How one slam poet brings education and performance together

Slam Poetry has been a breeding group for talented young poets for decades now, and in recent years, it has continued to grow into a global phenomenon. When talented bards take their work to Youtube, their videos often goes viral. And poetry competitions in global cities like Dubai are drawing big audiences and big money.

But slam has always been a place for youth to put their poetry into practice. So I spoke to Khaleefa Hamdan AKA Apollo the Child, who has travelled to Vancouver, Canada, to represent Ottawa in the Canadian Individual Poetry Slam.

12 others from around the country will each present a 3-minute work in three respective rounds, with the winner going on to the World Championship in Paris.  Vancouver Poet Laureate, Rachel Rose, will also perform at the ceremony.

I recently spoke to him about what it takes to become a poet who can not only write and perform, but engage an audience as well. The latter is important, too—the judges at the competition are actually randomly-chosen from the local crowd.

Hamdan is part of Urban Legends, a slam poetry collective based out of the Nation’s Capital. As the current director of the team, he has been tasked with building the image and the message of the group. And so far, he’s succeeded.

In fact, they’ve challenge the conventional setup and developed their own, where they perform in the middle of a circle, surrounded by an audience.

“When I perform now I practice walking around, implementing the circle, making sure I’m utilizing this space.”

“We call it the gladiator circle.”

Urban Legends also brings together a number of aspiring poets who want to improve their work and develop their craft. Many of them are young and come from underrepresented communities, but the stage provides a safe space to express oneself—and improve at the same time.

Hamdan started his career with hip-hop, joining a group called Poetic Element. During that time, he also developed a knack for non-musical Spoken Word, which inevitably lead to Slam Poetry. While the genres are interrelated, Hamdan has found special purpose in his work with Urban Legends.

Hamdan combines a number of different sources of inspiration to craft his verse.  Like many other slam poets, he finds insights in everyday life, but he ultimately uses his work to confront heavier issues. “My key source of inspiration is…everyone has a story to tell, but not everyone can do it that well.”

“And being a person of color—stuff happens, and [my poetry] does talk about current issues, racism, sexual assault. People I know went through stuff like that.”

But Hamdan always keeps a tab on his language, blending his content sharp turns of phrase. And like any skilled poet, he’s also made a concerted effort to adult his work. “I’ve been trying to be a little more positive lately, just for my own sake, to try, even when I write about a heavy topic, to provide a light at the end”

These days, Hamdan has transferred his work to the classroom. He runs workshops for students in high school, in particular for at-risk youth.

Educators should take note of the power of spoken work to empower youth. I’m a big fan of reading traditional poetry—it teaches critical thinking, linguistic skills, creativity—but getting youth to speak and write about issues can have an immediate impact on their life.

“They need to be able to have an outlet,” he said.”Sometimes they feel ashamed to say how they feel, but when you’re writing you don’t have to worry about it. It’s about providing that safe space, nurturing that and channeling how they feel and telling them it’s okay.”

Hamdan hopes to build a career from his writing, and success at the slam poetry competition may help him go in the right direction. Otherwise, events like Individual Poetry Slams help bring like-minded groups of poets together from all around the country.

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