"In this classroom, let there be radiance
let there be arrows and light and sound
let there be lovely,"
So begins poet/teacher Jeff Kass' poem "Today I throw Open These Doors," a poem dedicated to and about his students.
A creative writing teacher (he's also taught English, Journalism, Speech, Argumentation, Composition, and Current History) at Ann Arbor's Pioneer High School since 1999, Kass has an ever-expanding list of awards and accolades teaching, writing, and performing poetry slams. A many-times-over published poet, he teaches high school every day, does workshops once a week at Ann Arbor's Neutral Zone youth center, performs and writes his own poetry and juggles probably another dozen or so projects at any given time. Not busy enough, Kass is also currently working on his own short story collection as well as a one-man show called "Wrestle the Great Fear."
What he's probably best known for, however, is bringing poetry slams to the youth of Ann Arbor. "I still think way too many kids don't get the chance to do much writing in school beyond the five-paragraph essays and research papers," Kass says.
For the average teenager, writing—let alone performing—poetry isn't usually at the top of the "cool" list. Which is curious when you consider that the basic elements of poetry slam are akin to the lyrical core and rhythms of hip-hop/rap music; one of the most dominate styles of music today. A rhyming and visceral rap battle (ala Eminem in 8 Mile) isn't a far stretch from what happens at a poetry slam.
Kass sees a parallel between rap and poetry slams, and understands how it can offer contemporary youth culture an opportunity to connect with words in ways they may have never imagined. Ten years ago, when the 42-year old Yale grad initially introduced poetry slams to his students, the kids were eager to participate because of its growing popularity in larger cities. "As soon as they saw it, heard it, kids were captivated," Kass explains. But like most popular trends, over time the novelty of the form faded and slams attracted a small but devoted following, leaving the 1990s as little more than a literary niche.
Over the past few years, however, Kass has noticed how performance poetry has reemerged with a different scope. Popularized by MTV, HBO and rap/hip-hop, kids started to experience spoken word poetry without knowing it by name, and though the content hasn't always risen to Kass' high standards, it was an encouraging development. "Now they see ... bastardizations of it in movies and TV commercials," Kass says. "Most of them still really like it when they see it ... but it's not as novel as it was ten years ago for kids." That's good though," the teacher digresses, "because it means more kids are getting the opportunity to experience it."
The irony of poetry slams is that they may be better understood and appreciated in this era of rap music, rather than their hey-day in the mid '90s. HBO picked up on the current popularity of the youth poetry scene, and this past spring, the Ann Arbor Youth Poetry Slam finals were filmed as part of an upcoming eight-part documentary about the Brave New Voices National Youth Poetry Slam Festival held in Washington, D.C., this past summer (the series is set to air in January).
"…I think the hook for them [HBO] to cover the youth national slam and movement this year was the notion that young people express their political views oftentimes through poetry," Kass explains. "And this is an historic election year where the votes and voices of young people could have a huge impact."
While Kass has no desire to differentiate between written poetry and slam poetry, he is passionate about allowing his students to be creative. Personal, humanizing, and cathartic, with all the texting and technology today's youth communicate with; performance poetry is one of the easiest ways to bring back face-to-face connections and interactions; no batteries required.
Beyond the spoken word, Kass also founded the VOLUME Youth Poetry Project 11 years ago at the Ann Arbor youth center Neutral Zone and continues to direct it. The weekly program aims to coach kids in the empowering elements of writing and performing poetry; a form of artistic expression that many simply didn't know existed. Kass finds a lot of pride in the Neutral Zone and its growth over the years. "It's a magical place and I'm very lucky to be able to spend so much time watching young people journey through the process of discovering how powerful they can be."
Kass first moved to Ann Arbor when his wife, Karen Smyte, a writer and former member of the Canadian National Rowing Team, was hired as crew coach at the University Of Michigan. The couple has two children -- seven year-old daughter Sam and three-year old son Julius-- and the combination of college town and history turned out to be an inspiring place for Kass.
"It's [Ann Arbor] the perfect size and combination of resources – teen center university, book stores, community supporters – to have started the kind of youth writing programs I envisioned," Kass says of his fondness for the city.
He is also all too aware that there are few schools that would allow embrace the freeform writing of poetry slams.
"People love to read and write here and there's jut a wonderful supportive spirit for young people," explains Kass. "I can write and teach like this in Ann Arbor because the community believes in the power of imagination."
While rap MCs don't make the list of some of Kass' favorite poets, he points to spoken words artists like Regie Gibson, Roger Bonair-Agard, and Stanley Kunitz as his literary role models. Still, Kass recognizes noteworthy patterns in performance poetry and rap/hip hop. "One of hip-hop's defining characteristics is a celebration of the ability to be verbally inventive and clever," he explains. "Kids who grow up listening to hip-hop lyricists can easily see the value of performing poems, where again the emphasis is on inventive language."
Writing poetry allows teens to express themselves in a way most aren't able to at school. "The standardization movement in schools has been a movement away from individual creative expression," Kass states. He believes that most of the writing teens are instructed to do in high school is "formulaic and stilted."
"Someone speaking his or her truth honestly, from the heart, is rare," Kass says. "When performance poets do it with passion, it's compelling and powerful because, again, it stands in contrast to most of the language they're immersed in."
Try saying that in a text message
Shannon McCarthy is a Detroit-based freelance writer. She has written for Detour-mag.com, Eye Weekly (Toronto), Metro Times (Detroit) and Under the Radar. Her previous story was MASTERMIND: Rob Reinhart
Jeff Kass and His New Persona-Pioneer High School Ann Arbor
"In Beats We Trust"-Neutral Zone Ann Arbor
Young Poet at Neutral Zone-Ann Arbor
Performers at Neutral Zone- Ann Arbor
Neutral Zone-Ann Arbor
All Photos by Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. He's lyrically obese.