The 12 kids sat scattered in pews facing the podium, listening as their instructor went over details for the poetry slam that would cap off their three-day winter poetry camp. Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean shared key details with attendees beneath the James Turrell skyspace at the Friends Meeting House just inside the 610 Loop.
“We have the new mayor coming,” Bean said to the room of now rather concerned-looking boys and girls. After a few long-lasting seconds of silence, Bean confessed. “I’m just playing,” he said, to sighs of relief. “But, we could. You never know.”
With their performance less than 24 hours away, students spread out around the sun-lit room to practice. Some sat in window benches, some sat hunched over composition notebooks, erasing and tightening their text. Sophia Costantine, 10, acted out her ode to Pluto as she read from a black piece of construction paper.
She gestured back and forth with her hands, rocking side to side as she read. Then, she did a full-body spin to symbolize the former ninth planet’s axis. After practicing a few times on her own, the fifth grader went to rehearse in front of Bean. His advice: justify every movement. Think of movements as stanzas themselves.
Instead of the full-body spin, Bean recommended making a circular motion with one hand, while the other stayed clenched in a fist above her head, representing the moon in her celestial-themed poetry. This was Costantine’s first foray into slam poetry, but the 10-year-old was already hooked.
Rafael Pina, 11, hadn’t tried slam poetry before either. He liked the idea of performing in front of people, to make an impact on what people think about. His poem, titled “Crickets,” came to him during a writing prompt from the day before. When asked to think about forces of nature, Pina thought back to a teacher who told him that while Pina is small in stature, his presence can fill up a room. Just like crickets.
“Crickets,” Pina rehearsed. “Size … small. Presence … COLOSSAL.”
“Did you just drop the mic,” Bean asked with a smile after he finished.
Bean, a coach for the nonprofit Writers in the Schools program and the slam poetry group Meta-Four Houston, wants to use poetry to change young people’s lives. A poet and performer himself, he rotates among nine schools in the Houston area, teaching middle- and high-school students how to craft and perform original work. He began exploring poetry as a student at Prairie View A&M University, after noticing women paid way more attention to the poets than to the rappers on campus.
“I’d look over the courtyard and see this guy playing one chord on his guitar, and another guy with a piece of paper with a poem that was terrible,” he said. “And they were surrounded by girls. So I said, ‘I’m done with y’all.’ ” He created a group on campus and moved to Houston after graduating.
For students more taken to the art form, they compete to represent Houston in increasingly popular poetry slams both around the state and in national competitions – some of which date back as far as 1990.
Bean focuses on teaching process, to show students how to tap into the content that already exists inside of them. He asks a lot of questions of the their writing to get them to the point where they think critically of every word and line they create.
Rukmini Kalamangalam, 15, made the team last year. The sophomore at Carnegie Vanguard High School uses slam poetry to explore topics including books and her tri-country nationality. Born in Britain and of Indian descent, Kalamangalam moved to the United States when she was 6. Before, she said, when she was asked where she was from, she’d give a rote answer. She didn’t know how to respond.
Students in slam poetry must create and perform original work. It doesn’t have to be memorized, but often performances involve choreography. Kalamangalam finds the performance aspect helpful in sharing the art form with a broader audience, and says it’s a space where “free speech is exercised to its full limit.” However, a performance is drastically different than reading a written poem, she explained.
“It takes a lot of practice to keep emotions in check and to let people experience them,” Kalamangalam said. “You need to control emotion to not overwhelm the audience.”
Poetry topics cover the full gamut of life experience. Kalamangalam prefers to focus on things she either finds beautiful, or that outrage her.
“You need to have real feelings,” she said.
While Kalamangalam credits Bean and the other coaches for pushing her and helping her improve her craft, she disagrees with Bean on one thing: writer’s block. She thinks that when writer’s block hits, when she’s “poetry-ed out,” it’s best to take a break. Bean thinks the only way out of writer’s block is to create and chisel your way through it.
“I think of writer’s block as a slab of marble, and I’m Michealangelo. I’m carving away. As long as I’m carving, I’m creating.”
Bean regularly performs as well, putting what he’s learned from teaching others into his own work. If you can teach something, he said, it means you pretty much understand it yourself.
Bean’s one-man show Converse goes back to 2011. It’s part scripted performance, part audience interaction, and part stand-up comedy. Audience members write questions before the show begins, and other people ask Bean the questions during a segment of the show. One question during a recent performance: “Who is Bean?”
Bean’s answers spoke of his creative nature, his tendency to dream. And the fact that it is his last name. Some people get amazing last names such as Obama or Winfrey, and some people get proteins, he said.
“And here we are.”