WORD UP!, a poetry slam for high school students who are enrolled in schools—or homeschooled—throughout Jefferson County, celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. The event will be held on Sunday, April 1, at 3:00 p.m. in the Richard Arrington, Jr. Auditorium at the Central Library located at 2100 Park Place. The slam is sponsored by the Birmingham Public Library (BPL). Students in grades 9 through 12 write and perform an original work of poetry inspired by a theme selected by the WORD UP! planning committee. In keeping with the spirit of this year’s anniversary, the theme for WORD UP! 2012 is “milestones.” Each participating high school holds a preliminary contest, and the winners from each school compete in the WORD UP! competition. The contestants are judged on content and performance by a panel of three judges in the competition for cash prizes.
The students participating represent the following high schools: Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA); Birmingham City Schools—Jackson-Olin, Parker, Wenonah, and Woodlawn; Jefferson County Schools—Clay-Chalkville and Shades Valley; and independent systems—Hewitt-Trussville, Leeds, Spain Park, and Tarrant. Each of the students will perform their original poetry, competing to earn one of three spots. The first place winner receives $300, second place $200, and third place $150.
Past winners of WORD UP! are outstanding scholars and leaders. During the four years the BPL has hosted the competition, more than 300 students have participated in the preliminary contests held at their schools and 60 students have competed in WORD UP!, including Derrick Spencer, the 2011 winner, and Erika Wade, who won first place in 2008 and 2009.
Spencer’s original work “Alabama” was inspired by the poem “Daybreak in Alabama” by Langston Hughes. Currently a student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., majoring in English, Spencer praised WORD UP! for its positive influence on young people in the Birmingham area. “The Birmingham Public Library's 2011 WORD UP! contest was a milestone for me, because it inspired creativity among the metropolitan area's youth while endorsing literacy and the importance of public libraries. As a young advocate for education, I admired the program for its efforts,” he stated.
During the competition, Spencer represented Ramsay High School, one of the Birmingham City Schools. A native of Birmingham, Spencer immersed himself in the city’s arts scene. He also participated in the Alys Stephens Center's (ASC) Make It Happen as part of the Performing Ensemble and as a vocal soloist. The Make It Happen Ensemble was created by ASC in 2008 “to offer dedicated students an opportunity to receive high-quality acting instruction and allow them to create their own performance piece.”
Erika Wade, who won first place in the WORD UP! Student Poetry Slam the first two years of the competition, will return to WORD UP! 2012 as a judge. Wade won while she was a student at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. At ASFA, she was a poetry editor of the ASFA student publication, Cadences.
Wade stated that “Winning the WORD UP! competition introduced me to a community of young writers and a greater surrounding of people who encouraged and uplifted us. Young writers rarely get affirmation in their efforts; oftentimes, this lack of support makes them abandon the art all together. The WORD UP! competition provided healthy rivalry, and more importantly a safe space for young writers to be respected as professionals. This contest was a great propeller for my future success, and will always be dear to my heart.”
After graduating from ASFA, Wade enrolled in the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (UA) with a double major in African American Studies and English with a minor in Creative Writing and specialization in the University Honors Program. In 2010 she published her first book of poetry, eyestodewhurld (Blue Rooster Press) which was incorporated into the Huffman High School Advanced Placement (AP) English curriculum. Wade is the current editor of the UA's literary journal, Marr's Field Journal, and is a Teach for America Rising Leaders Fellow. She is a Blackburn Institute Fellow for 2011-2012; the Institute’s mission is to develop “a network of leaders… who have a clear understanding of the challenges that face the state of Alabama.”
WORD UP! 2012 is made possible by grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.