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Durham teens compete at slam poetry competition
Published Thursday, March 1, 2018
by Ramishah Maruf, The Durham VOICE

DURHAM – Durham School of the Arts sophomore Uche Nwogalanya strode up the small church stage. She took a deep breath, flipped her hair back and let the words flow.

“You are no monster, just a black boy,” Nwogalanya said. “To the son I may one day have.”

Nwogalanya shared the stage with six other high school girls for Blackspace’s second annual Youth Grand Slam Finals last month. The girls, who made it through two previous qualifiers, were competing for a spot on Blackspace’s slam poetry team at North Star, an old church on West Greer Street in Durham, which recently became the program’s newest event space. The members will compete at Brave New Voices, an international poetry slam competition, in Chicago this summer.

The slam consisted of three rounds, with a different poem performed in each one. After each performance, five judges, who were randomly chosen from the audience, rated them on a scale of 1 to 10.

Nwogalanya said she was in shock, not even expecting to make the team this year. “Winning reassured me that my poetry is worth sharing and people actually believe in me,” she said.

According to the website, Blackspace is a makerspace, or a creative hub, for youth based in Durham. By hosting weekly spoken-word performance workshops and events like the Grand Slam, Blackspace aims to empower black youth by encouraging them to share their stories.

“(Black and brown youth) are told they don’t have a voice, or they’re told not to use it,” said Mariah Monsato, program director and slam master for Blackspace Poetry. “I think a lot of people need this platform to use their voice.”

Last year, Blackspace was the first team from Durham at Brave New Voices in San Francisco.

“It was ethereal,” Durham School of the Arts senior Zoë Thompson said. “I had never been around so many poets and so many different people with the same passion as me.”

Thompson was one of the first on stage. She said the poems she prepared were extended metaphors, with topics ranging from her grandmother’s house to fog. She said her inspiration came from what deeply affects her in her everyday life.

“I always have this unclear communication between my mind and my heart,” Thompson said. “So, writing allows me that communication where my brain and my heart can sit down with each other and be like, ‘Yo, what’s up, what’s going on?’”

Thompson performed her first slam in 2016 after attending Blackspace workshops. Her creative writing teacher, Alexa Garvoille, said since then, she’s seen her grow both as a person and a writer.

“I don’t know when it changed, but somewhere in her sophomore year, she just came out of her shell,” Garvoille said. “I think without the experience of performing she wouldn’t know that about herself – that you need to be heard, you need to perform or you need an audience.”

When Thompson’s scores were announced, the loudest cheers came from the back row of seats, where the poets were sitting. Thompson said many of the poets went to Durham School of the Arts, just a 15-minute walk from Blackspace.

“We’ll work on the poems together in school sometimes, and then they’ll go to Blackspace and work on it there,” Garvoille said. “It’s been a good partnership between Blackspace and DSA. We work together even though we’re not intentionally working together sometimes, just because we’re working with the same kids.”

Many have known each other for years now through Blackspace or school. Over those years, DSA senior Lauran Jones said slamming changed her life.

“I used to be really self-conscious when I went on stage. I don’t think I’m the prettiest person in the world and everyone is staring at you,” Jones said. “But now, I just go up there, and it’s essentially like my second home. And when I’m up there, I know I have the audience under control and I’m going to make them listen to me. I’m gonna make them put down their phones and listen to what I have to say.”



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