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Flint's all-female poetry slam team goes to national competition

Kate Wells
Michigan Radio

The 17th annual International Youth Poetry Slam festival is in Philadelphia this week.

Flint is sending a team made up entirely of high school girls.

They’ve been practicing for months, writing poetry from their own lives about things like family, abuse, mental illness, and love.

I got to spend some time with the team, and with one young woman in particular.

“Hi, I’m Sapphire Newby, and I’m 17.”

Newby’s already recited one poem for my recorder, one she wrote about being full figured in a world that preferred skinny girls.

I ask her if she’ll do one more.

"Which piece? The one about my mom? Ok. I can do some of it if you want me to."

She takes a deep breath.

As she gets deeper into the poem, her face changes. Most of the time it’s a closed face, not serious so much as purposely blank. Tough.

Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Newby writes raw, sharp, lyrical poems about her life, from being "full figured" and bullied as a kid, to her relationship with her mother.

But now it relaxes, then her eyes close, then she seems to be somewhere else completely. Here is an excerpt from the poem:

You said: "You better enjoy your time away from me." As if you were on a hunt for prey that you let slip through your fingers. At that moment, I was no longer your daughter I was the scent of fresh blood and you were on a chase. Ready to pounce on my happiness Rip my pride from my chest Decorate your mantle with my fears.

Newby is part of this small team of high school girls called Raise It Up.

Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Halo Burger makes the long practices go a little faster.

For months now, they have been getting ready for the festival in Philadelphia.  

They sit around in their socks at a long cafeteria-style table in a windowless room in downtown Flint.

Despite their professional work ethic, they’re still 17- and 18-year-olds: they crunch Doritos and talk to each other constantly, cracking each other up as they scribble edits and ideas in notebooks.

Like the one Sapphire Newby started reciting earlier, the one about her mom.

Here’s how the poem ends:

My lungs begin to cave under the waves of your hatred I can barely remember what a mother's love feels like...

She stops. Her eyes open.

“It’s crazy, because she's never even heard the piece," Newby says, referring to her mother.

Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Two members of Raise it Up.

Do you want her to?

"I do."

What do you think the reaction will be?

"I don’t know. I think she'll be really mad at me and probably won't talk to me for a long time.

The team’s organizer, fundraiser, head coach and general renaissance woman is Natasha Thomas-Jackson.

"This is Sapphire's second year on the team. And yeah, she's grown quite a bit," says Thomas-Jackson, in between interruptions from her two sweet-faced young sons, who are (mostly) patiently playing in a back room while the team practices.

She says the first year Sapphire Newby tried out, she didn't make the team.

Even after she did, it took a while for her to let down her guard, to share any writing that made her look vulnerable.

"I feel like she's becoming that kind of artist," says Thomas-Jackson. "Where she's just OK with being open. And like, you know, like naked."

Thomas-Jackson and the assistant coaches call the girls “artists” all the time.

It’s like they’re trying to convince them that they’re not just talented students or good girls: they’re artists.

With Newby, I think it’s sunk in.

"When I do spoken word poetry, it's a place of healing for me," she says.

Now that the international festival is finally here, Newby and the girls are realizing that they’re about put these poems out there for thousands to hear.

"We've taken our time and put our heart, souls and minds and body into the pieces that we do,” Newby says.

The competition in Philadelphia will be intense.

Teams from all over the U.S. will compete.

But what’s particularly impressive about these girls is how calm and collected they are going into this.

And you have to think, maybe it’s because they know: they really are artists.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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