Wythall Youth Group. One of the West Mids teams.

Our introduction to the team saw a small collection of teenagers walk through the youth club doors in little Wythall. I felt lucky because what teenagers these days come in to write poetry during the Easter holidays?

To be honest, I was worried. Nervous at the thought of working to paralyse the stigma surrounding the term ‘poetry´ by introducing spoken word performance to young people who potentially wouldn’t know what it was. The concept of creative writing to form poetry is difficult as it is without sticking ‘slam’ in big red letters all over it, inevitably leading to emotions surrounding judgment, nervousness and pressure because there isn’t a thesaurus residing in our brains to claim a win.

The only reason I thought this was because I had never been involved in a performance poetry slam before. The image it created was confrontational, a battle between two people like something from 8 mile or Dont Flop, or even like a breakin battle from the Bronx where dancers fought with moves instead of weapons. But, of course, a poetry slam really is nothing like that (dependant on the tone of a poem, we may use words as bullets to pierce an emotion into the heart of a listener-metaphorically speaking). There aren’t two performers standing head to head in a vicious verbal vasectomy of each other’s bad points, it’s a performance of the eclectic, a victorious congregation of talented writers who use sound and movement to execute the meaning of their words.

This realisation hit me later rather than sooner, and if I – a shadow assisting the development of performance poetry – didn’t know this, then how would the young people we propose to teach going to know?

Our first outing to the youth group introduced us to the two teachers heading the project within the school. We were limited already due to time constraints, and with important exams on the horizon it was difficult to pin point a team schedule that would enable us to work with a lot of young people through a day long workshop, as taking any student out of lesson time was inconceivable.

We decided to market the Shake the Dust project through school assemblies. That way we could target a large group and entice them with a poetry performance or video to explain what spoken word is and how a slam works. So, we formed a collective of inspirational poets that have had an impact on our approach to the poetry industry, those that have taken part in a poetry slam and local poetry in to a very short film within a real simple power point presentation. View the video here.

The assemblies were nerve tingling, but the project was still too good to be true to me and so I had this air of passion, excitement through wide eyes, as we presented the project to a few hundred pupils in a formal school hall-stage and all. The video soon gained their attention as their sleepy heads rose to strong voices.

6 young people rose to the challenge. They knocked on the youth group doors one weekday evening and played rhyme wars. They structured sentences from laughs and spoke about their traits and flaws. Told us their comforts and confided their performance troubles and we said “Less of that. Let’s have fun writing spoken word poems and fit performance between the lines later. The words will make the performance. The performance will make the emotion. The emotion will bring understanding. The poem will deliver its purpose.”