A Busy Month for Poetry Slams and Jazz Jams



Welcome to AMERICAN MOSAIC in VOA Special English.


I'm Doug Johnson. This week, we report about poetry and jazz because April is a special month for both arts in the United States.

Poetry Slams

The United States is celebrating National Poetry Month in April. There are large events, like the three-day Austin International Poetry festival in Texas. There are small events, like Poetic Voices, a performance by the best teenage poets of Cass County, Missouri. And there are poetry slams. Mario Ritter tells about these competitions, the slammers and the poems.


The Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York
A poetry slam is a competition in which poets perform one of their pieces in front of an audience and judges.

The poem can be no longer than three minutes and is rated from one to ten.

Most slammers are very theatrical in their performances. The poems can be about personal subjects or world events. Two weeks ago, sixteen year old Stacy performed a poem about the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City in two thousand one. The slam was held at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York. Here is part of her performance:

The black death demolishes civilization. Now we're making foundations for the recovering patients, cause for some reason we can't find any explanations for the contaminations.

Whether it's the Plague or AIDS; STDs or HIV; there are no answers. And we can't find the cure for cancer so...

Ashes to ashes we all fall down. Operation cremation without any consolation.

A blind architect doing renovations on a historical creation.  Double jeopardize thousands of innocent lives; trying to buy avowal but could barely keep themselves alive. Leaving only a handful that survived.

Flight Eleven and One Seventy-Five with the illegal medications that overdosed our population, led us to receive a leave of absence for an unnecessary vacation and we became addicts. Developed unheard of addictions; unintentionally using needles shooting up intoxications; popped pills laced with devastation; sniffing lines of contamination; hallucinations of peace in our nation; unwilling levitation meeting heaven before expectation.

They called the cravings 9/11; I call it violation; molestation; split the towers like a virgin and seduced her with sensual conversation.                       

Eighteen year old slam poet Safia Elhillo deals with another serious issue in her poem, "Immigrant City." The poet read it at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

I saw you 
Disembark at Metro Center 
Transferring to the blue line, preparing
To board your third bus
Back to Skyline Towers:
The commute from
Metropolis to Immigrant City

Cheekbones sculpted like Sahara dunes
Lips chapped to mimic sidewalks
Of this Promised Land;
Oh, how they tricked you.
They tricked us.
Shoulders stooped, broad back
Bent with weighted expectations from
Umi, Khaltu, Fatima and Baba
Eagerly awaiting your return, the
Conquering hero
With Big Macs
And blue jeans
For all

They tricked us.

Friday night prayers in
Ramshackle mosques, I watched you
Stiff in your new collared shirt
Ankles rubbed raw by pleather loafers
Hair shaved carefully close to camouflage
The giveaway kinks and curls.
I saw me in you;

Like how we both exaggerate 
The twang in our r's 
To outweigh the okra and rice
Laying heavily across our tongues
Forcing extra syllables
Painfully turning b's to p's
Rolling eyes in exasperation at those
Homely folk back in the old country

Arrived with open arms
Open eyes, open hearts
Ready to receive our 
Honorary title as Americans
Instead shoved into closet-sized apartments
Watching our PHd holding brothers
Drive taxis
Our law-student sisters
Mop floors
Our bright babies 
Repeating grades
"Sharp mind, but he can't go anywhere
'Til he gets a better grasp on the English language"

I saw you
Eyes alight with recognition upon
Hearing the familiar falter in my accent
You are not alone
But our togetherness makes us
All the more outcast
As we board our third bus
To Skyline Towers
Immigrant City

We may not be home, but
Stop by sometime 
For mint tea and palm dates
Stories of Omdurman sands and
Khartoum rickshaws
Compare notes on the experience
Of sandal-clad feet upon concrete
Chuckling far too loudly, as is
The Sudanese way,
Long into the 'Isha hours
Safe from metropolitan disapproval
Of the Arabic interwoven in our jargon

They may have tricked us, 
Equating broken English with
Broken spirits
But they underestimated our safe haven
In each others' arms, each others' hearts
Right here
In Immigrant City

Safia Elhillo
Safia Elhillo
Safia Elhillo was born in Rockville Maryland.  Both of her parents are from Sudan. She now lives in Washington, D.C. with her mother and brother. Safia says she wrote her first poem for a high school English class three years ago.   

