Introduction to the Year: Roots & Risk Taking


The first time I performed a poem, I ran off stage as soon as the last word hit the mic. I was a fifteen-year old white jew girl and a long-time secret poet. Despite my introversion, I was thirsty to fill my mouth up with words. I didn’t know what would happen once they left my lips and filled up the room around me, which is probably why I ran off stage. Through thrumming fear, I saw magic in the vulnerability of spoken word. Even without seamless delivery or a perfect dismount, poetry was an essential experiment in risk taking. Still is. It’s been eight years, countless poems and hundreds of performances. Yet, those first fumbled attempts still ring in my body whenever I step on stage.

Whenever I perform, I honor my roots in the Denver Youth Slam, the poetry scene I came up through. As a part of Denver’s first generation of youth slammers, we were building the groundwork for a community that continues to burst with new poets. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was building something. Voice shaking, paper wavering in my hands; I was building a shape that I could not fully make out.

My first years in youth slam pushed me to lead workshops, organize events, articulate political frameworks and perform at cafes, street corners, rallies and theatres. I was learning to investigate what systems & histories my body lay within. Slam brought me critical discussion of privilege and oppression, to a lifelong journey of this learning. The shape we were building made our complex identities real and tangible, even through fear and silence. With loving and powerful mentors, we were given the opportunity to gain skills and wrestle with contradictions.

We were a part of something bigger than ourselves. We were a part of one another’s poems through collaborative writing and performance. We were a part of communities in our region. We were a part of an international youth slam movement. We were building a shape of creativity and resistance. We still are, in Denver, in Seattle and in the places between and beyond.

In beginning the role of co-coordinating Youth Speaks Seattle, I’m excited to continue this work. I recognize the immense history of YSS and hope to honor all those who built this resilient community. Without claiming YSS as my home youth slam, I know that we have always been connected to that ongoing shape of art and social justice. Holding that collective mission is exciting and… frightening. On my first day at Arts Corps, I felt overwhelmed with the year ahead. Where should I start? What is my role? How could we possibly achieve everything we’re pursuing?

Brimming with doubt and anxiety, I started slow, began at the source. I sat down and began organizing the YSS archive. Wading through years of free writes, meeting notes and event fliers, I reflected on the importance of grounding, of roots. As YSS just celebrated its 10-year anniversary, my fellow co-coordinator, Moni Tep and I are at a strange point between past and future. Holding our shared and disparate roots, how do we proceed in the present? I don’t know the exact answer yet but I hold my roots as I move forward. My roots are in risk taking. I can’t forget how essential that is, the value of vulnerability. My roots are in speaking even when my voice shakes. My roots are in writing the poem before I fully know what I need to say. My roots are in process, learning, attempting, building, tensions, ambiguity and new steps forward.

By: Shelby Handler