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Feelings on display: Youth poetry slam group edits words, summons courage for performance

Mark Pogorelskin (left) and Howard Ross, both of Duluth, laugh after working together to prepare a piece of poetry at a meeting of ARE, a Duluth-based youth poetry group. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 6
Sam Runge, 18, of Duluth shares a poem he wrote during a meeting of the poetry group ARE. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 6
Mark Pogorelskin of Duluth leads a discussion during a meeting of young poets. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 6
Daniel Oyinloye of Duluth speaks during a meeting of ARE, the Duluth-based youth poetry group he founded. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com4 / 6
Mizjanetta Paul, 16, of Superior shares poetry last week. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Sannah Arvidson-Hicks of Duluth smiles while listening to another poet speak during a meeting of ARE, a Duluth-based youth poetry group. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com6 / 6

Be as loud as possible, said Daniel Oyinloye.

The program director of ARE, a Duluth-based poetry group, reviewed the terms of this weekend's poetry slam. Other reminders: don't go over three minutes and be strategic in showing your full self. It's a preliminary round in an ongoing TruArtSpeaks' Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam Series, and on Saturday, ARE poets will perform at 202 W. 2nd St.

This weekend's event is one in a number of the group's activities. ARE hosts regular open mic nights at Zeitgeist Arts Cafe, they released a book of poems, "Vol. 1: MEntally Illest," in September, and they meet twice a week for writing and performance workshops.

"ARE" stands for an affirmation of power, and the group aims to help area youths own their identities through storytelling.

This week in the Adult Learning Center, ARE poets did a writing exercise for 10 minutes. Then, they stood to speak. "Take up space, own the space, fill the room," Oyinloye said.

Many recited poems off their smartphones. Listeners snapped their fingers in support and approval. Mentor Mark Pogorelskin laughed good-naturedly at clever wording. Oyinloye hummed and shook his head at potent imagery. Among the feedback afterward:

"You weren't confident enough."

"You're evolving."

"Imagine you perform this all sunny and bubbly, and the last two lines, you perform it the way you feel."

ARE mentors and participants don't censor themselves. And while Oyinloye reminded students to be mindful of their audience, all topics and language are on the table.

From the first day, we set the precedent of raw authenticity, he said. "As students, they can say anything. As mentors, we can say anything, but we say anything that is constructive." They call this feedback exchange "concrete," and poets don't have to be critiqued if they don't want to be.

The poetry group is the brainchild of William Howes, coordinator for Duluth school district's Office of Education Equity. He has been involved with spoken word performance on and off for the past 15 years, and after seeing the scene fade in the Twin Ports, he wanted to rebuild a platform for youths and young adults.

Howes approached Oyinloye, a performance artist, filmmaker and musician, who dove in — visiting classrooms at Duluth East, Duluth Denfeld, the Adult Learning Center and LifeHouse. Oyinloye also contacted Pogorelskin, a Duluth slam poet. From there, more educators and community members came on as mentors.

ARE is in its second year, and Howes sees the group as a space for people to positively build themselves and their families. "The arts are a powerful part of any society, and I hope ARE is a part of that here," he said by email.

Miracle Moore of Duluth said she knew she wanted to be a writer when she was 7 or 8. The 14-year-old used to write narratives and novels, then moved into more abstract writing a couple years ago.

"A lot of stuff that I felt didn't make sense, and I knew that poetry didn't have to make sense, so it seemed like the right type of art form for me," she said. She's been in ARE since November and said reading her poems helps her move on to something new artistically and emotionally.

For Tiffani Beasley, 16, writing is a good outlet when you have nowhere else to turn.

As a practice, she writes feelings in the moment — sometimes it's poetic and others she has to work with. Artistically, Beasley wants her writing to be more concrete, and she said she has picked up some tips toward that goal: "Sometimes, you're going to have to just breathe and let it work its way out. Sometimes, you just have to work with your imperfections."

Saturday will be Beasley's first poetry slam, and she's performing three pieces. It's nerve-racking to read aloud, she said, but it gets easier the more you do it.

Mizjanetta Paul, 16, also will be competing on Saturday. She made it to the semifinal round in last year's slam series, an impressive achievement, she said. Among the poems she'll perform is "Political Update," a piece that plays on "99 Bottles of Beer." ("I've been told that old nursery rhymes are my thing.")

Paul recited it during an ARE workshop this week.

"99 bottles of beer on the wall

How 'bout 99 black men dead

You take one down you pass it around 98 girls just sold

You sell a bag of chips for 99 cents

I sell a 12 year old girl for 900 dollars..."

