This week, hundreds of young poets, ages 13 to 19, are preparing to compete in what some would consider the Bay Area’s version of Olympic trials for poetry.

The 14th Annual Teen Poetry Slam kicks-off  tonight, March 12 at 7p.m., with a preliminary round at Pro Arts Gallery in downtown Oakland (99 Kahns Alley, Frank Ogawa Plaza).

Francisco and Berkeley will also host preliminary rounds in coming
days, narrowing the field of competitors and making things very

For those who are unfamiliar with the Teen Poetry Slam, here’s how it works.

There are three rounds: preliminaries, semi-finals and the grand slam finals. In the prelims, participants present one poem of their own work. Four to five judges “score” the poems on a scale of one to 10. Each poet gets three minutes to recite his or her poem. Running over this time leads to penalties. There can be up to 20 poets per round. Before the competition, they draw numbers to find when they take the stage.

All three rounds follow this basic format, though the semi-finals and finals change slightly. These rounds require the poets to bring with them two poems instead of one, as there two rounds of competition. The finals serve two major purposes: naming the Teen Poetry Slam Champion and creating a team to represent the Bay Area in Brave New Voices, the international poetry slam. Brave New Voices takes place this year in Los Angeles.

“I’d have to say, in the Youth Speaks world, the Brave New Voices Festival is the Olympic Games,” said Dennis Kim, Youth Speaks’ artistic development director. “It’s international. It’s the culmination of our program year, and it’s the most-recognized youth spoken word event in the world.

“The Teen Poetry Slam, on the other hand, although it is the first Teen Slam of its kind, has regional corollaries, like the Louder Than a Bomb slam in Chicago,” he continued. “The Teen Poetry Slam is more like the Pan-American games, the Asia games or the Olympic trials.  But still not of the scale of the Olympics, where the best in the world will converge.”

Lauren Whitehead, the slam’s coordinator, compared the preparation and scoring for the event to the Olympics.

“Each poet that performs gets scored by a panel of judges on a scale of one to 10, including decimal points,” she said. “The person with the highest scores at the end is the winner. But it’s also similar in the way that young people generally spend all year getting ready to perform. They go to workshops, spend hours and hours practicing. They have coaches and teammates, and it’s really an athletic preparation for something that’s not a sport.”

Speaking from personal experience as a competitor in the slam (2007 semi-finalist and finalist), I would agree that preparation for the slam is very much like what Olympic athletes go through. It takes months to perfect the written aspect as well as the performance aspect. A lot of that time is spent in front of a mirror or with peers getting all the feedback you can to make your work the best it can possibly be.

The road to this year’s Grand Slam Finals is ready to be traveled. These young poets have their eyes on the prize. They’re representing their cities, schools and families but, most importantly, they represent the voices of the future. They’re the face of the next generation of thinkers, who want nothing more than to be heard. Please lend them your ears, tickets sell out fast.

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