THE BLOG

There's Something Happening in Los Angeles...

05/23/2012 06:23 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2012

Picture this... an explosion of over 2,000 Los Angeles teenagers from high schools all over the city descending upon downtown L.A. to bust poems!

I know I know I know... things like this can't happen in Los Angeles because things in Los Angeles are dire. "California spends less on students than any other state... Our teen literacy rates are second to last in the country... Budget cuts have made education a joke... Too many kids here don't speak English... Classes are overcrowded... Schools are closing...There's pink slips for teachers...Libraries have gone broke... and we're a disaster!" you say.

But Walt Whitman says:

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now...

Showing the best and dividing it from the worst age vexes age,
Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent, and go bathe and admire myself...

I am satisfied -- I see, dance, laugh, sing...


In other words we've got to learn to shut up!

Cause our din is drowning out their poetry. Our squatting is in the way of their moving. Our doubt is in the way of their dreams!

On April 27th and 28th, 18 teams and 108 teenage poets competed in the nation's first CLASSIC SLAM at the LATC and Wiltern theaters and over 2,000 people came to watch. There were no suicides, no lynchings, no murders, and no movie stars (except Tim Robbins and Efren Ramirez!) so there was no press, but our kids didn't stand alone!

Per Get Lit's model, each teen chose a classic poem to memorize and perform alongside an original spoken word poem they created in response.

So Kelsey Kawana and Alyssa Paul from Polytechnic stood with Maya Angelou; Jonluk Herron from Roosevelt stood with Pablo Neruda; Naomi Zaldate from El Rancho stood with Sekou Sundiata; Chantey Gutierrez from Esteban Torres stood with James Joyce; Melissa Maldonado from Alhambra stood with Charles Bukowski; Ariel Taylor from Animo Inglewood stood with Naomi Nye; Luis Alfaro from Fairfax stood with Edgar Allan Poe; Christa Perez from William Workman stood with Yeats...

Jazmin Cortez, a sophomore from Triumph in Sylmar writes:
"I didn't like school. Never wanted to go. My teacher said we were doing a poetry project and I didn't want to. But then I found this poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca... There was a line, "I have turned against everyone so young" and I started to cry. I felt so isolated. I had stopped believing in myself and opportunities. But I worked on that poem every day and it made me want to go to school. And then I got to perform it at the LATC and then my team made the Finals and the Wiltern! Now when I walk through the halls they don't make fun of me anymore. Now they say, "Oh see that girl, she's a POET!"

Shan, a 14 year old freshman in downtown L.A., writes:

I was sad. I'd gone through a breakup. I was feeling taken advantage of cause I was always 'the nice guy.' I started retreating into myself and wouldn't let anyone in. I heard that we were doing a poetry class in school and wasn't too thrilled. They made me look through a book of over 200 poems. There weren't any that I liked, until finally I found this one by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. It was called 'Fury' and said 'kindness should have fists.' I couldn't get that line out of my mind. I went home and wrote and wrote and wrote. Then I started performing it alongside my own poem. The kids in school saw me do it. Now when they see me on campus they say, 'kindness has fists!' and I know that it's okay to be nice, but keep your own power too.


And Patrick, a freshman, wrote in response to Amiri Baraka's question in "KABA:" "What will be the sacred word...?" "AFROCADABRA!"

Poetry comes from the heart; it's the soul-talk of a culture. Get-Lit makes this happen in so many wonderful ways. When young people own both a classic poem, and then endeavor to create their own poetic responses, this is the bridge between generations, of the old and the new, of the traditional and the yet-to-be traditional. Get Lit makes this happen -- and we as a city, a country, and a world are better off for it.

-- Luis J. Rodriguez, poet, activist, writers, author of Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. and a Classical Slam Judge.

In my last article I asked, "Where are Walt and Langston?" and now I have an answer. They are beating in the hearts of 2,500 L.A. teenagers who will never again be the same. There is a literary riot happening here in Los Angeles. Watch them take over the world!

After taking that stage, and spitting those swish lines, and hearing those snaps! I have to say, I'm glad I took part in this life-changing experience. I will never forget the day, my poem claimed me.

Shan says. From January to April 2012, over 2,500 L.A. teens participated in instruction leading up to the nation's first Classic Slam.