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Man of many words: Joshua Schwartz, coeditor-in-chief of Inkblot, writes during a poetry slam. Photo by Teri Currie

Diverse in Verse

A growing poetry movement at Albany High School draws student poets from all walks of life

By Tom Nattell

Some walk slowly to the small, wooden podium and its adjacent microphone atop a silvery stand. Others approach a bit faster. Some move with a confidence like they’ve done this numerous times before. Others approach cautiously, not quite sure how to position themselves. A spotlight broadens, narrows and sometimes shifts hue, lighting faces, hands and full body postures. Some rhyme, some rap, some tell short stories of the life that is theirs. Some spin their hands in accompaniment. Some clutch a sheet of paper, trying not to make it shake. All have something to say. All have something they want to be heard. It is all poetry. And it is happening in a most unusual venue: the auditorium of Albany High School.

It is April 29, a Monday night, and the high school’s longtime literary magazine, Inkblot, is hosting “An Evening of Poetry.” This fund-raiser for the upcoming issue features nearly 30 students reading and performing their work. An audience of more than 200, including a mix of students, parents, teachers and interested community folk, cheers on the young poets as they offer up their verse on the broad auditorium stage. As imagery, rhyme, beat and feeling flow into the mike and out across the air, there is the tangible silence of people listening. The students, for their few moments in the spotlight, bring the audience into their worlds, using words to convey what they see as important from the perspective of their emerging lives. This is the latest of a growing number of poetry gatherings happening at the high school.

“I think that poetry is the best thing that ever happened to Albany High,” says Eric Mayrell, an 11th grader from the South End. “It lets people know the inner side of people. You can judge people by who they are, and not what they look like or how they dress or how they act.”

A growing poetry “movement” is surging through the halls of Albany High, fueled by the simple idea that if you provide a venue, the poets will show up. According to Emily Pastel, a senior from the Pine Hills section of the city and coeditor-in-chief of Inkblot, “We felt we weren’t reaching enough people through the magazine, and we wanted more involvement.” Pastel explains how one of the magazine’s advisors, English teacher Shannan Tierney, came up with an interesting idea. “I think we were talking about that movie Slam with Saul Williams,” recounts Pastel. The movie, a low-budget, gritty flick about slam poetry and inner-city living, traces the life of Ray, a drug dealer who uses rap and poetry to help him through some of the tough choices he faces while in jail and on the streets. Tierney floated the idea of having poetry slams—frenetic poetry competitions—at the school.

“I borrowed the idea from slam poetry,” Tierney admits. “Seeing that concept of a forum where students read their own work to their peers, I just thought we might as well try it.” But Inkblot’s editors and advisors decided to make some alterations on the theme. “We didn’t want it to be a competition,” Tierney explains. “We wanted it to be a forum open to everyone.” In official slams, poets place an emphasis on performance, and a panel of judges (volunteers from the audience) gives out scores. In contrast, the format chosen for the Albany High readings is similar to that found at the myriad open mikes for poets offered by area clubs and galleries.

“We had a lot of unchanneled talent in the school, so we figured it would be a way to incorporate everybody,” notes Chantelle Brown, a senior and self-described “one-woman revolution” from the western edge of Albany. “We thought it was a great way to bring the school together.”

Cat Gironda, a 17-year-old Pine Hills resident, adds, “We also wanted to . . . make the [Inkblot] meetings more diverse, because it was usually all white students.” Ben Schuman, an 11th grader from the Delaware Avenue area of Albany, says that the staff agreed that “Inkblot should do more than just the magazine.”

At first, Inkblot coeditor-in-chief Joshua Schwartz wasn’t sure the slam idea would work. “I was a bit skeptical,” admits the sophomore, who lives off of New Scotland Avenue.

So was English teacher Brian Dunn, who advises the magazine along with Tierney. “I thought she [Tierney] was nutty, because I didn’t think there was an audience for it,” says Dunn.

Breaking down barriers: English teachers Brian Dunn (l) and Shannan Tierney. Photo by Teri Currie

According to Dunn, things got moving last fall when they “named a date and charged some students with getting the word out.” Notices were printed and posted, and the word began to spread and spread and spread. “It was the first time anything like this had been done at the high school,” says Tierney. The first reading was held after school on an October afternoon in Dunn’s classroom.

As the students started to arrive for that first slam, it quickly became evident that something special was happening, and the skepticism vanished quickly. “I was very surprised that so many people came, and that there’s so much excellent writing going on unnoticed,” Schwartz says.

Pastel says she “didn’t expect any kids to show up. I figured it’d be just the same people that are editors for the magazine, but I was surprised.” So too were the faculty advisors: “I was amazed,” says Dunn. “We had around 50 people the first time out.” Mayrell adds there were so many students that “you couldn’t even sit down.”

What was even more amazing to those present was the diversity of the students who jammed the room. “It was a true representation of the high school,” says Tierney. According to Brown, those attending included “some people who are really active in school and some who had never been to an after-school activity.”

“I think before the poetry slam, not many students even knew that we had a literary magazine,” Tierney reflects. “It was more the academic student who was submitting—more in the honors and AP classes. . . . A lot of teenagers write poetry—having this forum, by default, made the magazine more diverse.”

Prior to the event, Tierney says she hadn’t realized that a lot of the students were familiar with the concepts of spoken-word performance and poetry slams. And the words “poetry slam,” she notes, resonated more than “literary magazine.”

