The largest youth poetry event in the country is hitting double digits this year.
On Saturday night, just under thirty young poets from six schools will take to the stage in the tenth annual Word – The Front Line Grand Slam. Each team gets three poems, at three minutes each, three chances to have their voices heard. But behind those few moments on the mic is months of work from these writers in a one-of-a-kind programme, and a decade of dedication to youth work through poetry from organisers Action Education.
If you ask any of the hundreds of young people, poets, artists, alumni, facilitators, coaches, teachers, and administrators who have been a part of Word – The Front Line over the last ten years to describe the experience, almost all of them (myself included) will find it difficult to put it into words.
There are a few reasons for this: the first is that inter-high-school-team-poetry-competition-and-youth-development-programme is a mouthful. The second is that for all we have to do it, explaining the concept of slam poetry to people that have sort-of kind-of heard about it never gets any easier.
The third reason is that articulating the breadth and depth of the impact WTFL has on all involved is like attempting to map the path of every synapse firing in your brain. It is a breathless undertaking to try and hold the magnitude of it between your teeth.
On paper, it can be broken down into a handful of events on the school calendar—regional heats throughout Auckland, of which 14 teams go through to writing and performance workshops and the overnight Slam Camp, two rounds of semi-finals, and a Grand Slam to crown the champions. But between these dates are countless hours of writing, rehearsing, team bonding, and confidence building. Helping poets get ready for these stages are their coaches, mentors, and facilitators helping them to share their truths. Coach and recent UoA Poetry Slam Champion Ngaio Simmons describes it as “one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had, both as an artist and just as a person. It is a privilege to be trusted with these stories, and to help my team shape them into poems they can be proud to share in front of these massive audiences. My team in particular makes me proud because they love each other so fiercely, love and support the other rangatahi involved in the competition, and are so dedicated to telling their stories with their whole being.”
The teams stepping up to their front line this Saturday are Auckland Girls Grammar School, Zayed College for Girls, Wesley College, Ngā Puna O Waiōrea, Mount Roskill Grammar and reigning champions Papakura High School. They’ll be joined by the poets from Christchurch Girls’ High School, who were the winners of the first ever Word – The Front Line Ōtautahi which was held last month. It is the first of hopefully many expansions for a programme that every young person in Aotearoa deserves to experience.
This week in our Taumata Rau issue, BA student, WTFL alumni and South Side Navigator Luani Nansen reflected on his time in the programme, the opportunities afforded to him during and after his WTFL experience: “Since high school, Action Education has provided me with space in the form of showcases and open mics allowing me to perform poetry. They’ve encouraged me, as an Indigenous artist, to not only share my story, but to pass it forward.”
He’s not the only one—the ecosystem of WTFL provides stepping stones of opportunity for many poets in Tāmaki. PHD Candidate, editor of Eel Mag and WTFL coach Shania Pablo is an alumni themselves: “[it] played a pivotal role in shaping the person I am today! It helped me hone my skills as an artist, and was an important reminder that I deserved to put myself on a platform. Since then, I have found my community and become more secure in myself.” Other WTFL poets will be familiar faces to many, as actors, film and theatre makers, authors, public speakers, community leaders, and activists. Word – The Front Line has proven itself time and time again as a pipeline of community into creative success, building networks of young artists who want to lift each other up, and providing as many platforms as possible for people to feel seen and heard. The slammers performing on Saturday will know that that stage is not the end destination, but the beginning of a lifelong journey of storytelling.
I stepped onto the Grand Slam stage for the first time when I was thirteen years old. The relationships I formed in my five years of doing Word – The Front Line have not faded to this day. Neither has the respect, support, and love that was shown to me, all that I now carry with me into any artistic space that I occupy. When I return to WTFL now, as an alumni, a coach, and a supporter, all I hope for when I’m watching these rangatahi step up to the microphone, to their front lines, is that they feel as safe and as held as I did when I was in their place. That they can feel us behind them when they speak their raw truths, their brave stories. They deserve all the support we can offer and more. They deserve it all.
The Word – The Front Line Grand Slam is this Saturday, 16th September, 7pm at Aotea Centre. Student tickets are $10 and you can buy them here.
Our friends at 95bFM will be interviewing the Action Ed team and airing an exclusive performance from one of the competing poets on Friday afternoon on the Various Artists show, 12-1pm. Listen here!
Credit to Sole Photography