The poet is the executive director of the nonprofit Youth Speaks, which Saturday at 7 p.m. will host the 12th annual Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam finals in S.F.’s War Memorial Opera House. Tickets are $18 for general admission and can be purchased at www.cityboxoffice.com.
How was Youth Speaks born? I started Youth Speaks in 1996 while I was a graduate student at San Francisco State. The intention was to create as many opportunities as possible for a diverse body of young people to find, develop and publicly present their voices. The first year we had about 60 kids participate, and now we work with about 40,000 kids a year.
What have you seen in teens’ work this year? I think the young people are caught upin the enthusiasm of [Barack] Obama and the presidential race. It’s exciting for them to think their voices really matter. And as always, I’ve seen the teenagers reveal how tough their lives are. There’s been a lot of talk about poverty, about bad schools, about alienation and isolation, anger about the war.
What should people expect this weekend? A poetry slam is a mock Olympics-style poetry competition. There have been eight rounds of preliminaries and four rounds of semifinals. There were initially hundreds of participants and now we’re down to 18.
What have you been writing about in your poetry lately? I’ve actually been writing reflections about the last 12 years of Youth Speaks. It’s a tough time running a nonprofit right now because the economy’s not doing great, and for as many successes as we have every day with the kids, we also have a lot of challenges.