Since September, Rutgers University–Camden students in the master of fine arts program in creative writing have been introducing the wonders and joys of poetry to Camden County middle- and high-school students. In turn, these young poets have learned to express themselves through a new medium, often finding words that they didn’t know were within reach.
It is now time for them to rise and deliver.
Rutgers–Camden will set the stage for a playoff-type atmosphere as more than 80 Camden County students square off in the Louder Than a Bomb–Camden poetry slam from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, March 22.
The event, which is free and open to the general public, will be held in the Multi-Purpose and South ABC Conference rooms in the Campus Center, located on Third Street, between Cooper Street and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge on the Rutgers–Camden campus.
“Poetry forces us to critically asses our experiences and forces us to articulate them in a way that is both engaging and fresh,” says poet Michael Haeflinger, a part-time lecturer in the Department of English, who founded the event at Rutgers–Camden. “I think that by writing poems and sharing them, the kids come together around a love of something ancient and universal: a love of language.”
Based on the format, five judges will score the poets on a scale of 1 to 10. The top and bottom scores are then eliminated and the middle scores added to determine the poet’s score for the round. Haeflinger notes that judges are chosen for their love of poetry, and not based on any educational requirements, placing less emphasis on the competitive aspect of the slam in service to its greater, community mission.
The poetry slam will be the culmination of a yearlong preparation for students at The Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, Collingswood High School, LEAP Academy University Charter School, Gloucester City High School, Pyne Poynt Middle School, and Cooper B. Hatch Family School.
Throughout the school year, Rutgers–Camden MFA students have been helping teachers and children form poetry and spoken-word clubs in their schools, conducting on-site workshops, and organizing a series of lead-up events. The workshops explore poems that highlight particular skills or themes, such as identity and place, and cover poetic devices, such as figurative language, rhythm, and repetition. The aspiring poets learn to read, write, and recite poetry, as well as witness other poets in action.
“The idea is to connect the act of writing the poem to the act of reading the poem,” says Haeflinger. “By accessing their voices, we believe that they will sharpen their public-speaking skills, and help them to contextualize their experiences in ways that will help them in their futures. Likewise, we are helping them to build their critical-thinking skills, which are exercised through the act of reading, writing, and revising poetry.”
According to Haeflinger, participating students benefit considerably by having a place to tell their stories through poetry – a rare space in cities like Camden. The students learn new and creative ways to articulate their thoughts, while gaining a deeper understanding of people who come from different backgrounds than they do. The medium can be especially powerful, he adds, if the students are seeking to break down barriers established by class, geography, or prejudices.
Meanwhile, Rutgers MFA students have learned to serve as youth mentors and to hone their skills as workshop facilitators. Haeflinger notes that current participating Rutgers students include several former pupils in his “Teaching Creative Writing in Public Schools” class, as well as several students who are active in the Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholars program.
“Louder Than a Bomb connects civically minded college students with area youth in a reciprocal relationship, whereby everyone involved learns and grows around a mutual love of the written and spoken word,” he says. “We hope to offer a literary extracurricular activity that engenders the same excitement and commitment of athletics or theater.”
As Haeflinger explains, Louder Than a Bomb–Camden is the local version of the nationally held Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam, which began in Chicago in 2001. He personally helped to organize the event in The Windy City from 2005 to 2007 while serving as a performance manager for Young Chicago Authors. As he recalls, his role consisted mainly of setting up venues, registering schools, and handling the logistics for the day of the event.
In 2009, a documentary was released about the festival in Chicago, leading to the emergence of similar events throughout the country, including Boston, Ann Arbor, Madison, Tulsa, Lincoln, Dallas, Greensboro, and Washington D.C.
The Rutgers–Camden instructor has seen an outpouring of support from schools, teachers, parents, and community poets since bringing the poetry slam to Camden. “I think that teachers and students are looking for more creative opportunities to replace creative programs slashed from the normal school day,” he says. “Camden is, of course, known for its poets, but there seems to be a dearth of poetry-related events for young people in the city. Events such as this suggest that that trend is changing.”
Registration is not required. For further information, contact Haeflinger at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For directions to Rutgers–Camden, visit camden.rutgers.edu/resources/getting-to-campus.