While organizers were pleased with the turnout, things would get even more surprising as the students began to read.

Once they got to Dunn’s classroom, students signed up to read, and found a space in the audience circle that would surround each poet. That circle would become a ring of support. Tierney estimates that “the first time we had 15 readers and everyone else came to listen. The beauty of it was that not only was it attended by so many students, but they were great! There was so much talent in the school that I wasn’t aware of.”

Dunn observes that, as the readings continued to meet monthly, “the dynamics started to change from three-quarters of the people coming to listen to where three-quarters came to read.”

“You stand in the middle of the class and everyone gives you that moment of silence for you to read your poem,” describes Mayrell.

“The vibe in the room was so positive, everyone was sharing and everyone was encouraging others to share,” Brown recalls. “Everyone listened to you whether they knew you or didn’t.”

Pastel noticed that the students “were sort of mesmerized by every person, and a lot of respect was shown to everybody.”

Ninth-grader Sean Iacopelli admits, “I was kind of shy the first time,” but as he settled in, “I wasn’t that scared because they’d give me a hand if it was good or bad.” Schuman felt that the reading transformed Dunn’s classroom into “a little space that’s different from the rest of the world.”

Inspired by respect: coeditor-in-chief of Inkblot, Emily Pastel. Photo by Teri Currie

Some students say they were particularly touched by the words heard and the experiences shared. One female student cites another girl’s poem about her father. “I can understand what she’s going through,” she says. “When I first heard the poem, I cried because I’m going through the same thing.” Pastel characterizes the readings as “very emotional. People really let loose stuff they’ve been holding back.” Shouts of support and hugs are not uncommon. “For some people it’s like purging themselves,” says Schuman. Schwartz attributes at least some of this creativity let loose in the room to the fact that “angst makes great poetry and teens make great angst.”

“They are constantly inspiring one another,” notes Tierney.

Since that first after-school reading last October, the monthly slams have grown, as have those who attend and share their work. “It’s brought kids that probably never would have been friends together and created friendships,” Tierney says, adding that “the fact that it helps break down stereotypes and helps bring people together may ultimately result in less violence, more understanding and more compassion.”

Dunn says he has seen the students “grow to be more accepting people. I’ve seen them breaking down barriers.”

Mayrell agrees, noting that “Some people that I saw [at the monthly readings] there, if I was to see them on the street, I probably would never have said anything to them.”

Tierney also feels that students who previously did not feel well-connected to academics have grown through “the self- confidence they’ve gained, the community I think we’ve built and the system of literacy that they’re really engaging in. . . . [For] students who might not have been recognized in the classroom setting, it has brought them some kind of recognition. Being recognized as a poet is a pretty big accomplishment for some of these kids.”

And many of the students who were drawn to Inkblot by poetry will see their work published when the annual magazine comes out in June. “People can’t wait for the magazine to see their poems in it,” Tierney says. Previously, she says, approximately 25 to 30 students a year would submit work to Inkblot, which has 10 to 15 student editors. This year, she says, the number of students submitting work is closer to 70.

An Evening of Poetry in the auditorium on April 29 was a special event designed both to raise money for the magazine (there was a small suggested donation) and to bring the school’s burgeoning poetry scene to a wider audience.

“It got so big,” Tierney says, “and the kids wanted to invite their families, their friends from other districts outside the school, to watch them perform.”

“I think it’s a cool feeling to be part of this community in the school,” notes Schwartz with an excitement-tinged voice. “It’s not an elite, but it’s special and people know there are people who care about their work.”

Poetry has become an important tool for some students to learn more about themselves and the world around them. For Brown, poetry “just helps me channel some of the questions I have, like why there is so much hatred and prejudice in the world? Some people like to take their anger out on things and do self-destructive things, but I find that writing is a better way to channel negative energy.”

Asked what topics the students’ poetry has encompassed, Tierney answers, “It is the widest range you can imagine. We have poems that talk about political issues and conflicts in the Middle East, to not knowing their fathers, to domestic abuse, to questioning globalization and capitalism. . . . What else?” She pauses, thinking. “Oh, love, of course.”

Freshman Iacopelli likes poetry because “it means something and it’s a way to express yourself.” This ability to express one’s feelings about difficult personal events and issues arises frequently in the readings, according to Pastel. “A lot of people will even get up and say ‘I’ve never talked about this before, but I really wanted to share it with you guys because this is such an intimate environment.’”

Schuman believes that “Some people have feelings inside them they can’t express or that they have difficulty . . . talking about that are real important to them and it [the readings] gives them an opportunity to express it.”

Mayrell thinks “It makes you open up.”

There is also a bit of peer learning going down, as students learn about techniques for writing and performing their poetry by listening and watching one another read. Gironda has “learned from a lot of my peers’ different styles of performing. I used to write stuff that you could look at on a piece of paper and read. . . . And now, what I write is something that should be performed,” she said.

The AHS poets have picked up some fans in high places. Both school principal John Pelletier and district superintendent Lonnie Palmer occupied front row seats for An Evening of Poetry and liked what they heard. Pelletier says the reading “was a good portrayal of what we’re all about here at Albany High School,” and supports these poetry events in the school because, “the bottom line is, it’s good for kids.”

Regarding the future of poetry in the school, Palmer says, “They started something there that isn’t going to go away, because the energy of the kids will keep it going.”

As Eric Mayrell observes, “When I have something on my mind, or I want to say something, all I need is a pen and a pad and I’ll be straight.”

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