After a record breaking cold spell across usually-sunny California, the customary 80-degree weather had begun to pick up again in mid April; as the sun set over South Broadway’s historic Ace Hotel Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles, the golden views and massive crowds were a fitting way to welcome in students, poets, writers and songwriters from far and wide to the annual 2023 Classic Slam Competition Finals.
The Classic Slam Event is the largest classic poetry slam in the world, going 16+ years strong, and includes hundreds of young poets from schools throughout Southern California, who perform and compete with classic/contemporary poems alongside their original Spoken Word responses for a panel of judges. In celebration of National Poetry Month, the Finals were held on April 22.
Being my first live poetry event (of any kind), I was eager to find out what all of this meant — and, after reading about the nonprofit Get Lit foundation’s history in the email invite, I knew it was something to be experienced in person. Founded in 2006 by author and educator Diane Luby Lane, the organization aims to transform the lives of young people worldwide through classic and spoken word poetry, and specialized curriculums. The program seeks to fill a very palpable void of productive and transformative outlets for young people by providing a community and real-life work experience to fashion students into activists, scholars, and much more.
The Classic Slam format is unique in that students use classic poems — such as Louise Gluck’s “Mock Orange,” which appeared twice during the event — that resonate with their own stories, and write original responses to them, from their own perspectives. Get Lit lives by its mantra: “A Classic isn’t a Classic because it’s old. A Classic is a Classic because it’s great.”
I arrived at the theater, walking under the neon marquee, late for the official press check-in time, but right on time for the initiation of the festivities. Taking my seat, the show was emceed by the evergreen actress, spoken word artist and poet: Ashley August, whose booming personality, one-liners and physical comedy kept the crowd participation and attention at a high the entire night.
Off the bat we were introduced to the night’s Guests of Honor and the ceremony’s presiding judges, including: Emmy nominated actor and Grammy award-winning poet Malcolm-Jamal Warner; California Poet Laureate and author, Lee Herrick, former Youth Poet Laureate of the West Coast, Mila Cuda; musician and poet Grace Weber, and Salome Agbaroji.
Poet Luis J. Rodriguez kick-started the event with beautiful verses dedicated to “the thousands of Houseless people in Los Angeles — who we must never forget.” Author Lee Herrick recited an original and heartfelt piece totally from memory (“In the spirit of Get Lit!” he rallied) called “My California,” about “things I’ve seen, things I’d hoped for and things I’ve imagined.” Between careful, deliberate articulations, the poem ended with salutations to the melting pot that is The Golden State: “In my California, free sounds and free touch. Free questions, free answers. Free songs from parents and poets, those hopeful bodies of light.”
“This poem I’m performing, it’s my first time performing it live,” teased 17-year-old Nigerian American sensation, Salome Agbaroji, wrapping the first phase of the night. “So y’all are special!” She introduced the newly-conceived “BFR” with a humility that would leave no clues to its content.
“You thought I deserved it? Because I was taking my clothes off?”: with these introductory asks, Agbaroji quickly became transfigured — engrossed in not just her characters’ collective points of view, but in the entirety of the message. “BFR” was a visceral observation, guttural cry and overpowering pushback on not just societal views of female sexuality but of the black, American, female experience explicitly. It was a four-plus minute performance that culminated in a half-curtsy from Agbaroji and a lengthy, uproarious standing ovation from the audience. If this was what the Classic Slam was about, I was in for a real treat.
After the auditorium caught their breath and returned to their seats, the student-focused festivities began. The judges were instructed to score performances on a scale of one to 10 based on content, originality, performance and connection between the classic poem and the originally formulated response poem. “I’m so glad I can read — that’s wild,” the host, Ashley August, joked while interrupting herself flipping through a clipboard of rules. “’Cause, nah, I’m from Brooklyn, a lot of things have happened there!”
This year’s Finals contenders were California’s own Cleveland, Harvard-Westlake, Mark Keppel, and GALA schools; they would be facing off across three rounds, plus a “Shorty” round, which had a one-minute and 30-second time limit, as solo all the way up to quartet performers. No themes seemed to be off limits, no language was censored.
Students Heidi Lopez, Tiffany To, Ollie Mitchell, and Ashley Tahay captivated and dominated with their stage presence and poignant pieces, respectively. I was especially fascinated to see how many ways the group recitations could be expounded on, as they were, towards the final act of the event, when four of Cleveland’s brightest students took to the stage to perform an original called “Tell Me Where It Hurts,” about the minority’s struggle of being seen but not understood by America’s seemingly well-meaning but actually dismissive society.
