A Spotlight On Poetry
March 22, 2019
The Talon takes a closer look at three branches of poetry at Los Altos. The competitive slam poetry team, the freshman poetry slam and the team’s teacher advisors. Through these and other programs, poetry has become a major presence in the Los Altos community, helping students come together through the expression of their ideas.
Poetry Slam Team
As junior Elena Mujica steps up to the stage at the Eagle Theater, she counts the steps to make sure she doesn’t trip. Her empty hands tremble; she prefers to memorize her poems rather than read them off her phone. Once she leans in to the mic, all her nerves are flushed away.
The poetry slam team is preparing for the annual Unified District Poetry Slam (UDPS), which takes place over the course of three days from Thursday, April 25 to Saturday, April 27 in Oakland. The team is looking forward to this year’s competition, as the slam was canceled last year due to undisclosed issues with Youth Speaks, the company that puts on the UDPS. Two years ago, the team made it to the final round, beating four other schools in preliminary rounds. Although the team is aiming to win this year, they hope to put more of an emphasis on meeting other student poets and “speaking [their] truth,” according to junior Adam Hollingworth.
“It’s just this amazing electric atmosphere and everyone is so supportive,” Adam said. “You get up there and people from these opposite schools who are competing against you are on their feet, clapping for you, whooping and hollering.”
Poems are evaluated by four judges, each with an experienced background in poetry. Some poems are three and a half minutes, while others are “lightning rounds,” which are 90 second poems. One group poem is also required. After two days of preliminary bouts, teams are eliminated between rounds.
Refining each poem takes months, and the team relies on other members for critiquing. Each member writes throughout the week and then comes to the next meeting with a more developed idea or draft. With the help and support of the team, members are able to translate different ideas into a cohesive piece to better articulate their thoughts.
When asked to elaborate about what it feels like when she’s writing poetry, she summed it up in one word: hard. She says writing is much more messy than most people envision it to be, and it takes a lot of powering through the hard stages to get a final draft that she is excited to present.
“It really just started off with me sitting in my room during the week, and just ranting four pages of lots of different examples of moments like… how do I benefit from being able to check Latina on college apps,” Elena said. “And then very, very slowly and through a lot of work, I started to connect a lot with how checking a box doesn’t really do it justice; it’s a very ambiguous state being biracial. And so then the poem ended up kind of being about the beauty in the ambiguous.”
Since at least one group poem is required, they are always looking for continuities across topics. The balance of individual and team efforts is one of the main aspects of slam poetry and forces the group to think more creatively to find a topic that they are all passionate about. The starkly different cultures among the team pose not an obstacle, but an advantage because it can shed a new light on their ideas.
The slam team is very small in order to allow everyone to contribute their ideas and poems, but the team still feels like they receive lots of interest. They had over 20 applicants in their most recent audition. Around campus, Divulgence club, the school wide slam and Freshman Poetry Slam also encourage students to explore poetry.
Overall, the poetry slam team is a place for students to be creative. They enjoy sharing their story with others, and ultimately aim to make connections and express themselves to others.
“It’s going through [the writing process] and getting to the point where you have a finished product that you’re so proud of that you’re excited to share it with people,” Elena said. “Being able to finally get on stage and perform a home that you’ve been working on for so long… is really satisfying.”
On Tuesday, February 12, students and teachers gathered in the Eagle Theater for the seventh annual Freshman Poetry Slam. The Talon spoke to Emil Tellefsen, Serena Gaylord and Riya Narain, the top three winners in the class of 2022, to explore how they use poetry as an emotional outlet.
First place poet Emil Tellefsen wrote his poem on how older generations look down on younger generations.
“I think a lot about moral issues in the world and wonder, ‘how could this be changed?’” Emil said. “I didn’t realize until after I presented that performing my poem contributed to that change. And I know this was just a high school poetry slam and I’m certainly no ‘influencer’ or anything, but I’d like to think I made some people think a bit.”
Emil began writing poetry in second grade, finding the joy in personalizing his poems while also forming connections with others by writing from the observer’s perspective.
Runner-up Serena Gaylord’s poem focused on the struggles of being a woman. She discusses subjects including harassment and catcalling. The poem was geared towards a close friend of Serena’s who went experienced extreme sexism.
