Brave New Voices slam attracts teen poets from all over

(From left) April Wells, Giselle Miranda, and Adriana Lopez from San Fernando, Calif., performing their group poem "The things Maya Angelou" at the Brave New Voices festival at the Arden Theatre Friday.
(From left) April Wells, Giselle Miranda, and Adriana Lopez from San Fernando, Calif., performing their group poem "The things Maya Angelou" at the Brave New Voices festival at the Arden Theatre Friday. (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 20, 2014

At one of the first quarterfinal rounds of the 17th annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival, in Philadelphia for the first time this year, it was easy to see why brave was in the title.

The teenage poets who took the stage in the Arden Theatre's Independence Foundation Studio bared their souls, tackling a range of personal and political issues: rape culture, race, abuse, addiction, identity.

In "Assumption," written and performed by members of Wordsmith's Junkyard, a team from Phoenix, Zahraa Al Yasari and Carol Meza, both 18, powerfully explored what it was like for peers to make assumptions about racial backgrounds.

The festival began Wednesday and brought to Philadelphia more than 500 young poets from 13 to 19. Teams came from all over the country, from Fort Worth's ForthWrite Youth Slam to San Fernando's Poets4Progress to Ann Arbor's Neutral Zone. Some came from abroad (Toronto's BAM! Youth Slam, Bermuda's Chewstick Foundation, Cape Town's Vocal Revolutionaries). Local host was the Philly Youth Poetry Movement (PYPM).

Brave New Voices was founded in 1996 by San Francisco-based Youth Speaks, a "local and national program dedicated to promoting spoken word as access to voice," said festival director Danez Smith. "We're less about poetry and formal form than about how people can use poetry."

BNV opened with a ceremony at the University of Pennsylvania. It showcased rising Philadelphia poets and also honored the passing of poets Maya Angelou, Yuri Kochiyama, and Amiri Baraka. Angelou was commemorated again in Poets4Progress' group poem "The things Maya Angelou," performed in the quarterfinals.

Thursday there were writing and performance workshops at Temple, followed in the evening by the Queeriosity open mike back at Penn.

Friday saw quarterfinals in the morning and afternoon at the Arden Theatre, the Painted Bride, FringeArts, the Asian Arts Initiative, and Underground Arts Theater and Café. Semifinals were at 8 p.m. at the National Constitution Center. The event wraps up Saturday with the Grand Slam Finals at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

Natalya Brooks, 22, who emceed the Independence Foundation Studio bouts, started doing slam poetry in 2010, introduced to the art by a friend. She discovered it was "like a big family, something you want to be a part of." She competed with PYPM for one year. "Then I aged out," she said. "But I still stuck around. I still write." She performed at the end of the morning round.

"All the youth that are in Philadelphia this week are part of local organizations in the cities where they come from," said Smith, who is hosting the finals. "They work all year on service projects . . . they work on being leaders in their communities."

"We're cultivating a generation of motivational speakers," said Greg Corbin, executive director of PYPM, which won the event in 2007 in San Jose, Calif., placing first out of 60 teams.

"It's a beautiful transformation that's happening . . . 75 percent of the young people we worked with last year went to college."


Brave New Voices Grand Slam Finals are at 7 p.m. Saturday at Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut St. Free. Reserve tickets at www.bravenewvoices.org.

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