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A Powerful New Poetry Community for Youth

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The website PowerPoetry.org launched this past week, describing itself as "the world's first mobile and online poetry community for youth."

The site springs out of the success of last year's award-winning documentary To Be Heard, which followed three teenagers for four years as they struggled to grow up in a tough Bronx neighborhood. As one of the film's subjects, Anthony Pittman, put it: "They just give us a basketball and a gun and say either shoot at the basket or shoot each other." The film shows how poetry helped empower the trio and even changed their lives.

PowerPoetry is meant to be a sort of online incarnation of the poetry class at the heart of To Be Heard (a special screening of the movie introduced the website in New York City on Friday), with the goal of opening up its power to youth everywhere.

The website -- developed with a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts -- has a hip aesthetic, and is designed for easy navigation on mobile devices (that's what kids are into these days). For the Twitter generation, it features a "spit stream" where poets can spit out "micropoems" (140 characters or less) that fly right out into the community. Site developers also encourage poets to send their poems as videos, and to include photos, links to causes, or even map links. With a simple click, a reader can rate a poem or send a comment directly to the poet, and poets can share a poem on any of the major social networks.

But what really sets the website apart is its attitude. It's clear from featured poems that PowerPoetry isn't a place for the buttoned-up book group type: poems take on controversial topics and cussing is acceptable. That isn't to say that the site doesn't embrace meditative or beautiful poems. It does. But it doesn't censor at all, encouraging kids to explore and confront even their most brutal problems in the language they use with each other.

The site is also delightfully ambitious. One of To be Heard's stars, Pearl, introduces it by saying, "You do know that words have tremendous power, don't you?" And PowerPoetry believes this wholeheartedly. To this end, it features a "Take Action" section where users can submit poems to support various causes like HIV awareness, helping the homeless, and preventing teen pregnancy. Each featured cause page encourages poets to do more than just write, pointing them to websites to get better educated or get involved in more direct ways.

The site will also hold online poetry slams focused on helping specific causes. Poets will be able to submit videos on specific themes, such as for a "Slam against Bullying," and, at the end of the month, the community will vote on the winning poem.

Pearl continued: "You're probably asking yourself, why the hype about poetry anyway? ... A poem is a way into a person's heart -- a way into their heart and then out into the world. It isn't the only way, but it's a really good one."

She's right, of course. And as far as websites go, this looks like a really good one too.