Well Versed

East High student Daniel Gengenbach discovered a new self-confidence and a community of support through the world of slam poetry, Proud Theater, and an accepting environment.

I am a ninth grader at East High School. I was born north of Madison, but Madison is where I grew up. I love participating in clubs, specifically GSA. I got involved in poetry because of the way my eighth grade poetry class was taught. It showed me this new side, where a poem doesn’t have to just be rhyming words with no deeper meaning. Acting was something that I had no great interest in until I heard about Proud Theater. It was a place where I could act while still being accepted for who I am.

Both poetry and theater allow me to become different people, at least for a little while. They let me escape when I need to. It’s not just an escape, though. They challenge me to become better at what I love doing. They are an important part of my life.

School, friends, family, and my identity are important to me. My identity has completely changed over the course of the past two years, as I started to figure out who I am. Sometimes I still don’t know who I am, but I still have time to figure it all out. After all, I am just a freshman in high school.

My teacher, my friends, and my family have all supported me and stood by me, while Proud Theater and participating in poetry slams have made me a more confident person. I am who I am today because of these things and these people.

Slam poetry was not something I was aware of until my teacher showed videos of people slamming in class for our poetry unit. It inspired me to write poems that I would want to perform for other people.

My first poems were rough but they got better over time. I’m always improving on the things I write, trying to make them the best I’ve written yet. The first time I slammed, it was the most nerve-wracking thing I had done. In the end, I ended up tying for third place and getting a spot on the City Slam team.

Poetry let me express myself in a way that nothing else could. It lets me be honest about everything, to be understood, and it let me relate to other people who went through similar things. It forced me to be creative while still being true to me.

I didn’t know it at the time but these slams were hosted by an organization called the JVN Project. I was at the City Slams that I first really learned about the group. They were the ones who put together the event and were the ones taking the top six poets to California for the Brave New Voices showcase and competition. They are the ones who hosted the events here and are the ones who let us spit our truth.

Poetry has forced me to think in different ways, especially when writing. I have to figure out how to make thing flow together and how it should sound. It’s always a challenge, which I love.

When working with other poets, you have to work together to make it all fit. I worked with one of my friends to create a two-person poem, which was later performed at a school poetry event. Working together isn’t always easy: we argued about what should be included and what stuff we didn’t think was important for the poem. But hearing everything come together is a wonderful experience. Creating a piece of art with another person is a shared success.

One thing that really stood out to me during my first poetry slam is that even if you don’t place in the top three, top five, or even the top 10, the other people present will still support you. They snap their fingers when they hear something they like, cheer for you when you finish, and boo the judges for giving you a score they don’t think is high enough.

The slam community is there to support anyone and everyone who gets up on the stage—because you’re letting yourself be vulnerable to strangers and you are letting your poems be judged as well. Even if you mess up, even if you stumble over your words or forget them, the people there will still be cheering for you.

Being a part of this has made me more confident, strengthened my friendships and, in a way, made me a better actor. Being an actor has made me a better poet. Poetry taught me how to get up on the stage and be present, while being an actor has taught me how to really bring the emotion and how to tie it into what I’m performing. I firmly believe that poetry has helped me change for the better and that it will continue to change me over time.

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