Although her poem for the poetry slam was a sensitive topic, she was able to emotionally connect with the audience and educate others about the world.
“People connect with displayed emotion more than they do with words,” Serena said. “This poem was really personal and the topic is something I experience and something I know many, many other people around the world have to go through.”
Riya Narain, placing third, found poetry to be a way for her to creatively communicate her ideas. Her poem gave her the platform to talk about her experiences with race. Riya chose her poem to present at the poetry slam as a way to show peers a typical occurrence in her life.
Presenting her poem also allowed her to connect with her classmates who have similar experiences. In fact, Riya had many peers tell her that they related to her experiences afterward.
“I know that I don’t have the most dramatic or hostile struggle with race and peoples behaviors around me, but I was hoping that it may open the door for other people to feel welcome to share their stories and experiences, representing and bringing awareness to a reality that many of us encounter daily,” Riya said.
Poetry Slam Team Teacher Advisors
Poetry had always been a part of English teachers Carrie Abel and Jonathan Kwan’s lives, but it was in slam poetry that they found their community.
Abel’s most memorable moment came at a poetry event on her college campus. She burst into tears during poet Anis Mojgani’s performance of “Shake the Dust” and described the incredible feeling from having something so simple yet incredibly profound elicit such a strong reaction from her.
Kwan’s came in his senior year of college. After receiving the opportunity to teach a seminar in spoken word and oral history, he decided to hold the semester final at his house and hosted, as he puts it, essentially a spoken word house party. Armed with a $15 disco ball from ROSS and a microphone borrowed from a neighbor, he went on to have one of the most joyful nights of his life.
For them both, the community of slam poetry enabled them to truly connect with others and provided a space to simply write and cry and laugh about things closest to them. Since their arrival at Los Altos, they’ve worked to create a poetry community on campus that fosters the kind of creativity that made them fall in love with the genre.
Before Kwan and Abel took over the mantle of promoting poetry at Los Altos, Galen Rosenberg, former English teacher and current assistant principal, created the schoolwide slam and was a primary proponent of poetry at Los Altos. To Rosenberg, poetry was an easy way to have students engage in the classroom and share what was meaningful to them. He started the slam for much the same reason.
“The slam was a great way to get a sense of what students were really thinking about, caring about and what their lives were really like, not just as a student but as a person. It really gives you a broad picture of all kinds of realities and it’s important for us to understand that,” Rosenberg said.
After Rosenberg became an assistant principal in 2013, Abel and Kwan took the lead in continuing the movement of poetry on campus, starting in the classroom. Together they’ve worked to establish a foundation and appreciation for poetry early in Los Altos students’ high school career through a poetry unit in their freshman year English class, Survey.
“We know there are misconceptions about poetry and who writes it and what it has to be about,” Abel said. “A big goal for freshman year is to break down those misconceptions and show that poetry can be about anything. We want [students] as writers to find [their] voice and figure out what works for [them].”
At the end of the unit, each Survey teacher chooses to nominate a student who will then perform in the freshman poetry battle. Seven years ago, during a chemical leak in the science building resulted in a code blue lockdown at Los Altos, Kwan first came up with the idea for a freshman slam. He emailed the rest of the Survey team proposing the idea of the slam, describing the process and the wonderful opportunity it’d provide to freshmen. It has happened every year since.
“It’s been really cool to this new crop of poets in the freshman class that are just emerging year after year,” Kwan said. “It’s been a great way for us to get to know who are the new emerging writers on our campus.”
Along with the unit and slams, Divulgence, a club dedicated to creative expression, and the competitive slam poetry team offer creative outlets on campus. With so many different ways to explore poetry at Los Altos, Kwan and Abel hope students give it a try and discover a new way to express themselves.
“To have students see that they can have an outlet to say what they really care about [is really special],” Abel said. “I think giving students that space is really important. Poetry is the human experience. It is a human experience. And it is a way to match the human experience with language. And once you understand language, you can break all the rules and play with it completely. Poetry gives you that freedom. You can break every rule, you can make up words, you can make up or write anything you want in poetry.”
The schoolwide poetry slam is in the Eagle Theater March 22nd at 7PM.