by Kate Russell
Smoky basements, finger clicking, soul patches and berets – that tends to be what people think of when you say ‘beat poets’. But as Kate Russell finds out, Leeds Young Authors are in their 10th year of changing perception.
Like Clark Kent taking off his glasses, when Leeds Young Authors step into the spotlight they transform before your eyes.
Gone are the giggling, gossiping schoolkids with their shyness and insecurities. In their place are confident, self-assured young people whose every crafted word and heartfelt movement commands your attention.
You can’t help but sit up and take notice. But I suppose that’s what you might expect from the group that is putting Leeds on map of the international live poetry scene.
Beat poetry has its origins in 1940s New York. The beat generation was an underground anti-conformist movement which set out to challenge mainstream ideals, culture and politics, and was known for its defiance of censorship and convention.
The movement’s early involvement with psychedelic drugs and meditation may have given it that lingering jazz-hippie image, but there is some truth in the picture. At a live show – or slam – the audience click their fingers in appreciation rather than applaud. And the original feisty free-spirit attitude is still a central feature of slams today.
Leeds Young Authors (LYA) was founded by Khadijah Ibrahiim in 2003 as a way to encourage creative education and social engagement, and to give young voices a platform in a socially and economically deprived part of the city.
Shaking off poetry’s dusty image, they replace sickly sweetness with bare sincerity, sculpted frustration and powerful emotion.
Each of them has a personal performance style and unique voice. Sometimes they give you a glimpse into their world, like the shy, awkward girl in her early teens who celebrated finding her artistic voice. Other times they make you laugh, like Quentin, 18, and Tom, 19, who explored ownership of a city oscillating wildly between drunken bar flies, rubbishing Bradford, and differing concepts of feminism.
And sometimes their words give you goosebumps, like the mid-teens girl whose quiet voice suddenly set the room ablaze as she embodied the cruelty of Pandora’s box, turning the idea of hope into another, more vicious way to hurt.
“It is a very honest art form,” says Matthew Cuban, 25, LYA’s visiting coach from Jacksonville, Florida. “Being honest with yourself and the community, you learn so much. You clear yourself from what’s holding you in. It’s free therapy.”
Cuban’s is a big name in live poetry. As a performer, he was the youngest person to win one of the USA’s biggest slams, Southern Fried, at the age of 18. To this day he is the only person to have won it three times.
He got into poetry at 15 after a rough upbringing: “I used to fight a lot. It was about getting respect. Writing was a more positive way of doing that, and people were listening.
“I didn’t know there was youth poetry happening. I was going up against adults, and they took me and raised me. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, Southern Fried was my village.”
Cuban met Khadijah and the LYA team at the Brave New Voices slam in San Jose in 2007. They came up against each other year after year, and in 2009 both teams reached the final stages of the competition. The only non-American team to have competed for nine years, LYA came in second.
This year, they’re heading to Chicago to compete again, hoping to match their 2009 success. Their visiting coach has total faith in them: “There are some amazing minds here. I hope the fact I’ve come all the way over here will help inspire them.
“Leeds has such a successful programme but they still have a chip on their shoulder – I love that! I want to take them to the final stages.”
There is no doubt that the poets at LYA are phenomenally talented. Each of them is unique, with an individual style and pace to both their writing and their performance. And for many, that moment in the spotlight reveals something intensely sincere that you feel would otherwise stay hidden.
Some of the themes and emotions being explored are so complex, so beyond what you imagine, that it takes your breath away to see the picture being painted before you by a schoolchild in their uniform.
LYA’s appearance at Brave New Voices in August will be the climax of ten truly exciting years for Leeds’ youth poetry, and an incredible start to another ten years of success.
“I want people to see that Leeds are representing the country – that this is the international organisation,” Cuban says. “I want the city to get behind us and be part of this.
“Just take a look and see what we are doing. It’s beautiful. I love Leeds.”