Less a poet than a poet-making machine, Urban Word NYC has been producing some of today’s most promising teen spoken word performers. A youth development and literary arts education program based in Manhattan, it provides “free, safe, and uncensored” workshops and reaches 15,000 young women and men every year through events like youth slams and open mics. Urban Word also hosts the Annual NYC Teen Poetry Slam and is a partner for the NY Knicks Poetry Slam. These two events allow teens to showcase their talents to a broad audience while performing at renowned venues like Harlem’s Apollo Theater and Madison Square Garden. Five winners of the Annual NYC Teen Poetry Slam go on to compete nationally at Brave New Voices in Chicago, IL and three winners of the NY Knicks Poetry Slam take home over $250,000 in grants and prizes.
For a budding teenage poet, that ain’t no small change. I know. I worked with one of the past winners: a phenomenal young woman named Ty Belton.
Flavorwire: How did you get involved with Urban Word NYC?
Tyler Belton: I heard about Urban Word because of the NY Knicks Poetry Slam. As a senior in high school, I entered to win the scholarship. Urban Word sent mentors to each participating high school to hold poetry workshops with the students who wanted to enter the competition. I made it past preliminaries and semi-finals, and ultimately won 3rd place at the final stage in 2007, which landed me a laptop, printer, and $2,500 for college. After that win I kept in contact with Urban Word doing odd jobs and performances for them. I competed to win a spot on the national poetry slam team, but that didn’t work out.
FW: What draws you to poetry?
TB: I’ve always had a love for words and how they sound. I love to read and write and have an infatuation with voice. Spoken word allows me to combine the things I am passionate about and express myself creatively as a release from daily stresses and setbacks.
FW: How is poetry an effective way of reaching young people?
TB: Poetry, especially spoken word, is exciting and can be new each time. Young people love things they feel are their own. Poetry is your own and spoken word allows you to say whatever you want and do whatever you want. It teaches discipline as well throughout all of the competitions. At Urban Word no one harbors bad feelings if we lose a slam. I tried for two years to get on the teen slam team and missed the deadline this year to participate. I’m 19 so now I’m no longer eligible to try out. We support each other in the slams and create bonds that last longer than a three-minute poetry round.
FW: Who are some of your favorite modern day poets?
TB: My favorite poets are those underground poets I met doing open mics and traveling doing spoken word. A few of my favorite poets have come together as a movement called Writer’s Block. They have a poetry showcase and party once every few months that is just out of this world. Their names are RIP MC, Kesed, Falu, Jason Reynolds, Soulful Jones, and Aja-Monet.
FW: What do you love most about your experience with Urban Word?
TB: I definitely love all of the young people who I’ve met who have similar mindsets as my own. I’ve really created bonds and friendships that I know will last years. Urban Word continues to help out teens who are in transition from the inner city streets to college, and although I am already in college and am a little old for most of the opportunities and help Urban Word gives, it is still an exciting home for me when I participate in or support their events. It gives me clarity and a breath of fresh air each time.