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Young Philly poets win big at national slam competition - again!

It's a poetic dynasty. Last Saturday, for the third time since 2006, the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement won the top prize at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival, held this year in Atlanta.

Kavindu Jointe and Miriam Harris - poets - Jamal Parker, Jovan McKoy and Veronica Nocella.
Kavindu Jointe and Miriam Harris - poets - Jamal Parker, Jovan McKoy and Veronica Nocella.Read more

It's a poetic dynasty.

Last Saturday, for the third time since 2006, the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement won the top prize at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival, held this year in Atlanta.

"We won in 2007, 2011, and now 2015," says Greg Corbin, founder and executive director of PYPM. "Seems we win every four years."

In the final round, the PYPM group performed a searing lineup of original poems, including "Glory," inspired by rapper Kendrick Lamar's "Alright":

We're calling for an overwhelming black joy.

The judges stood and applauded. In the end, joy was overwhelming, for poets of all hues.

BNV is an international competition, with more than 600 poets ages 13 to 19 representing more than 60 cities and organizations. Philadelphia triumphed over a hometown Atlanta group by only 0.3 points.

Otter Jung-Allen, 15, one of the poets, called the moment "incredible." Teammate Veronica Nocella says, "When we found out that we won, I don't think we ever screamed and jumped around so much before."

"I've never been that happy for somebody else in my life," says Perry "Vision" DiVirgilio, who co-coached the team.

It's a big win, Corbin says, not just for Philadelphia - known nationwide as a powerhouse of youth poetry slams - "but also for the causes of poetry and literacy, communication, and education. Kids see athletes and celebrities get parades for winning. What about a parade for our kids, for what they've done?"

As they say in "Glory":

We've been writing of our absence for so long we forgot how to speak of our presence.

PYPM, founded in 2006, is a nonprofit that "provides a safe space for Philadelphia teens to discover the power of their voices through spoken word and literary expression," according to its website. Young poets from all over the city are invited to compete for a place on the traveling team. "We put people in a space," Corbin says, "where they have to evolve as performers." Aspirants work with mentors, coaches, and one another, honing skills and making poetry.

Nocella, 17, from Science Leadership Academy, found out about PYPM from her English teacher, Matthew Kay. "I went to one of the slams, and to their poetry club, and I said: 'I really have to spend as much time as I can doing this. I want this to be something that is a part of me for a very long time,' " she said.

In the spring, the final team - six strong this year - and repertory are determined, and then it's a road trip to the big show.

Why this dynasty? Organizers and poets alike point to the PYPM culture. For one thing, it's hard work. "Philly is already this blue-collar town," DiVirgilio says. "We work and we hustle. Whether it's the guy selling DVDs or it's our art. We grind like nobody else."

Once school was out for summer, the team was practicing six days a week, sometimes more than 10 hours a day. Alumni helped out in practice. Mentor and summer intern Miriam Harris opened up her living room to the group. "I'd think, 'I'm going home by myself,' but I turn around and five people were behind me," she said.

Kavindu Jointe, 24, has been a part of PYPM for seven years, during which he went from youth poet to co-coach. He's witnessed the growth among his fellow poets: "You can really see them in their poems. Their styles began to complement each other."

"We get a whole bunch of opportunities to bond with one another," Nocella says. "So it never felt as if the competition was impersonal or uncaring. At times, it didn't even feel like a competition."

The work continued. "The group created more than 50 group pieces," Nocella says, "and we honed our repertory down to 13 by performance time."

Jung-Allen, 15, spoke of fear that during the finals nerves would prevent total immersion in the performance. But teammate Jamal Parker, 18, told them, " 'Don't worry about the scores - we're telling the truth.' " Jung-Allen says those words came to mind when hitting the stage.

The prizewinning performance was the result of a brave choice by the team. Instead of watching what judges liked and playing to that, they decided to remain true and perform what they'd brought, no matter what. As DiVirgilio puts it: "Winning is good, but winning the right way is a completely different feeling. They had a story they wanted to tell collectively. 'We're going to make a statement.' "

They came on stage dressed in PYPM "Black Lives Matter" T-shirts. First up was "Emmett," in which four poets - two black, two white - probe the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American, in Mississippi in 1955.

Then came "To My White Son," addressed to sons who must be engaged in a talk about race:

To the white sons we might have, you will not be silent in the face of destruction. Not under my roof.

Jung-Allen says: "We came up with that line two days before BNV. It had the defiance, anger, and ally-ship we wanted to express."

Next was "Gorgon," in which the group personified a lynching tree:

No tree wants to be dressed in genocide . . .

The culture of dying has yet to pass with our seasons . . .

Then the rousing "Glory." Jointe says its message is"that in the face of police brutality, systematic racism, disenfranchisement, and poverty, black people are still here, and still rising."

Corbin says that, aside from victory, the high point was "seeing the young people be challenged, be resilient, find joy in difficult moments. Watching them support one another, smile, and respond to challenge with love and joy."

For young people, Harris says, "There are so many vehicles to silence you." The PYPM poets, she adds, believe in what they're doing wholeheartedly - and "they'll fight for it."