Spitting Distance

Real poets jaywalk: Dudley Voigt (left, foreground), Melissa Borgmann (right, foreground), and students of their writing as performance class
Raoul Benavides

"I'm so hot--put a hot comb in my mouth and I'll give you a perm!"

Ashley Gilbert, also known as Unique, is spitting like a viper. Like most of the 20 teen poets assembled onstage at the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis, she's got a winsome countenance that belies her venom-tinged tongue. You'd expect a teenage girl in a trendy newsboy cap to recite a poem about angst and buttercups, but Gilbert's got her guns out. In a distinctive staccato, she rhymes about injustice, self-image, and her own supreme self-confidence. The audience is captivated by her verbal assault.

"The poets are coming!" Gilbert declares with such urgency that it sounds like something the Department of Homeland Security ought to investigate. "Have you heard?"

"She got evil inside," the little boy seated next to me whispers, cowed.

Technically, the poets have already come: The competitors in tonight's Real Spit poetry slam hail from high schools in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Brooklyn Park, and in a lone instance (the sparkling Jeanette Beebe), Iowa. They're black, white, Latino, and Hmong. They've dreamed up rapid-fire verses about feminism, racism, soda pop, mistletoe, and any other subject that might haunt the hippocampus of an observant teen. And while kids commonly take pen to paper in a fit of pique, the Real Spit posse is uncommonly skilled. "This is so good!" a woman in a nearby row murmurs. "I just can't believe it."

When Gilbert steps back from the mic, the capacity crowd whoops and applauds wildly. Previously composed audience members shriek like preadolescents at a B2K concert. Even the competing poets cheer supportively as Gilbert returns to the semicircle upstage, flush with praise. But nobody looks prouder--or more righteously exhausted--than Melissa Borgmann and Dudley Voigt. Borgmann and Voigt co-teach a course called Writing as Performance at North Community High School. They are largely responsible for assembling this poetry slam team, the first of its kind in the Twin Cities. How an idealistic notion in urban pedagogy became a sold-out happening is a complicated rhyme in itself. "It's a tough story to tell," says Borgmann.

Borgmann, an unflappable presence with masses of pre-Raphaelite curls, has an airy lit-geek quality that contrasts with her steely resolve. She credits her inspiration to a San Francisco-based organization called Youth Speaks. Founded in 1996, Youth Speaks promotes poetry, spoken word, and creative writing by teens, and produces the annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival. "Carolyn Holbrook of SASE: The Write Place brought [spoken-word artist] Paul Flores from Youth Speaks to town in October, and they held a workshop at Hamline University, where Caroline teaches," Borgmann recalls. "I came that day and I was just like, Oh my God, this is so hot."

Despite the form's blood ties to rap, slam enthusiasts are quick to defend spoken word as a fine art in its own right. "Spoken word is a viable artistic discipline," says poet e.g. bailey of the Minnesota Spoken Word Association. "There was a time when it wasn't recognized as an art form. Spoken-word artists applied for grants, but judges didn't understand it, a lot of people didn't really practice it, and no one knew how to create any kind of criteria for judging spoken-word artists. By comparison, page poets came from academia, and that was what the judges were used to. There were clear definitions at that time of what makes up a quote-unquote poet."

Once they gained familiarity with the spoken-word form, Borgmann and Voigt realized it could have a galvanizing effect on teens at North High and beyond. Their shared goal was to assemble a team of local poets, hold a qualifying slam, and accompany six finalists to San Francisco for the Brave New Voices festival. Voigt, who sat onstage at the Capri during the slam and doled out hugs and praise in equal measure, admits that she wasn't always sure the program could succeed. "Having been a resident at North High for five years, I've been faced with resource issues constantly. Some kids don't come if we don't pick them up or we don't feed them. And even if they want to be there, life happens. Life is so in the way of them coming to our program." She marvels at the students' devotion to their craft. "It amazes me that so many kids have come."

Indeed, the team is so committed that on an intoxicatingly sunny Friday holiday, the student poets and producers convene at Golden Thyme Coffee in St. Paul for an all-team meeting. The team has attracted some high-profile supporters in the Twin Cities arts community: Today, e.g. bailey is in the house, as are local actor-writer-impresario Shá Cage and Reggie Harris, cofounder of the artists' collective In the Belly. As the students settle into a loose circle and discuss upcoming endeavors, Borgmann waits for Voigt, who is en route from north Minneapolis with a carload of kids.

Nearly a week has passed since the slam at the Capri, but Nichole Rojas, one of the six top-voted poets of the evening, still seems stagestruck as she recalls the experience. Rojas shocked the audience into silence with her poem "I Remember," an uncensored oral history of a family in crisis. "The piece I did was painful, but healing at the same time because I got it out," Rojas says. She looks forward to traveling to the Brave New Voices festival in late April. "We're going to be around so many poets and people who get off on letting their feelings be known," she says enthusiastically. Voigt and Borgmann hope to send all 20 poets and student producers to San Francisco, and they've been fundraising aggressively in the hopes of making the trip a reality for each participant. According to Borgmann, there will most likely be a fundraiser at the Bean Scene coffeehouse on West Broadway on April 15, with the goal of raising $8,000.

Once Voigt arrives at the meeting, the group gets down to business. It's a surprisingly democratic process, with students leading teachers in dialogue and all ideas considered with equal care. "Young people and adults are equal in this space," Borgmann explains. "Given the results of our last election, I feel like we really need to have young people represented. They need to find their voices and speak the truth. I don't think a sheet of paper with bubbles should be the measurement of a young person. My passion is rooted in demonstrating literacy through the arts."

For Nichole Rojas, the experience was more than a demonstration. "I've always written, but with performing, I've been scared," Rojas admits. "The best part about doing this? Finding out that I could."

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