But she says she grew up around poetry. Her mother enjoys reading poetry, especially poems by Rumi and Khalil Gibran. Safia says she also likes poems by Nikki Giovanni and Suheir Hammad. Safia gives special praise to all the young poets she has met during the past two years she has been writing and competing in slams. 

Safia Elhillo says writing poetry will always be a part of her life. She says performing her work has helped her defeat her severe nervousness. She hopes to attend college at New York University and study art therapy.

Here she reads a poem about her best friend, "Malik:

He stepped off the sun,
Sweat of the islands still glistening on his brow.
Man-child, all grown
Squinting into the horizon
Maps etched into his calloused palms.
Gilded boy spilling
Golden glow onto cracked sidewalk 
Outside the corner bodega;
He's here to heal.

Child of the cosmos, 
Mind traveling through
Warm sands and subway tracks
Humming lullabies in broken Arabic, like
"Ahibak, akhi"*

(*ahibak, akhi: I love you, my brother)

And it's been far from easy
On my clumsy days;
Caught me, placed me upon a broad shoulder
Atlas manifested but I 
Called him Midas
The golden king.
Swinging my legs in time to the
Verses we conjured:

Jabao Jibaro,
Sergeant Saffron,
Brother Bear,
Ahibak akhi.

Voice rumbling from the planet's core
Face upturned; see
Children of the universe,
They shine in the night;
And we do.

Cracking jokes, grins,
Long past the crack of dawn
"How long will you be up?"

Your name is in the title,
'cause I've learned, and 
Don't dedicate time, energy
And poems
To what's not built to last.

Jazz Appreciation Month


April is not only a time for poetry. It also marks the eighth yearly Jazz Appreciation Month. The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. started the event.  It is now celebrated in all fifty American states and in forty countries. The aim of Jazz Appreciation Month is to bring public attention to the rich past and present of jazz music. There are special programs on jazz at museums, schools, colleges, libraries, concert halls and on public broadcasting. Jim Tedder has more.



Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
That was "Jungle Blues" by the famous bandleader Benny Goodman. The Smithsonian is observing the one hundred year anniversary of Benny Goodman's birth.

There have been several discussions and musical programs about "The King of Swing" and the musicians who played with him.  This month the museum is also releasing a collection of one hundred ten jazz recordings that help tell the history of jazz.

Jazz Appreciation Month is also honoring musician and composer Chuck Mangione. He has released thirty albums. Mangione is best known for his Grammy Award-winning single, "Feels So Good."


John Edward Hasse is the curator of jazz at the National Museum of American History. He says jazz has been called "America's classical music," "the sound of freedom" and even "the sound of surprise." He says whatever you call it, jazz has played a huge role around the world in opening up musical creativity.

Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
One reason the Smithsonian picked April to honor jazz is because many great jazz artists were born this month. They include Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton and Herbie Hancock. Here is Ella Fitzgerald singing "April in Paris" with Louis Armstrong.


Countries around the world will also take part in honoring jazz this month. For example, in South Africa, Cape Town's jazz festival included performances by more than forty international and African jazz performers. The Estonian capital of Tallinn will hold its own jazz festival. We leave you with a song by the Cuban saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera who is to perform at this event.

(MUSIC: "Miami")


I'm Doug Johnson. I hope you enjoyed our program today.

It was written by Dana Demange and Caty Weaver who was also the producer.  For transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs, go to 51voa.com.

Join us again next week for AMERICAN MOSAIC, VOA's radio magazine in Special English.