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Monday, July 9, 2012

Nebraska Writers Collective Brings Poetry to Midwestern Youth

Think of mentors who have helped you to excel. Chances are that their passion was matched by their competence and their ability to teach the needed skills. Nebraska Writers Collective (NWC) is a non-profit group with a vision to improve literacy and encourage creativity through the medium of poetry among youth in the Midwest by using their engaging and energetic teaching styles. They have the credibility to carry out their mission as some members have Masters of Fine Arts in Poetry, have published their original works of poetry, and have edited literary journals. Since I was introduced to Matt Mason, the executive director of NWC, I have been witnessing “the snow ball effect” in the Midwest as they have shared their love for poetry in small and grand settings.

NWC outdid itself when it sponsored Louder Than a Bomb (LTab) in 2012 making Omaha the second city after Tulsa, Oklahoma to host this poetry slam and festival competition, which originated in Chicago. A Poetry Slam is judged on a numeric scale and is designed to foster a love of poetry with its emotionally charged style. Kevin Coval, co-founder of LTaB, and Lamar Jordan, a student shown in the documentary came to Omaha in February of 2012 and visited schools with NWC to promote the event. Several area high schools in Omaha and Lincoln participated in the competition, the workshops, and the three preliminary bouts, and the final culminating in the final contest in April of 2012.

The enthusiasm of the students who participated in LTaB was apparent when I read online responses to my questions. They were quick to give credit to their coaches. Marissa, a student representing Omaha South at LTaB, raved about her experience and coaches and has aspirations to inspire future generations with the love of language. She said, “They provided the world's coolest coach Katie F-S who has helped my poetry and performance a lot… “

She understands the process of writing and reciting poetry. She explains, “It's like... the words you wish you could say normally but instead throw up into a poem... in a really cool voice. Because you can't read poems normally they have to have an exceptionally loud and rhythmic voice.”

Marisha, was also very enthused about the event. Summarizing her experience as student representing South High she said, “The involvement I had with the NWC is Katie and Nick as trainers... this has been my biggest inspiration to move forward without looking back!”

I am not posting any excerpts from the poems as I decided that if I isolate a segment that it would not have the range of effect that comes from watching and listening to it on You Tube. I believe the meaning is so wrapped in the delivery, which includes gestures, volume, and pauses. There seems to be a beginning or an attention getting segment, a middle, and an ending. Rather than normal oratory which begins by telling what it is going to tell you, tells it to you, and tells you what it told you, you have to listen to each layer to get the full effect.

John represented Creighton Prep at LTab and after one experience in writing poetry was hooked. In answering the question of why poetry is relevant for youth in the 21st century, John was rather apologetic that he may have sounded like a broken record when he described how the world is becoming a scary place and that teens including himself at times can withdraw and become apathetic. To counter this, he relates how a creative hobby is so essential. He said, …” I think that it is important to find something you are very passionate about, something that absorbs your mind and elevates your heart. For me, that thing writing prose and poetry. For others my age, it's drawing or photography. I think finding that thing -- which is more than just a hobby -- is imperative.”

The LTab videos that I watched showed a range of serious subjects dealing with gun violence, faith, philosophy, and humanity. It was not without its lighter moments. Youth used their rhythmic voice, words, and at times metaphors to help us contemplate the subjects relevant today.

In 2011, Matt Mason assisted with the 8th Grade poetry slam and also engaged other students and adults while he was a presenter at the annual Literary Festival at St. Peter’s Catholic School in Lincoln, Nebraska. According to Mary Beth Rice who is currently the literary festival committee chairperson, the event serves both the school and also people in the Lincoln community with an emphasis on language exposure and creativity. As the theme in 2011 was storytelling and how we are all connected, Mason helped the students craft poems that told their personal narratives and shared his original autobiographical poem with humorous details, which can forever change how one looks at a baby. A friend of mine had a son at the school and was in attendance. She said Mason demonstrated poetry can fun and not just about “unrequited love.” The results of the poem that he created on the spot using words supplied by the students may have been nonsensical at points, but he was so expressive that the crowd loved it. In addition, he showed how different deliveries can effect interpretation. Now her son finds poetry less intimidating and has added a few poems to his writing repertoire. She adds that Matt is a true artist.

NWC can tailor their services to whatever writers’ workshops or literary experiences the community or school needs. Mason described some recent and upcoming events in the Omaha Public School system, which helps encourage literacy and creativity. He said, “We've produced two chapbooks with OPS Integrated Learning Program and are on track with a project where we will make a full poetry book with the students there. We're doing this by teaching writing, editing, and stressing the whole publication process and how that entails selecting the right pieces, finding the right title, design, etc.”

Andrew Ek is the president of the board of directors of NWC and the curriculum director. He believes that poetry is an effective way to reach students as it only requires a pen. Ek said, “I personally like teaching poetry because of the language awareness which comes from studying/writing it, and the deliberacy which is fostered.” Rather than doing repetitive exercises over and over, Ek takes every opportunity to get the students creating.

Reflecting on what NWC has accomplished, Mason said, “We are managing to do a lot on surprisingly little, so it's neat to just see it all happen!” Donations help defray cost and volunteers with a skill, energy, or services are also needed. Their services also benefit at-risk youth in the community. According to Mason,” We are setting up a program for later in the summer with a Sarpy County Youth Detention facility. We have also worked with OPS' Integrated Learning Program which serves a number of at-risk students.” Through their legion of events, NWC helps students of diverse backgrounds unlock their imaginations, and there is no telling where that will lead. As Albert Einstein said, ““Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

- population-we blog post by Barb Bohan 
© 2012 population-we, LLC
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  1. Barb: What a wonderful way for these high school students to express themselves through poetry. I can truly appreciate how they’ve used another medium like YouTube to share their craft to their peers and the world. It was truly inspirational watching. It was “Louder than a Bomb” indeed!

  2. Yes, the youth have really found their voice. I was grateful that someone captured the event on You Tube so people like myself who were not there live could enjoy it later. Online I have been grateful whenever I have seen mention of them visiting a school where students I know attend. I also saw online that they had been working with students at Uta Halee Village for girls prior to its closing. It was quite somber to think of them returning there after the news of its closing to continue to share poetry with the youth. I am so inspired by this group. I am also inspired by the youth that I viewed on You Tube! ---Barb