The Day I Knew Performance Poetry Worked in Schools: From Beating the Bell to the Tucson Youth Poetry Slam

Logan Phillipsby Logan Phillips

Logan Phillips is a bilingual writer, performer and transdisciplinary artist from the Arizona / Mexico borderlands. Born in Tombstone, AZ in 1983 to a family of Irish-Slavic decent, he holds a B.A. in Spanish from Northern Arizona University. Phillips was a professor of Hispanic American Literature and translation at Universidad Internacional in Cuernavaca, Mexico before dedicating himself full-time to artistic endeavors. As a performer and poet, Phillips has toured throughout the US, Mexico and as far afield as Vancouver, Paris, Bogota, and Penzance, England. He also works as a freelance journalist and is author of five poetry chapbooks including Arroyo Ink, published in 2009.

In 2007 Phillips co-founded the binational multimedia performance group Verbo•bala Spoken Video, which was described by national Mexican newspaper La Reforma as "going for a poetry written without letters." When not touring, Phillips splits his time between Arizona and Mexico City. More can be found at dirtyverbs.com. Author Photo by Elena Zinchenko.

A Moment Out of Time
It was a Friday afternoon in 2008 when my fellow performance poets Jasmine Cuffee, Carlos Contreras and I were performing for a crowd of over 700 students at Buena High School in Sierra Vista, Arizona.

It was the first time that the school had ever invited poets from the national poetry slam movement to perform at the school. I was sure of this, because I'm a graduate of BHS and knew that at least during my time as a member of the class of '01, poetry puddled at the bottom of the barrel when it came to cool. So it was something of a miracle that we were onstage in the performing arts center at all, but I never could have predicted what would happen.

Our format was simple: two assemblies at the end of the day, most of the school's population attending either one or the other. Since I was the alumnus, I took the stage first and kicked off the event without introducing myself. I've found that the element of surprise is key: I often tell teachers that they can prepare their students by showing videos or talking about poetry slam if they'd like, but honestly I enjoy watching students snap from the tired poetry-is-lame stereotype into a whole new world of verse during just one three minute poem.

Afterward, I introduced Jasmine, who in turn introduced Carlos, and we continued on in a round-robin fashion for the rest of the assembly. By the second hour, our blood was really pumping, and as the school day drew to a close, Carlos decided to try to squeeze in one last poem. Backstage, I watched the school's clock tick dangerously close to the poem-derailing bell. And then, it happened. The still-familiar digital chimes rang throughout the auditorium. Then it happened. Or rather, it didn't: nobody moved. Not one student left their seat while Carlos whispered, yelled and sang his way through the final stanzas of his poem. A moment out of time.

Then, of course, Carlos finished and the typical Friday afternoon stampede was fully on, but the school's innovative principle, Tad Bloss, was flabbergasted. So much so that he told a reporter from the local paper about it, and the reporter used the quote in an article published on the front page the following day. When we came back to the school the following Monday for a morning of writing and performance workshops, the sign-up lists were overflowing. Names were squeezed into the margins.

Here, Now
The teachers and administrators weren't the only ones who were surprised by the reception we received: I was floored. While I had previously worked in schools from Sedona to the Hopi mesas and even in Cuernavaca, Mexico, it took that school bell to really open my eyes to the power of performance poetry in the classroom. If it could happen at my former school, it could happen anywhere. Rather, it should happen everywhere.

And it pretty much has: since then I've been at over 20 schools in three countries, from elementary through university undergrad. But what is it about performance poetry that strikes such a chord with students? Sure, it defies the stale stereotypes that have been built up around poems and those who write them, but I think there's something more. A poem written from the heart and performed while said heart is still on the poet's sleeve brings an immediacy into the room, an inexplicable feeling of now-ness, a universal relevancy that supersedes subjective circumstance.

It's hard to argue with, especially given the wide range of areas touched on by such a performance: creative writing and literature, sure, but also more broadly: self-expression, conflict resolution, inter-cultural understanding (both racially and in regards to sexual orientation), bullying, drop-out prevention, and the list goes on.

The Tucson Youth Poetry Slam
After several years living in Mexico City and touring full-time, I decided to return to my home state of Arizona and work for the betterment of the communities of which I am a part, communities that are fighting uphill battles in the face of the current political climate. But how to help? Enter the TYPS.

The Tucson Youth Poetry Slam was officially begun this school year, 2010-11. We are a program of Ocotillo Literary Endeavors, Inc., a 501(c)3 whose primary responsibility is the Tucson Poetry Festival, which will celebrate its 30th year in 2012. We are OLA's first year-round program, and our goal is to empower youth in Tucson and Southeastern Arizona through performance poetry workshops and poetry slam competitions; creating an alliance between teachers, community members, organizations and youth interested in increasing the opportunities for youth voice in the area.

Our monthly workshop series and poetry slam is every second Saturday at Bentley's House of Coffee and Tea at 1730 E. Speedway. Through the generous support of our community and the Every Voice in Action Foundation, the Tucson Pima Arts Council, the Arizona Commission on the Arts and National Endowment for the Arts, we also have funding to help get more poets in local schools.

This year's activities will cumulate in the First Annual Tucson Youth Poetry Slam Championship, which will be held April 30th, 2011 at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Open to poets who have previously qualified by participating in regular TYPS events, the championship will also feature a performance by the internationally-acclaimed poet Patricia Smith.

Performance poetry works in the classroom. And we're growing all the time. If you'd like to become involved or would like a poet in your school, we'd love to hear from you.

Here's a student performing a poem at a TYPS Poetry Slam at Bentley's:
 

Created on: 
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Arizona Board of Regents