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For most people, poetry in high school involved authors like Robert Frost and William Wordsworth, who wrote famously of snowy woods, clouds, and wandering through nature.
This week, however, Fairfax High School will play host to a very different style of poetry: inkSlam, the largest spoken-word poetry festival on the West Coast.
InkSlam grew out of Da’ Poetry Lounge, the biggest ongoing weekly poetry slam — or live spoken-word poetry event— in the country, now in its twelfth year, which draws about 200 people to the Greenway Court Theatre every Tuesday night. The event served as an inspiration for Def Poetry Jam, Russell Simmons’ HBO series, as well as for the inkSlam festival.
Pierson Blaetz, co-artistic director of the Greenway Arts Alliance, which sponsors inkSlam, said the festival filled a void in the spoken word community.
“It started three years ago, when we really saw a need to have a place where this spoken word poetry community could gather every year,” Blaetz said. “Because of Da’ Poetry Lounge, the community saw this location as a natural coming together point.”
In its third year now, inkSlam has continued to grow in size and stature. This year, the festival will also host the West Coast Regional Spoken Word Championship. During the four days of the festival, 10 teams will face off for the right to call themselves “best in the West”, with the final to be held on Saturday night.
Dan Friedman, who produces inkSlam under the moniker Danny Fresh, said that after the success of last year’s festival, a number of slam poetry teams from Northern California asked him to take over the regional competition, which had previously been part of the Big Sur Regional Poetry Championship.
“The regional competitions are a bit of a high machine, mostly about bragging rights and building confidence,” Friedman said. “There is a national competition that has a higher profile, but this is the largest competition on the West Coast, so it has some significance.”
In addition to the regional competition, inkSlam will also include performances from feature poets, workshops for both written and spoken-word poetry, and theme showcases. Last night, the “Ink’d OUT” showcases featured poetry from the “queen community”, while tonight’s showcases highlight female poets, and tomorrow is “Youth Open Mic”.
Blaetz said the youth component is crucial to the festival.
“Everything we do at Greenway always has a youth component,” Blaetz said. “That’s how we define ourselves. We not only have the professional artists. We also have a mentoring connection to youth.”
Joe Hernandez-Kolski, who runs Downbeat 720, a weekly youth open mic night for high schoolers, will emcee the “Youth Open Mic” at inkSlam. He said poetry was a tool that could help educators reach students who might not be receptive to more traditional classroom activities.
“Spoken word poetry is a form of hip-hop in many ways,” Hernandez-Kolski said. “So it’s a tool you can use for those youth who have gravitated towards hip-hop culture. One of my students way back said, ‘It’s a way of expressing yourself and still sounding cool while doing it.’ These kids are going to express themselves whether we like it or not. They can express themselves through pregnancy, graffiti, vandalism, or they can express themselves through poetry. We have to give them an outlet, or deal with the repercussions.”
Though school is out of session, one of the 10 teams competing for the regional championship is made up entirely of teen poets. And later this month, the International Youth Poetry Slam Grand Slam Finals will be held in Los Angeles.
“These kids are no joke,” Hernandez-Kolski said. “You’ll be blown away by these kids expressing themselves.”
InkSlam will continue through Saturday, July 10. For information and tickets, visit inkslam.org.
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