It was a huge mistake to forget to bring tissues to the Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam Grand Slam Finals over the weekend at Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium. Expectations of being dazzled by the stunning wordplay and vocal deliveries made by the finalists were more than met, the sentiment echoed by snaps ricocheting throughout the building.
Unforeseeable, however, was how moving and gut-wrenchingly honest the overwhelming majority of the poems would be, as kids around age 16 revealed unimaginable personal stories of conflict and violence. Of the 13 competing, five will advance to the 15th Annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival on July 17-21.
The students' unflinching presentations embodied the motto of the spoken word education nonprofit: "Because the next generation can speak for itself."
Fifteen-year-old Nya McDowell left the audience in emotional ruin as she detailed how her father put her out on the "track" in Richmond when she was 13, turning "Daddy's little princess" into "Daddy's little prostitute." Her ultimate crowning as the night's champion left her beaming and looking hopeful to a much brighter future.
Colleen Hamilton explored the pitfalls of female body image with far more wisdom than would be thought to come from a 15-year-old, amping up the intensity for a second-round poem about her complicated relationship with her mother -- before and during her parent's struggle with breast cancer. Gretchen Carvajal, 17, opened by exploring how she feels about her father's infidelity and betrayal, then followed with a poem that was all sheer out-of-body experience as she described the sexual assaults of post-war Filipino "comfort women."
Allison Kephart's all-American-blonde looks belied more incomprehensible pain, reducing the auditorium to absolute silence as she let off a quiet love letter to a school counselor who helped her deal with being raped a decade earlier at age seven. And Obasi Davis, 16, offered clever turns about political apathy and the fear of inheriting the fuck-ups of the older generations as well as a recipe for a Jamaican curry seasoned with heartache.
It was a riveting experience that brought out fear, despair, sadness -- and ultimately great hope.