The final stages and shorties concluded with all students and school districts taking to the stage to celebrate the diversity, integrity, truth and honesty of the night — but there could only be one Top Prize winner. Cleveland’s Ashley Tahay took home the trophy as the highest scoring poet of the night while Mark Keppel High School won the championship as a team.
Passion is a powerful thing, regardless of age, and each and every kid and teen of Get Lit’s Classic Slam had found a way to harness theirs to craft imagination, story, vulnerability, and authority and put it out into the world. That type of vulnerability extended even to the celebrity guests of the night; I was able to speak with Malcolm-Jamal Warner about his performance of his own “Hidden in Plain View.”
“Black boys boast bravado not to seem broken. And often, so do Black men,” began the opening stanzas of the piece. And where did the inspiration come from?
“I think the biggest turning point was really in the poem,” Warner reminisced. “I talked about being in a relationship for like a lot of years and… realizing that it was there where I was compromising myself. ‘Cause I don’t, I don’t feel like I compromised myself in my work or in my art. I’m pretty vocal about, you know, my perspective on things. But I just realized that with all of that, there was like some personal stuff that I realized I was compromising myself for, for love at the end of the day.”
“But then I had to get to the realization of, ‘well, is this the kind of love I need to be in? Is this a genuine love if I’m compromising myself?’ Because again… I’m being loved based on only what I’m presenting for, not feeling safe enough to be, you know, completely transparent.”
Vulnerability, transparency, and the transformative power of the written verse were one of the things at the heart of the night’s event and also what continues to inspire author/educator Diane Luby Lane, founder of Get Lit — Words Ignite. What do this year’s participants find relevant and important versus when the organization was founded in 2006?
“I think that students know their eyes have been opened a little bit more to the world than 17 years ago. They can talk back right to the system,” she said. “They’re more socially conscious.”
When I asked what makes her feel like the Classic Slam competition is something the world continues to need, a touch more urgency came through her voice: “Oh gosh. You know, there’s this Alice Walker poem. She talks about ‘the leftover love,’ ‘I know how poems are made — The anger [sic] that spills out of the too full cup and runs and hides its too full self in shame…’ All those leftover feelings, where do you put them?” She took a beat to look at the stage as the event staff stripped it bare before returning eye contact to continue. “And I just see so many lonely kids that have nobody to talk to.”
“You weren’t here, but this little boy, he was so awkward, shy. He just moved here from Michigan, talking about how his dog got put in a shelter and just the sadness of losing his pet,” she continued. “And I’m just thinking about if he didn’t have Get Lit; he literally walked in the office last week. He’s been here two months. He doesn’t know anyone… And he would just be a kid probably in the back of some classroom and no one would hardly know his name. He doesn’t talk that much. And now, it’s like he’s given a voice. He connected with Shakespeare, he connected with The Classic, he did this response, he shares it. Everyone’s like, ‘you have a dog? I have a dog.’”
Touching on the celebrity involvement, I wondered if it surprised Lane about the types of people who were into poetry or were interested in participating in The Classic Slam, including this year’s guests, like singer-songwriter Grace Weber.
“No, it doesn’t surprise me,” she said. “I’m really grateful for Amanda Gorman. I’m really grateful that poetry just became its own Grammy category, because I think that people understood what spoken word was. It would even more — it would just explode ’cause who doesn’t love young people? Who doesn’t love storytellers? This is just such a gorgeous art form and not enough people know about it, but they’re starting to now.”
And what would be — in her own words — the legacy of Diane Luby Lane?
“That I provided a space for people to hear each other and where a community of artists could hone their craft and create family and… earn a living through art.”
And as poetry in all its forms becomes more mainstream, Lane made sure to inform me of California’s new and mandatory ethnic studies courses. “It’s a huge thing and we worked last year with all these outside scholars to craft two new ethnic studies courses. We have over 200 poems that we got the rights to. So, Maya Angelou and Sonia Sanchez and Francisco Aragón, just the great of the greats, we have the rights for their work in the textbooks… You’re learning about these issues, these cultural issues through the poets themselves.”
In a world of constant bombardment of information, societal pressure, the constant redefinition and evolution of art, there’s something pure about returning to the basics — the organic material — of spoken word. Robin Williams, in Dead Poets Society, once said “We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race — and the human race is filled with passion.” And it’s a passion that these children and young adults carry into the future. If the Golden Age of poetry began with Poe, Emerson, and Whitman, then the Renaissance begins here.