Youth Speaks’ Brave New Voices a big draw

David Wagner, San Francisco Chronicle | July 19, 2011

Brave New Voices, the annual slam-poetry competition put on by San Francisco spoken-word nonprofit Youth Speaks, has come a long way since its inception.

The first competition, held in 1998, featured only four teams. This year’s event drew 50 teams from across the globe who will participate in four days of competitions, conferences and film screenings. The top four will square off Saturday at the War Memorial Opera House.

In the intervening years, the event has tapped major celebrities to serve as judges, received exposure in an HBO series and grown into the largest spoken-word event of its kind in the nation. But it hasn’t achieved its current stature without drawing some criticism.

Reviewing last year’s Brave New Voices for the Washington Post, Troy Jollimore criticized slam poetry for lacking literary merit. “It emphasizes the performance over the text, and seeks the strongest possible audience reaction, often at the expense of subtlety and complexity,” he wrote.

He’s not entirely wrong – in slam poetry, shouting sometimes drowns out subtlety and histrionics sometimes mask underlying platitudes – but he’s missing the form’s larger sociopolitical significance. (Read more)