A Grand Slam isn’t just a breakfast served at Denny’s.
On April 10, 14 students from area high schools faced off in the inaugural Northern vs. Valley Grand Slam at Gonzaga University. The poetry event sprang from competitions sponsored by the Friends of the Deer Park Library and the Friends of the Spokane Valley Library.
When Riverside High School teacher Sheila Messick moved here from Chicago, where poetry slams originated, she introduced the concept to her English classes. The students loved it and the Ram Slam was born.
Teens compose and perform original poems in front of a panel of judges. The poems must be between one to three minutes long, and no props are used.
“It’s a great way to know what’s on students’ minds,” Messick said. “From brainstorming ideas to a polished piece, so much work goes into it.”
When Amber Williams, a librarian for Spokane County Library District, was invited to be a judge at the Ram Slam, she was hooked.
“There’s such a culture of support of poetry at Riverside,” Williams said. “I wanted to see if we could grow it.”
Grow it they did. Williams approached the Friends of the Deer Park Library about sponsoring a larger poetry slam and in 2016 the Northern Slam was launched.
This year the Northern Slam featured students from Riverside, Lakeside and Deer Park high schools.
The community showed up in force to support budding poets, which spurred Williams on. She reached out to University High School Librarian Lori Schneider.
“We held our first Titan Slam last year,” said Schneider. “The auditorium was full. Suddenly, kids who didn’t have a voice or a stage literally had one. And they were being heard.”
Even more teens took to the stage when the Friends of the Spokane Valley Library stepped up and sponsored the Valley Slam.
This year teens from U-Hi battled students from Mica Peak and Central Valley.
Eastern Washington University jumped in, holding design contests for T-shirts and posters.
“Victoria Coronado is the EWU student who designed this year’s winning poster and T-shirt designs,” Williams said.
With two regions invested in poetry slams, Williams saw room for a larger competition. Thus the inaugural Northern vs. Valley Grand Slam, an event made possible by the support of Gonzaga University.
“Dr. Meagan Ciesla of Gonzaga University is the faculty member responsible for helping set up the Grand Slam as part of their Visiting Writers Series,” Williams said. “She also helped find GU students to be judges at all three slams.”
The top seven scorers from the Northern and Valley slams moved on to the Grand Slam.
Poetry slams encourage audience feedback. At the Grand Slam, the auditorium filled with the sound of snapping fingers when poems resonated with the crowd. If a poet struggled, audience members encouraged the performer by rubbing their palms together, making a shushing sound.
Judges score each performance immediately, holding up score paddles. If the audience didn’t approve of a score, thundering boos rang out.
“The support from the audience for these teen poets is just amazing,” Williams said.
Schneider appreciates that support.
“These kids put themselves out there and are super vulnerable,” she said.
The event was sponsored by the Friends of the Spokane County Library District, Deer Park Library and Spokane Valley Library. All participants received a journal, and the first, second, and third place winners received $150, $100 and $50, respectively.
“It’s remarkable what these kids can do when you give them a platform and a chance to speak and be heard,” said Schneider.
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