The Warfield Theater on Market Street in San Francisco almost literally reeks of history, from Al Jolson to The Killers, interlarded with The Grateful Dead, Phish, Patti Smith and The White Stripes. Last weekend twenty young Bay Area poets took the stage for the 14th Annual Youth Speaks Grand Slam Poetry Finals, spitting monologues, diatribes, hip hop songs and short stories of brilliant intensity for an audience of about 2,000 – a crash course in urban adolescence, circa April 2010.
Here’s the young woman with the big red flower in her ear, case #389214B (or something like it) preparing to be released from the welfare system the day she turns 18. She has 65 days left of high school, plans for college. But without her group home she’ll be homeless. Her caseworker, “Katie,” suggests that if she drops out of school or becomes pregnant she’ll qualify for help. “You suggesting I get pregnant?” the girl asks and Katie says, “I’m just giving you the information.” There’s the young man whose family came from the hills of China, via Laos, Vietnam and Thailand to Oakland. His sense of identity is fierce, but not easily named. What are you, people ask, what are you, what are you? Another teenager describes drowning by fried food, and fast food. Here is what my family eats every day, her poem says, here is what we eat when someone dies, this is what I eat when I feel hungry and scared. The greens the most unhealthy thing, greens with a ham hock, covered in grease. Why do we still eat like we’re slaves? Another young woman feels her body is “genetically modified to fail.” A first-year student at Berkeley catalogues the sexist language she could use to describe a repulsive date: motherfucker and son of a bitch and even bastard all demean women. Language is just another enemy, twisting the same old flawed reality into familiar expressions. An androgynous-looking poet describes the process of chiseling away her feminine self: “When I cut my hair everything fell away/ When I cut my hair I became poetry.” Another young woman sees Superwoman at the grocery store – she’s the one with “ten full shopping bags, a baby on her hip and a smile that comes with a mean switch.” A few poets speak of the influence of police brutality and street violence, about nickel nines and Wendy’s parking lot, about Oscar Grant III being shot in the back on a BART train by the Oakland Police while lying face down, unarmed. The gesture – arms floating up and down like birds’ wings, the back crumpling inwards – keeps returning in poems about the streets, as if it were the universal gesture of Oakland. Kids trope toward and veer from suicide. Palestine and the effects of white phosphorous shimmer in the foreground, and a Sikh kid signals the audience to shout out “Sick! Sick!” when he points a finger to duplicate the judgment that rains down upon the turban he can’t wear. The Warfield fills up with the popping sound of oppression exploding into expression, the sound of silence breaking.