Paul's complete poem was published in "Vol. 1: MEntally Illest." The poetry compilation includes powerful themes of overcoming body shame and embracing self-love, hate crimes and suicide.

Many students have experience with some form of anxiety or depression, Oyinloye said. He knows as soon as a student reads a piece if their work is reflecting something serious. At that point, ARE leaders check with the student.

Many have their own therapists, school counselors or LifeHouse resources, so mentors aim to be aware of these established networks and build relationships with youths. Poetry is one form of expression; it can be therapeutic, but if you need help, you need help, he said.

Pogorelskin encourages students to go as far as they can with their art and to be fearless about it because it's affirming. "We're not perfect, but we're the mentally illest. We're the strongest." This sentiment was the inspiration for the book's name. "Illest" means something is hot or awesome, explained Oyinloye, who seconded this idea of affirmation.

"This is a way of moving forward, to become self-aware, you have to own that."

Community is a big draw for students who come to ARE. They want to build culture and unity — and it harnesses confidence. Ever since Paul joined the poetry group, her grades have improved and she's more confident in speaking up for herself, she said, adding: Poetry will change your life.

Reading his work out loud changes things for Sam Runge, 18. It's an acknowledgment that you have something legitimate to say.

"I would talk about wanting to be a writer, but I never had any proof that I was doing it," he said. "Now that I have all this and something that I can actually call mine ... I can say that I'm pursuing something that's bigger than just myself."

And the craft of writing means something for ARE mentors as well.

Moving to Duluth from Nigeria in 2002, Oyinloye was inspired by hip-hop artists and began writing music, scripts and poems. "The loneliness was what pushed me to write," he said.

Pogorelskin said poetry helped him carve out an identity, and he's thankful he gets to participate in ARE. "Seeing these kids grow up as poets and evolve, ... seeing them learn to articulate just blows my mind, and usually I go home and write after every session.

"If it wasn't for this, I'd probably be a bitter, washed-up poet."

Asked what poetry means to them, two mentors ad-libbed their art.

"Poetry is like water, it's like air. ... It's an anchor to reality," Pogorelskin said.

Added Oyinloye: "A poem is our dying wish for what we think is best. A poem is a desperate cry. A poem is our soul trying to find its way.

"It's youth. It's voices. It's us."

If you go

What: Twin Ports Youth Poetry Slam preliminary

When: 7-9 p.m. Saturday

Where: 202 W. 2nd St.

= = =

What: ARE poetry crew

When: 6-8 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays

Where: 215 N. 1st Ave. E, room 115

More info: Daniel Oyinloye (952) 201-7352,

What is a poetry slam?

A poetry slam is a reading where writers are judged on craft, content, originality and performance, but the soul of a slam is when you take the stage, said ARE program director Daniel Oyinloye.

It's also not about the competition. It's designed so youths have a platform. Both adult and youth slams have a point system, but youth results are not shared; a student will find out only if they made it to the next round.

In addition to Saturday's event, poets will have another chance to compete in a preliminary poetry slam on Jan. 27 in the Twin Cities. Those who advance will move on to compete in the semi-final rounds of the TruArtSpeaks' Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam Series in March.

Political Update

By MizJanetta Paul

99 bottles of beer on the wall

How 'bout 99 black men dead

You take one down you pass it around 98 girls just sold

You sell a bag of chips for 99 cents

I sell a 12 year old girl for 900 dollars

you take one down you pass it around 97 homes got robbed

Kim kardashan just got robbed by her brother rob

I got robbed for my last 20 dollars

You take one down you pass it around 96 schools got bombed

We giggle and play and say that was a bomb song

Another building was bombed that's another 200 dead

You take one down you pass it around 95 trees cut down

You want more wood to cut

I want more air to breathe

You take one down you pass it around 94 more kidnappings

He kidnapped her 2 weeks ago she's still not found

He kidnapped my heart and I'm still lying on the ground

You take one down you pass it around 93 more overdoses

A father of two just overdosed on heroine

That's another 50 dollars in a drug dealer's pocket

You take one down you pass it around 92 more hands up don't

shoot, black man on his knees begging for his life

But I guess Phillip white and Tony Robinson were not begging enough

You take one down you pass it around 91 more gay marriages

At least love wins

You take one down you pass it around 90 more bottles of beer on the wall

Published in "Vol. 1: MEntally Illest."

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

(218) 723-5346