Philadelphia poetry slammers clean up in global contest

Charmira Nelson (left) and Kai Davis compete in Brave New Voices at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House. They and their three teammates won top global honors.
Charmira Nelson (left) and Kai Davis compete in Brave New Voices at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House. They and their three teammates won top global honors. (SHARVON P. URBANNAVAGE / For The Inquirer)
Posted: July 27, 2011

Kai Davis is standing on a stage in San Francisco. Three thousand strangers stare at her, waiting in silence.

She breathes and visualizes LOVE Park. There, the 18-year-old has performed more times than she can count.

Davis dives into her performance - a poem, but not just a poem. Through spoken word, Davis brings the whole city of Philadelphia onto the stage of San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House.

With the points from her performance, Davis' team then wins Brave New Voices, the largest competitive spoken-word event in the world.

The Central High School senior and her four teammates are poetry slammers and, according to Saturday's judges, the best in the world at it.

Judges scored four pieces per team for 100 teams in the final round. Each team has five members plus a coach or two.

Davis, from Germantown, performed her piece with teammate Charmira Nelson, 17, a North Philadelphia native.

The pair recited their three-minute comedy piece, called Femininjas.

It's about feminists, who are also ninjas.

"We place booby traps on a set of booty-shaking music videos," Nelson's favorite line says, "Slice the green screen with our katanas, spell out 'femininjas,' you won't even know where we came from."

The team was organized by the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, a nonprofit organization funded with private grants and $5,000 from the city.

"Every region of the country has a different style," said Perry DiVirgilio, the team's 32-year-old, first-year coach and poetry teacher, known to slammers simply as "Vision."

"Our style represents our city, it's a very truthful and blue-collar style," he said. "It's very in-your-face, while being creative at the same time."

"It's like chess. Every team is good, so it's about putting the right poem where," he said. "The whole time I'm just strategizing, making sure our kids can keep telling their stories."

With tickets donated by Southwest Airlines, the team arrived in California on Wednesday and will remain there for a few more days, taking in Lombard Street, Fisherman's Wharf, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The poetry slammers do not pay dues to participate but have still earned their way onto the team.

Every third Saturday, the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement holds an open-mike poetry slam at The Rotunda on 40th and Walnut Streets. Poets are scored and tracked over the course of a year.

Additional points are given to those who perform in the program's charity work, such as picking up trash in Fairmount Park or making sandwiches for homeless people.

The team, formed in May, practiced after school four or five times per week, with practices lasting up to six hours.

"For me, more than bragging rights or anything else, I was proud to show them that hard work pays off," DiVirgilio said. "This team earned this victory."

Contact staff writer Drew Singer at 215-854-5626,, or

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