Not even a stint of homelessness stopped Gregory Corbin from encouraging self-expression in young people.
He’d taken a group of teenage poets to San Jose, Calif., in 2007 to compete in an international youth poetry competition called Brave New Voices, paying all expenses himself. Despite the financial hardship that ensued, his team finished No. 1 in the world.
Corbin founded Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement in 2006 at a time when there were no poetry or spoken word organizations available to teens in Philadelphia. The 501(c )(3) organization now mentors high school students ages 13 to 19. Staffed by five full-time volunteers, PYPM involves local students in poetry and spoken word competitions while coaching them weekly in creative writing.
Corbin aimed for PYPM to provide guidance for teenagers in Philadelphia “before the world tells them to be afraid of who they’re becoming,” he said.
Today, 23-year-old PYPM alumna Noel Scales is working her dream job after graduating from Temple in May 2013. She works at The Philadelphia Record Company under the direction of Rick Friedrich, a music producer for The Roots, Kanye West and Jill Scott.
Experiencing direction and positivity through PYPM at a young age is what allowed her to find success so quickly after graduation, Scales said.
Corbin serves on the Philadelphia Poet Laureate Governing Committee and is a member of spoken word poetry collective Spoken Soul 215. He is also a high school math and science teacher.
“What I realized about a lot of the young people I was working with – they didn’t like the curriculum we were working with,” Corbin said. “I would use hip-hop and poetry as a way to get through to them. The kids were really engaged. They paid attention a lot more because they were really connected to it.”
PYPM was immensely successful in garnering responses from youth, particularly due to Brave New Voices, which was featured in an HBO 60-minute special in 2010.
“We really believe in what we’re doing because we’re about life here,” Corbin said. “We’re giving young people an outlet – and the biggest foundation of it all is the mentorship and the direct attention they may not be getting in school.”
On Nov. 16, PYPM members gathered at The Rotunda at 4014 Walnut St. A DJ booth played loud, energetic hip-hop music from the small stage, but at the forefront stood a single microphone awaiting the voices of 25 youth poets.
Winners have the opportunity to be part of the six-person team that competes in Brave New Voices, which will take place in Philadelphia this spring.
The teenage poets confronted topics ranging from disinterested schoolteachers to post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers, gang violence among youth and rape.
Sixteen-year-old Ainy’e Claulee performed a poem about her love for her hometown of Philadelphia. She confronted negativity toward the city, from arrogant attitudes of university students to outsiders who judge the cleanliness of streets.
“I won’t apologize for all the ‘jawn’ in my diction,” she said in one line of her well-received piece. Her last words, forcefully delivered into the microphone, were met with thunderous applause and shouts of approval from the audience.
In any moment when a performer faltered, cheers and support ensued immediately from friends and family offstage.
PYPM focuses on more than just competition. Every Saturday, students attend free and open PYPM from noon to 3 p.m. at The Painted Bride, a performing arts center located at 230 Vine St. in Old City.
Educational Director Cait Miner, who has been with the organization since 2010, led a session on Nov. 9 focusing on haiku-style poetry. Though she and the other staff members lead workshops, members of the community are encouraged to teach as well.
“It’s mainly artists in the community,” Miner said. “Some [PYPM students] age out, and then they can teach workshops, too.”
An aspiring mentor must submit a proposal and résumé based on the topic they wish to cover. From there, Miner said PYPM staff review the proposal and work with the prospective mentor to finalize the lesson plan, provided that it is up to PYPM standards. Miner said the demand for the structure of a weekly meeting is clear. Some of her own students from Palumbo High School, where she teaches English, are regulars at the sessions.
“We started with six kids, so to go from six to [sometimes] 60 kids has been tremendous,” Miner said, further explaining that closer to Brave New Voices, attendance of local students tends to double in number. Grant funding now allows PYPM to pay volunteers while still providing a free service to the attending youth, Miner said. In the past, guest mentors volunteered their time for no pay.
Corbin said PYPM needs more funding to be able to fulfill its potential. It teaches life skills along with poetry, he said.
“Some of these kids lack the confidence to look somebody in the face, so to make eye contact, to learn about body language, [learn] about posture, things that are going to help you get a good job with an interview, things like that – the confidence alone, to speak articulately and believe in yourself, those are life skills that students are not getting in a lot of places,” Corbin said. “We don’t just have these kids performing to become the best poet, we have them performing to become the best person they can be.”
Kai Davis, a sophomore English major at Temple, is an alumna of PYPM who now leads some mentoring sessions. She echoed Corbin’s sentiments about PYPM’s ability to give direction to local youth.
“I think one thing that poetry does is it helps you navigate through your life because you become more self-aware, because you’re constantly writing about yourself, and you can make better choices,” Davis said.
Members and staff agreed that PYPM’s most important characteristic is the sense of unity it provides.
Davis, who is now involved in Temple’s spoken word and poetry organization Babel, said PYPM gave her the confidence to perform in front of others.
“I think it’s life changing,” Davis said. “It opened me up, because I was really guarded. [PYPM helps] you tap into your vulnerability and express yourself, along with pushing you as a writer. It just made me a better person, teacher and writer.”
Scales said many students are involved with PYPM because it provides an outlet for them to effectively express themselves rather than turning to more destructive reactions to their emotions.
“I needed a way to release my anger and feelings,” Scales said of her initial involvement with PYPM. “I felt better when I wrote them down. [PYPM] definitely teaches how to build community. It teaches kids to step outside of themselves.”
The comfortable environment is no coincidence – it’s Corbin’s ultimate goal.
“One kid said the other day, ‘When I first came around, y’all were saying ‘I love you’ so freely that it made me feel weird,’” Corbin said. “And she was like, ‘Now I have no problem saying it.’ I [thought], ‘Wow, we’re changing the way they view the world.’”
Though Miner said it’s exciting for her to see students gain poise and use more complex prose, she agreed with Corbin that the most important aspect of PYPM isn’t literary skill.
“The biggest takeaway they get is a sense of family,” Miner said.
Erin Edinger-Turoff can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @erinJustineET.