High school poetry is better than you think

On Friday night, youth poets gathered at the Metta Theater in Taos for a poetry slam in honor of Valentine’s Day. It was a beautiful night: a packed house, an intimate performance space, and really good writing.  See for yourself.

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That’s Taos High School senior, Savannah Rodriguez, reading her poem “I’m a Sucker for Spanish Speakers.”  This was a stand-out reading on a night packed with exceptional poetry (Savannah went on to place first overall), and it exemplifies one of the motifs I’ve come to recognize in my time working with the poetry students: these kids are good.  Not just good for kids–they’re plain good.  Figurative language, varied meter, embedded rhyme-schemes, literary and cultural allusions, maturity and confidence that belies their youth–they’ve got it.

When I was in high school, I was writing rhymed couplets that were poor imitations of Hallmark poetry.  I thought they were good…

One of the most common things people say to me after seeing the poetry team perform is that they weren’t expecting such good poetry.  When people think of high school poetry, they think angst-ridden, trite, unsubtle, whiny, and, well, juvenile.  They’re surprised, sometimes even stunned, when what they hear runs so counter to their expectations.

One of the expectations people unfamiliar with high school poetry often have is that poetry by teens has to be angry, brooding, and full of offensive language.  Imagine their surprise, then, when they hear something like this:

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That’s THS sophomore, Zia Pollis, reading her wonderful plea for love, “If You’ll be Mine.” The thing that stands out to me the most about this piece is Zia’s use of humor.  This poem is genuinely funny.  But, it’s not the kind of brute force, “South Park” humor that people tend to associate with high school. Every punchline is an allusion, and some of them are quite subtle, making use of references that cross generational lines.  And yet, the humor in the poem is balanced by a contrapuntal tone of urgency.  Love is a funny feeling, she says, and look how it drives me “under your feet.”

It’s this sort of subtlety and humor for which people new to the poetry of high school students are so often unprepared.

Here’s THS senior, Jesse Furr, reading a poem in a similar vein to Zia’s:

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What I love about this poem is how Jesse pokes fun at himself and simultaneously paints an accurate picture of the innocence and the wondrous capacity of the adolescent mind to imagine.  Look at the stories we tell ourselves, he seems to say; look at the flights of fancy we take.  The imagined love affair is more wondrous than the real.

I also note his deft use of imagery:

They would consist of silver Subaru cruisin’
Bleeding music
her, comfortably sittin’
crisscross applesauce and shotgun
eating ice cream
us just talkin’
I’d drive us to abandoned mountainside building sites
we could just sit
and watch the troposphere gradate upwards
from cerulean blue, to fuchsia, to lavender”

Could there be a finer way to spend an afternoon with your dream girl? Maybe I could think of one or two, but I doubt I could state them so well.  And, of course, immediately following this gorgeous vision, he quips that,

“Yes…this would give us all the answers!”

The tongue-in-cheek tone of this statement can leave no doubt about his meaning: he sees the quality of young lovers that often makes them believe that they’ll find “all the answers” in their relationships, and notes simultaneously that such relationships don’t really exist.  Nevertheless, that’s what he wants.

We want the impossible.

Isahbo Hawley’s take on love adds yet another layer:

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This poem, entitled Blood Spatter Love, offers up the kind of insight that most of us don’t have until we’re much older than Isahbo: love ain’t clean.

Seems most adults believe that teenagers, fed a steady diet of Disney’s sterilized, happily-ever-after love stories, aren’t mature enough to understand this.  Love is gritty, Isahbo says, it’s a relationship between “old bodies” with “clammy fingers” that get “under [each other’s] skin.”  It’s “something not quite extraordinary, but still beautiful.”

There are adults, millions of them, who don’t seem ever to grasp this.

And that brings us to senior, Serena Smith:

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What can I really say here? If you told me beforehand that I was going to hear a poem, written by a high school senior, in which the writer had taken snippets of great Jazz lyrics and interspersed them with her own words, I’d probably suspect that the poem would give me a strong feeling that “one of these things is not like the other…” In other words, I’d expect that there would be a stark contrast between the quality of the lyrics and the quality of the student’s writing. But…

“His love is cobbled streets
lamps in his eyes illuminating my muddy footprints across his back
Jazz in his smile glinting guillotines”


“I miss the sound of Miles in the morning
the purr of his trumpet could make even the leaves shake their hips
desperate for him to glance at them
wind whipping them into a waltz”

Rather than kneeling at the feet of these great wordsmiths, Serena stands with them shoulder-to-shoulder.  Moreover, she has the balls to say, “I belong here, with these girls.”

Well, she makes a good case.

I often commiserate with my co-coach, Orion Cervio, that the high school poets are the best show in town nobody knows about.  In a large part that’s my fault; I’m a terrible promoter (working on that), but part of it is also that many adults who would be great supporters of youth poetry have preconceived expectations that keep them away.

Nobody wants to hear a lot of profanity-filled drivel about heartbreak and drugs and rebellion.

And, as it happens, you won’t.

To see the rest of the videos from the Valentine’s Slam as well as many other videos of Taos youth poets, check out our small but growing youtube page.

Also, come to the Harwood Arthur Bell Auditorium next Thursday at 7:00 for the SOMOS Youth Writer’s Night, and you’ll be able to hear many of these poets live.


8 thoughts on “High school poetry is better than you think

  1. Thank you so much for posting this small sample of the asbsolutely great poetry coming from the THS poetry team. I am reassured that the next generation is showing signs of surpassing the preceding ones in quatum leaps.


  2. Holy crap! (He said poetically) These guys are awesome. Not HS awesome, but awesome measured against the world.

    The imagery is powerful, the word-craft elegant. But what really impresses is the depth of thought and life understanding. Stuff I’m still working on my own self. And I’ve got a few year on them.

    +1 on Tina’s comment!

    • Thanks for dropping in!

      Yeah – they amaze me routinely. Ever since I took over the poetry program at THS I’ve been blown away by how insightful their work can be.

      I’ll be sure to pass your comment on to them.

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