nationals in a number of larger cities. Yamaguchi got involved with slams about 10 years ago, during a visit to the annual Taos Poetry Circus.

“We have some powerful youth poets here in Chico,” he said. “What we could really use at this point is some solid financial support.” Yamaguchi explained he’s seen youth poets wade through society’s noise and babble, moving through the mirage of images that are not their own, and ultimately begin to express their own true stories and find their purposes in life in the process.

and Ulysses Dorantes.

Photo By Tom Angel

A past competitor in the Nationals, Anthony Arreaga, 18, said “Poetry is everything for me—there’s a lot of dumb things out there I could have gotten caught up in. Instead, I took up paper and a pen.” Arreaga met Yamaguchi at Fairview High School, one of many local schools where the poetry mentor periodically shares his art. “He made me see what I needed to see—breath, life,” Arreaga recalled.

Sixteen-year-old Isaac Miller, a sophomore at Chico High School, got his start at poetry slams simply “hanging out” as the younger brother of a slam poet. After a couple of years, he started writing his own poems. “I think youth participation in poetry is especially impressive,” he offered. “In our culture, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for youth to really speak their minds and express themselves. Most of the institutions I see mainly focus on keeping teenagers passive.”

One of the slam newcomers, Ulysses Dorantes, found his fourth-place finish exhilarating. “I’m excited about L.A.!” he exclaimed. Dorantes, 16, is a sophomore at Chico High School.

Former youth slam team member William Frietas, 21, will assist Yamaguchi in coaching this year’s team. “I have a feeling I’m going to learn a lot more than I’m going to teach,” he offered, “because these poets are electric!”

Yamaguchi’s influence upon the teen slam poets shows up frequently in their words. Reached via e-mail, former slam team member Patrick Mello recalled his participation in the Youth National Poetry Slam in San Francisco as a “life-altering” experience.

Mello observed he never realized how petty, self-centered and privileged his life was until he experienced the Nationals. “Right now, I’m living in Tuebingen, Germany, studying English and German literature. I still write every day and can honestly say that without writing and the motivational support of Taz, I would probably still be sitting on the same couches in Chico playing the same pointless videogames and smoking weed with the same people who I know are doing just that right now.”

To get info about the Chico Poetry Slam or to donate to the cause, e-mail Taz Yamaguchi at ChicoPoetrySlam@yahoo.com. To join the Chico Slam e-group visit http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ChicoPoetrySlam.