Sunday, March 15, 2009

Northside College Prep student joins Chicago's all-star spoken word team

My sixth beat story for Newswriting.


A Northside College Prep senior will be one of six Chicago area high school students representing the city in this year's Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival.

Matt Ramir, 18, won the third-place individual speaker award after competing with his school's slam poetry team at Sunday's Louder Than A Bomb Teen Poetry Festival presented by Young Chicago Authors. The top six individual speakers at LTAB were selected to form an all-star spoken word team and compete at Brave New Voices, to be held at the Chicago Theater this summer.

As a first-time LTAB competitor who joined on a whim, Ramir said the win came as a surprise.

“It was amazing, winning third,” Ramir said. “The shock is still setting in. But I'm so glad people heard me.”

The Chicago team will be one of 50 teams at this year's competition, being held from July 14 through July 19. Brave New Voices is a part of Youth Speaks, America's “leading spoken word performance, education and youth development organization.” For a week, teen slam poets from across the country—and parts of Africa and Europe—perform their poetry for audiences reaching upwards of 10,000.

Ramir has been writing since the 8th grade after his father encouraged him to explore poetry. He admits his first attempts at poetry were “horrible,” but he found his footing through practice and performing at an open mic night at Coffee Chicago in the Uptown neighborhood.

“Living,” the poem Ramir performed at Sunday's LTAB finals, reflects his battle for self-acceptance in the face of negativity and a debilitating ailment: Ramir was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that effects voluntary muscle movement.

“Ruptured uterus,” Ramir’s poem begins, “The worst thing a doctor can tell an expecting mother / Disabled / The worst thing a doctor can call her child / Cripple / A word that has tortured me ever since.”

“When I was born, I was cut off [from] my oxygen for a while, and it resulted in damaging the cerebrum,” he said. “[It] means that my brain tells my hand to do something like wave high, but ... my hands don't get the message clearly and do something else.”

Ramir posted a poem inspired by his childhood memories of dealing with his disability on a gaming website. A commenter laughed at him “for being a cripple,” Ramir said.

“I always felt I was laughed at as a child, and hearing it again when I am older was like, 'Oh, crap.' But I decided to write about it instead.”

Ramir was worried the piece would be “cliché,” a big no-no in slam poetry. But Ramir said his coach, Nora Flannagan, assured him otherwise.

“I write whatever is in my heart, but for the LTAB piece Mrs. Flannagan was like, 'No one has ever done a disabled piece,' so I decided to try it and it somehow worked,” Ramir said.

“He found his voice, and it's a voice that the slam needed to hear,” Flannagan said.
“Entire audiences gave him standing ovations every single time he performed, and I was so grateful for that. The response he got showed him that his voice had a place at the slam - a vital place.”

She added that the performance was a tribute, “to the atmosphere that Kevin (Coval, co-founder of LTAB) and LTAB have fostered, where a kid with a disability can go from feeling like a target in everyday life to being literally center stage.”

Ramir, who will be working towards a computer science degree at University of Illinois in Chicago after graduation in June, said despite his hesitation, he's glad he performed the piece.

“Now that I've performed it, I feel much more strongly about it,” Ramir said. “I hope it speaks to future generations to help them understand the struggles you face with a disability, and the things we do to move past them. [For] me, [it's] poetry.”

You can listen to the poem Matt performed that night here.

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