Unfortunately for Nicole Von Seggern, her classmates think she’s a darn good poet.
That’s how the Cedar Springs eighth-grader found herself in the final rounds of the Poetry Slam, an annual school event meant to bring out the creative gifts of young authors.
Some jump at the chance to stand up and perform their poems in front of the class. Others, like Nicole, drag their feet into the spotlight.
But here she was, standing in front of the class on a recent morning. She had made it into the “Elite Eight” of the NCAA-style competition involving all the eighth-grade writing classes at Cedar Springs Middle School.
Her classmates sat poised with grading sheets, ready to judge her presentation against another student’s for enunciation, eye contact, voice expression and gestures. If they judged her the winner, she would move on to the Final Four.
Nicole brazenly announced the title of her poem: “Hate Poetry Slam.”
“First of all, the school is making me do this thing,” Nicole said in a forceful voice. “What do they expect me to do, come up here and sing?”
Her classmates giggled as Nicole decried the pointlessness of the exercise, protesting she is “not a very artsy person. … I think these skills will just be good if I’m a poet. I’m not going to be one – I know it.
“I hate standing up here with all these eyes staring back at me,” she lamented. “I hate reading what I wrote. It makes me feel uncomfortable, as you can plainly see.”
Discomfort and all, she earned big applause from the class and praise from teacher Jill MacLaren. In her vigorous protest, Nicole showed great growth from her shaky presentation on the competition’s first day, MacLaren said.
“It was the whole reason we were doing it,” she added.
A way to express themselves
The competition is a way for students to ramp up poetry skills learned in their writing classes. It helps reinforce the various poetry forms they study and opens an outlet for personal expression, says Principal Sue Spahr.
“It’s amazing what they write,” Spahr said. “Some are funny, some are heartfelt, sensitive and emotional. This is an age where they will open up and share some tough stuff.”
The Poetry Slam also helps students find courage and pride in sharing something they’ve written, MacLaren said: “This really allows the kids to express themselves in a creative way.”
While all writing students compile books of poetry, the Poetry Slam is optional. One winner emerges from each of the eight classes. When the competition is over, all students are invited to present a poem whether they competed or not.
In MacLaren’s mid-morning class, some students’ poems touted their worthiness over their rivals, drawing a firm reminder from MacLaren the Slam was not about slamming others.
Kaitlyn Coons performed a tribute to frogs – or rather a satire, since she actually hates them.
“Oh, frogs and toads, how I love you,” she rhapsodized. “I love the way you hop. Please don’t ever stop.”
Collin Alvesteffer composed a tongue-in-cheek couplet about wanting to be a ballerina, delivered with plenty of body language.
“I just want to dance and twirl so much that I hurl,” he said, spinning around in red Nike shorts. “This is my biggest dream. I love it more than my football team.”
Later, he said he likes performing more than he does poetry. But he admitted he enjoys writing “my own thing, stuff that I’m interested in, stuff that I think’s funny.”
A thin line between love and hate
Kaitlyn Coons harbored no such mixed feelings.
“I love people listening to what I have to say about things,” she said. “It makes you nervous, but once you get into it it’s a lot of fun.”
Nervous doesn’t nearly say it for Nicole Von Seggern. She called her performance “nerve-wracking. Your heart beats really fast.” Still, she added, “It’s a satisfactory feeling knowing that you’ve done good.”
As for the competition, she said at first she didn’t want to win because that would mean writing another poem. “But now,” she admitted, “I’d kind of like to go on.”
Minutes later, MacLaren tallied the results of the class’ rankings. Along with Collin Alvesteffer, Christian Bird and Fred Rutledge, Nicole was headed to the Final Four.