The student news site of Los Altos High School in Los Altos, California

The Talon

The student news site of Los Altos High School in Los Altos, California

The Talon

The student news site of Los Altos High School in Los Altos, California

The Talon

Poetry team slams through competitions and COVID-19

Courtesy Slam Poetry Team
Members of the Los Altos High School slam poetry team with their coach; from left to right: English teacher and poetry slam team coach Carrie Shaffer, seniors Madi Tan and Angely Vargas, sophomore Kaiden Luis and junior Jen Palacios.

After a two-year hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Los Altos High School slam poetry team was pressed for time in their 2022 return. Selecting members through tryouts in February left the team with only a couple of months to rehearse and develop team “synergy” before their first competition in April.

“It was all really fast,” English teacher and poetry slam team coach Carrie Abel said. “Some of them knew each other, but there definitely wasn’t cohesion at all at the beginning. They have grown so much in that [area], and I feel like we are really solid going into this year with team unity.”

Despite the time crunch, the team placed first in the 2023 Unified Poetry Slam at the Youth Speaks Unified Festival and beat 29 other teams to become the 2023 Unified Slam champions of the Bay Area. This secured them their spot as one of the Bay Area’s two representative poetry teams in the international three-day festival and competition, Brave New Voices.

The team, coached by English teachers Abel and Jonathan Kwan, consists of sophomore Kaiden Luis, juniors Jen Palacios and Juliana Baltz and seniors Matthew Kim, Jordan Rahmfeld, Madi Tan and Angely Vargas.

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“I think if anything, the fact that we were the first [LAHS] team to come out of COVID-19 might have been more of an encouragement to be relaxed,” Madi said. “We weren’t expecting too much — we were kind of just the first test team.”

It was this mentality that left the team so surprised when they found out they would be one of the two representing Bay Area teams.

“I thought we were going to be out in the prelims,” Jordan said. “And then they called ‘Los Altos’ for winning prelims, and we were like, ‘Oh my god.’ And then we went to finals, they called ‘Los Altos’ and we were like, ‘Oh my god.’ We didn’t even know that was our ticket to nationals. They came over and were like, ‘Congratulations, you’re going to nationals,’ so we were like, ‘Oh my god!’”

The poetry team went on to San Francisco to compete at the Brave New Voices Festival, and although they didn’t reach finals, they went toe-to-toe with some of the top teams in the nation. To some members of the team, the competition was like a dream come true.

“I literally watched Brave New Voices videos since I’ve been on the internet, so it’s so amazing to go from watching it as a little eight-year-old to actually being a part of it now,” Madi said. “I think it’s so surreal to share a stage with other poets who are so amazing.”

One experience from Brave New Voices that the team especially liked was getting to meet different people with diverse life stories.

“A lot of poems were about being misunderstood or expectations being put on them,” Jordan said. “People’s experiences are very different from my own. I’m a Wasian girl in Silicon Valley, and there’s a Black kid from Nashville talking about his life experience. It’s so different, but there are still things that are the same.”

Four team members are seniors, meaning that next year, there will be at least four spots open. To those new future members, Jordan left a little bit of advice.

“Be a little bit careful about being vulnerable,” Jordan said. “When you perform a personal poem, expect that all your friends and family will be able to see it eventually.”

Poetry is often personal, and it takes courage to be able to share your story onstage. The competition is, after all, called “Brave New Voices.” But on a lighter note, Jordan still encourages personal poetry.

“Listening to everybody’s stories, everybody’s thoughts from all over the country, is insane,” Jordan said. “It really changed how I think of people.”

Abel was especially impressed with the positivity of the LAHS team and how they didn’t take away anything negative from their experience.

“It was just, ‘Wow, that was a huge learning experience for us, and I feel so accomplished getting to share the stage with these people, and now I have ideas and motivations of what is possible,’” Abel said. “It made them think — and me too — about what else this team could be.”

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Annabelle Lee
Annabelle Lee, Staff Writer

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