Have you heard? Los Angeles teen literacy rates are second lowest in the country. Budget cuts have all but eradicated the arts from our schools. Librarians have received pink slips. Are we witnessing the dismantling of the library in Los Angeles public high schools? YES, WE ARE!
So I work... because books saved my life.
And yes, I realize that those are the corniest words ever uttered. But they did. I grew up in New Jersey. Shy. Heart broken by divorce. Missing my dad, and with a mom that worked around the clock.
Sound familiar? If you were a Los Angeles teenager it would.
Books were my one constant, my one solace. And they were free.
I am Founder and Executive Director of Get Lit-Words Ignite, Los Angeles' leading teen literacy nonprofit. We introduce teenagers to classic poems by poets like Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath, Pablo Neruda, Walt Whitman, Li Po, Lucille Clifton, etc. and then have them write their own spoken word responses. Both they memorize and perform. Through this process teens grow smarter, more confident, and are expanded by the life giving ideas presented in the words they encounter.
I was taught this way of working by the Swedish actress, Viveca Lindfors. I never liked poetry or understood it until I saw her perform it live. Then I understood. She quoted Walt Whitman, "do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes." And I was hooked. Aren't we all so much more than the faces we present to the world?
CUT TO: 20 years later.
On April 27th and April 28th Get Lit is hosting the nation's first ever, "Classic Slam," at the LATC and Wiltern Theaters respectively. 2,500 teens are currently going through our program in 18 different high schools and the top six teens from each school/region including S. Central, Watts, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Reseda, Pasadena, Inglewood, etc... will bus in to represent their school. Both events are free but I am scared. Scared because I don't know if anyone (besides the 1,000 participating teens) will show up. Scared because Get Lit has broken our bank to do this. Scared because it's National Poetry Month but we haven't received any press about this event. Scared because I don't know if you can risk it all on something, and win. And I have. I've risked it all.
Because how long can you hear about budget cuts and Prop 13 and pink slips and incarcerated kids and NOT CARE? How long can you LISTEN TO THE PROBLEM???
"The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,/ The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue." Walt Whitman
POETRY transforms the problem.
As my old acting teacher used to scream as we indulged and vomited out every sob story, dream, and piece of melodrama that we could... "MAKE IT ART!"
Performing poetry gives us the chance to take our fragmented stories and do just that. To make them sources of sharing and teaching -- things that unite rather than divide.
But where is Walt now? Where in Langston???
Rolling over in their graves. "We need a new agent!" Because the only ones spouting their words are 1% of academia... Yet I and thousands of Los Angeles teenagers can attest that their words are alive as ever! We are living proof that "a classic isn't a classic because it's old... a classic is a classic because it's great!"
If anyone cares to listen and if any of this matters at all.
For more information go to www.classicslam.org.
Founded in 2005 in Los Angeles, Get Lit (www.getlit.org) is a leading non-profit presenter of literary performance, education, and teen poetry programs. Get Lit uses the memorization and recitation of classic poetry as a launch pad for teen-created spoken word responses, fusing the two forms of expression into compelling performances, conducted by teens in school, after school, and through the organization's own select group of Get Lit Players. These poet ambassadors from throughout Los Angeles perform both classic and spoken word poetry, inspiring fellow teens to read, write, participate in the arts, and be leaders in their community. Each year Get Lit reaches over 15,000 at-risk teens in more than 45 high schools, turning students into motivated scholars inspired to stay in school and thrive.
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