The words and feelings pouring out of Celestelle Webster, 19 and Christelle Roach, 18, on this sunny afternoon seem fiercely, startlingly beyond their years.
“The bones in my body are like needles in my skin … I am a bomb, take shelter.”
Facing each other onstage in the small auditorium at the Miami Beach Regional Library, they summon a wrenching vision of domestic violence with lines they wrote together.
“Why are you still here? I’m in love with the arsonist … There is a fire burning inside me.”
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Webster and Roach’s verbal fire has been ignited by WordSpeak, a teenage spoken word poetry program run by Miami’s Tigertail Productions that will send them and five compatriots to a national poetry competition next month. Now in its ninth year, WordSpeak not only teaches young people the craft of articulating their feelings and ideas, but gives them a powerful sense of purpose, empowerment and responsibility.
“When a reader reads a poem they give it their own interpretation,” says Webster. “When you perform your poem, you show them your interpretation of your piece … What the truth is and how the world interprets a story are often different. We feel it’s our job to give clarity.”
Key to finding that clarity is WordSpeak coach Teo Castellanos, who negotiated drugs and gangs growing up in Carol City before becoming an award-winning theater writer, director, and teacher — often to kids with a similarly fraught urban background. Conducting one of the team’s recent four-hour rehearsals, Castellanos shifts seamlessly between colloquial street slang and a relentlessly meticulous focus on language, rhythm, performance and meaning that would be challenging for an advanced college class.
“One of the first things I do is break these stereotypical habits and clichés and get them to be better writers,” says Castellanos. The team, which gives a preview performance at Miami Beach Botanical Garden on Thursday, will need that discipline when they get to the Brave New Voices competition in Philadelphia in July, where they’ll compete with 500 of their peers from across the U.S. and abroad.
In rehearsal, Castellanos urges Roach and Webster not to forget “your intentions, your goals, your rhythms … You’ll find the chaos — it’s the hardest rhythm for most people.”
Then he summons Wesly Oviedo, Steffon Dixon, and Al Alexandre.
“Better impress me! Let’s see what y’all got!”
Their poem is on gun murders and Florida’s stand-your-ground law, and the boys, who are African-American and Afro-Caribbean, take the subject personally, saying heatedly: “I feel like Florida is the gunshine state and I’m living in the bottom of the barrel.”
Castellanos proclaims himself pleased — but pushes for improvement, suggesting changes in wording and a more dramatic performance, starting with a feeling of celebration so the shift to describing the murders will be more startling.
“Don’t fear going overboard,” he tells them. “The farther you go, the more dramatic the shift — it’s gonna be crazy!”
Oviedo’s face brightens with anticipation.
“That flip’ll be sharp!”
Oviedo and his six compatriots were selected from approximately 1,000 South Florida teenagers who participate in WordSpeak and SpeakOut, its sister program for GLBTQ youth. The program features classes and workshops at 10 mostly inner-city high schools, including North Miami Beach, North Miami, Dr. Michael M. Krop and Homestead Senior high schools; visits from nationally known guest teachers such as Reggie Cabico, a Washington, D.C., writer and performer; and several poetry slams, or competitions, to choose the team.
Tigertail director Mary Luft says the goal is to give WordSpeak’s participants a sense of confidence and possibility, as well as skills in literacy and self-expression they can take into a life as a writer or artist, or into speaking up on the job or as a community leader.
“We see it as a transformative project,” Luft says. “In one year, you’ll see a radical change in the way they command the space, their writing quality, what they’re writing about, how they speak, how they present themselves. They are empowered.”
“It’s an opportunity for a young person to find a door to their life. They start thinking differently about their place in the greater world and what else is out there.”
Maylin Enamorado started performing her poetry as a freshman in the writing program at Miami Arts Charter school in the Design District (the school for three other WordSpeak members). At first she was afraid of getting onstage, and shocked when she was chosen for the WordSpeak team in her sophomore year.
But when they arrived in San Franciso for the competition, she was exhilarated at being in a literary city with hundreds of kids for whom poetry was paramount.
“For the first time, I was like, poetry is normal!” Enamorado says. “I felt completely at home. And the creativity, the subjects were eye-opening.”
Instead of going to college, Enamorado, who graduated from MAC this spring, will head off to teach in Senegal in August.
“I don’t think I would have had the courage to go to Africa without WordSpeak,” she says. “The program has made me feel strongly about bringing about change. We try to make a difference.”
Enamorado and her compatriots are an impressive and determined crew. Webster and Roach travel alone on buses and trains for two hours to and from the daily four-hour rehearsals, using the time to work on poems. Webster has won a full tuition scholarship to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Roach also is a musician who started in Miami Arts Charter’s music program before switching to writing. Oviedo, 17, is a drama student at MAC, and Dixon just graduated from Design and Architecture Senior High School in industrial design.
Castellanos, who has been the WordSpeak team’s coach for eight years, says many of the kids are unusually independent and self-reliant — even with parents who don’t bother attending their performances, or who are dealing with drug addiction or other problems.
“I’m just floored by their commitment and resilience,” says Castellanos of his students. “I don’t know why some people are blessed with that and some are not.”
But in a world that idolizes sports and pop music, even the most independent teenager can use the support of teachers and friends who share their love for poetry and language. Roach says she’s the only artist in a Cutler Ridge family focused on sports and business, “the pen in the box of pencils,” who wrote poetry at her brother’s basketball games.
She began at MAC as a violist in the school orchestra before switching to poetry, and this is her second year with the WordSpeak team.
“Everyone has such vast knowledge — I feel like I have so many books open to me,” says Roach. “I’ve changed in that I know how to say what I’m feeling.”
The three boys all dabbled in rapping in their early teens before switching to poetry.
“To really tell a story, to see someone’s life in three minutes, to move people to be happy or sad — to do that you need a lot of talent,” says Oviedo.
When he was in elementary school Alexandre, 18, wrote poems to girls (and for other boys to give to girls), but didn’t return to poetry until he joined a club at North Miami Senior High School, which led him to the WordSpeak program.
“What I love about being on the team is being part of a family,” he says. “If you’re having a problem, you realize it’s not so bad if you don’t have to go through it alone.”
In rehearsal, Castellanos and the group talk about ideas for poems, often on social themes that the kids have to research — they’ve done pieces on the catcalls women get in the street, divorce, and the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, the extremist group. Castellanos has them listen to the BBC and to the public radio news show The World; once he assigned a poem based on a National Geographic story about disappearing languages.
They cluster in trios and pairs over laptop computers or scribble on sheets of paper, and huddle, arms draped around each other, to talk. They reward good performances with not applause, but fingersnaps. When shy Momo Manalang, the team’s understudy, performs a beautifully written poem about immigration and heritage, her friends respond with a clicking, two-handed storm of snaps and smiles.
“Girl, your writing is O.D.!” says Maxie Made, 25, who was on the team for three years and is now Castellanos’ assistant. “It’s sick! Beautiful!”
The focus on social rather than personal themes is meant to steer the kids away from adolescent self-absorption, as well as foster a sense of connection to the world outside their neighborhood, and to people other than those just like them.
“They come to understand the world is bigger than their community,” says Castellanos. “It deepens their compassion and understanding.”
But that outward focus — on their teammates and the broader world — seems to have made the WordSpeak poets even surer of themselves.
“My poetry got more relevant and had more meaning when I came on thinking what I could do for the team,” says Roach. “It’s not just about talent. There’s meaning behind everything we write.”