It was the time of day when afternoon starts to creep into evening at the end of an average Arizona October; the sun still lorded over the earth and kept the surface dwellers warm to a slightly uncomfortable degree.
None of the 10 or so Mesa Mountain View High School students gathered in Tracy Weaver's classroom well after the final bell rang could feel the ramifications of the daytime's end. Their location was chilly, cool enough for some students to swathe themselves with blankets to stay warm, and the room exchanged windows to the outside world for student projects and recreated movie and play posters found on teaching websites.
In a room literally covered in creativity, the students were applying their own imaginative spins on a weeks-long poetry project, with a few preparing for a moment onstage that will come this Friday night and alongside numerous students from across the Valley.
They'll convene at the Mesa Arts Center for the All City Poetry Slam that will pit students from Valley schools against one another in a battle filled with honesty and raw emotion overseen by a panel of judges. They'll evaluate their poems and performances using a few subjective metrics in order to determine a winner. It sounds intimidating, but MAC Arts Education Outreach Coordinator Mandy Buscas said a poetry-slam audience is supportive of the person on stage and will occasionally boo judges who provide unfavorable feedback.
"It's a powerful thing to see these kids get on stage and speak their truth," she said.
Friday's event, which begins at 7 p.m. and ends at 10 p.m., is the culmination of a project in which members of Phonetic Spit, a local creative writing group, worked with students on creating poems for the contest. That was the case on Oct. 24, when Phonetic Spit member and teaching artist Aran Kelly visited Mountain View — one of a few Mesa schools Like Westwood that will compete this week — to help the students along with their poems.
The assistance came in a few forms, like tips on what to do to prepare for the slam — read the poem over and over again "until you're comfortable with it," he said — and definitions for concepts like metaphors, similes and hyperbole. There were also a few exercises like a word association game that somehow pulled in a pair of onlookers to connect the word "black" with "The Rolling Stones."
All of this is meant to get the students prepared for Friday's event, which the experienced Kelly said is wicked intense no matter how comfortable the environment is.
"These kids go into battle together," he said.
Mountain View senior Madeline Lee, who will represent her school on stage this week, is actually excited about the prospect of hopping on stage and trying to find that perfect blend of polish and rawness with her poetry and performance.
"I am nervous, but it's the excited kind of nervous. It's a lot of fun," she said.
To prepare herself for the experience, Lee said she's read a wide variety of poems and has listened to music by rappers like Macklemore — pretty logical given the genre's rhyming requirements and showmanship — and has collaborated with her teammates on their work.
The weeks she's spent with her fellow students in Weaver's classroom has given the aspiring camp director a path toward personal realizations highlighted by an inherent optimism she hadn't really realized was there before, as well as a connection with her classmates through art.
"It feels likes I'm getting to know them through their poetry, their hopes and dreams and all that," she said.
That's not a bad side effect for classroom host Weaver, who oscillated between observing the students and assisting them when need be during that October afternoon. An Advanced-Placement and regular-level English teacher, Weaver has helped bring along a slew of programs with an artistic bent ranging from a literary magazine to a hip-hop club in order to promote creativity among the Mountain View student population.
She said there's a hunger for the arts among the students, and said these types of projects can strengthen academic rigor among students while offering a means of expressing a little creativity on a daily basis. Then there's the social element, as the personal nature of poetry and the public forum forces students to do something well outside of their comfort zone.
"I love watching them come out of their shells," she said.
What: All City Poetry Slam
Who: High school students from across the Valley, including a number from the six Mesa Public Schools high school campuses