Katherine Beltres and Eduin Turcios are, among many things, young poets. Actually, they’re prize-winning young poets, winners of laptop computers thanks to their respective first-place finishes at 2012’s Piano Slam 4 (Beltres won the high school division) and 2011’s Piano Slam 3 (Turcios was the middle-school winner).
Inspiration, coaching and literary craftsmanship factored into their work, of course. But those poems likely wouldn’t exist at all if not for the Dranoff International 2 Piano Foundation and its imaginative, poetry-loving executive director, Carlene Sawyer.
Piano Slam 5 happens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Knight Concert Hall at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. It’s a free, one-night-only event that, like its predecessors, brings together seemingly disparate elements — classical (and other) music, hip-hop, spoken word, dance — in an exciting whole.
“Piano Slam has a number of moving parts,” Sawyer says. “It’s music, poetry and young people. … We hear over and over how much kids don’t like classical music and won’t do something like this. That hasn’t been our experience.”
Evolving through its short history, Piano Slam has grown from a simple community-outreach evening of poetry and music into a directed, choreographed show in which a DJ weaves sounds, songs and beats into live classical music. The result, says Arsht president and CEO John Richard, can resonate beyond the one-night performance.
“We love to see young people on our stages,” he says of the partnership with the Dranoff Foundation. “We recognize that offering budding local poets a chance to share their creativity with the entire community on one of the most prominent stages in the country can be a transformational, self-esteem-boosting experience.”
Each Piano Slam begins with two-piano concerts — on a pair of 9-foot grand pianos the foundation hauls from school to school — in Miami-area middle and high schools. Students are invited to write poetry inspired by music, with coaching from their teachers and video guidance from the slam’s literary chair, the soaringly successful Miami playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. Among McCraney’s advice: Listen to the rhythms of life all around you; don’t self-censor; find your own way of writing; read, read, read.
After the students finish their music-inspired work, committees read through some 1,300 poems. Those are winnowed to 600, then to 55, then to the 18 that earn their authors $100 prizes and the chance to perform at the Arsht Center.
This year’s group is made up of eight middle school students (Matthew Coleman, Louidgi Charles, Wendelle Henry, Kayla Jackson, Yaniza Figueroa, Bodacious Hammett, Alize Davis and Cherry Sharma) and 10 high schoolers (Miles Iton, Kadeem Navarro, Melanie Bacetty, Ashley Aviles, Celestelle Webster, Mary-Kate Bruce, Diane Petit-Frere, Sharlene Dieu, Emily Grace and, once again, Turcios, now a 16-year-old sophomore at Miami Jackson Senior High).
Beltres, 18, who is majoring in criminal justice with a minor in English at Florida Memorial University, remembers performing her poem at the Arsht as “an amazing adrenaline rush.” Turcios, who gets a shot at the high-school prize on Thursday, was nervous when he first tackled Piano Slam in middle school.