In times of economic peril, poetry and performance arts aren't necessarily at the forefront of most people's priorities. Massachusetts public schools, especially those in low-income areas and that have recently endured massive budget cuts, are no exception. All over the country, arts programs have been erased from public school curriculums, seen as less-than-essential to the learning experience.
The Massachusetts Literary Education and Performance Collective (Mass LEAP) couldn't disagree more. Formed last February by six Boston-area poets and educators, the non-profit aims to "create a vibrant youth poetry community in Greater Boston," according to their website. Working off the belief that all teenagers should have the opportunity to find and express their voice, the collective’s members wanted to place poetry teaching artists, or poets-in-residence, into schools that couldn't afford similar programs on their own.
"Tell a kid to write a three-page paper on To Kill A Mockingbird, and he doesn't care at all," said Jade Sylvan, poet and co-founder of Mass LEAP, "but if you tell him to explain to you his relationship to his father, all of a sudden it becomes really important to him to be able to use language well and to be understood by other people."
This sense of yearning to be understood through language is a major tenet of Mass LEAP's philosophy. Teenagers especially feel this need, which is why Mass LEAP finds it so important to create a poetry community specifically for them.
"I think the…isolating aspects of adolescence cause a lot of problems [among teens from] any socioeconomic background. A lot of it just comes down to the sense of, ‘I'm going through all of these crazy emotions for the first time, and I think I'm the only one,’" Sylvan said. “This [community-building around language] allows them to break down some of those walls and have that really vital human-level support system that isn't built in to the infrastructure of the 8:00 a.m.-2:30 p.m. school day."
While the poets-in-residence focus primarily on workshopping students' poems, another element of the process is performance. Mass LEAP has already held several open mic nights and small-scale youth poetry slams, and this spring, high school students will be given the opportunity to form teams and compete in a youth poetry slam festival, which Mass LEAP is holding in conjunction with the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. Participating students will workshop and memorize their original poems to perform in front of a live audience, who will rate each team and select an overall winner.
"But the point isn't really who wins," said Sylvan. "It's more just to get everybody out there, performing their work to an engaged audience."
Although incorporating poetry and language into education is a driving motive of Mass LEAP, there are plenty of ways that non-high school students and non-educators can get involved. Apart from participating in the poetry slam as an audience member, which is both a fun and moving experience, all are welcome to join the larger discussion and contribute to Mass LEAP's quickly-growing agenda. Their bi-annual summit, “where people can come and meet everybody and find out different ways that they can get involved,” Sylvan said, is this Sunday.*
Mass LEAP also holds free monthly poetry-writing workshops, where attendees can craft a poem in response to a writing prompt, share their work, and receive feedback from fellow poets. "They're really enjoyable," Sylvan said. "All the teachers we've gotten have been just really skilled and insightful, and I really enjoy them just as writing workshops….I've gotten some poems out of them just by going through the workshops."
The workshops also have a certain "meta" aspect, in that participants discuss ways to apply the exercises to a classroom setting. Anyone who seeks to expand their perspective on writing or create poems of their own is encouraged to attend. This weekend's workshop is hosted by Casey Rocheteau, one of the leaders of the Hampshire Slam Collective and author of several published poetry chapbooks; the workshop's theme is "displacement."
Mass LEAP recently received fiscal sponsorship from Mass Poetry and hired a grant writer, so there are sure to be many more events planned and opportunities for involvement in the near future.
"We started out as five people around a kitchen table last February, and the response has just been overwhelming," Sylvan said. "People are absolutely hungry for people to do this type of work….It's a very new process, but it's very exciting, and we've gotten an unbelievable amount of support."
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About Julia -- I'm a recent Suffolk University graduate facing the bittersweet, often hilarious consequences of following my heart and majoring in Creative Writing. While a great deal of my time is spent fantasizing, reading, or writing about living in another place, time, or dimension, I do find certain pleasures in today's world, such as discount airline companies and chai lattes. I also enjoy eavesdropping on strangers and competitive pizza-making.
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