Tiger Poets: “It’s about … being able to see what you have went through, and what you overcame”

KHSA English teacher Maddie Luebbert throws their hands up in celebration and cheers with other faculty, staff, and City Year leaders, as they learn that the Tiger Poets will advance to the second round at championships. (Photo by Maggie Loesch)

“Strong, rowdy, teamwork, and loyal,” are the words that come to assistant coach Fantaja Jones’ mind to describe the members of Tiger Poets — the Kensington-based poetry team.

Coach Sally O’Brien (front) poses with some of the Tiger Poets as they shout “That’s my coach!” From left: Sonieris Martinez, Margibeth Diaz, Manny Ramirez, Fantaja Jones, English teacher Maddie Luebbert, Kenyon Stafford, and Lexus Roman. (Photo by Maggie Loesch)

Established in 2017, the team is home to poets from Kensington’s three high schools: Kensington High School, Kensington Health Sciences Academy (KHSA), and Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA). They meet weekly on Wednesdays to practice at KHSA, and compete against other high schools every other Friday after school in the Philly Slam League’s East Division. Slam League competitions are held at the Free Library system’s Parkway Central Branch, and the season runs from February to May each year. Any high school in the School District of Philadelphia is welcome to compete.

Michael Nieves (left) and Tywan Madden perform a group piece about pineapple on pizza at a Philly Slam League competition. (Photo by Maggie Loesch)

Sally O’Brien, the team’s coach, started the team two years ago. The KHSA English teacher leads Wednesday practices with writing exercises, feedback sessions, and competition strategy, and is always checking up on her team members. 

“She is the glue that holds our poetry team together,” said Jones. “If it wasn’t for her, we would not be making it to competitions. If it wasn’t for her, we would not have made it as far as we did.” 

From left: Fantaja Jones, Coach O’Brien, Mia Rodriguez, and Tywan Madden talk about their strategy for the upcoming poetry match. (Photo by Maggie Loesch)

The poetry team is a safe haven and home-away-from-home for both poets and coaches —  it provides a creative outlet and space to work through adversities. 

“If you’re not a writer, if you hate writing, if you don’t like poetry or reading, it’s not about poetry, it’s not about reading,” said Jones. “It’s about putting your feelings out on the paper and being able to see what you have went through, and what you overcame.” 

Poet Manny Ramos’ well-worn notebook holds multiple drafts of each of his poems. He carries it with him nearly all the time. (Photo by Maggie Loesch)

The team is no stranger to uphill battles. As one of two neighborhood schools in the league, they often don’t feel seen by the judges. Most of their competitors come from charter and special admissions schools across the city. 

“These other schools are schools that have more resources,” said Coach O’Brien. “Many of the students there are coming from a position of more privilege. There’s a mismatch between the polish and the execution that wins the slams, and the heart and the bravery and the authenticity and the courage that [Kensington] bring[s].”

Cyara Wongus looks down Boston Street in Kensington as she leaves practice at KHSA on a Wednesday afternoon. (Photo by Maggie Loesch)

In fewer words: “We got the bars, it’s just no one ever appreciates them,” said Cyara “Kiki” Wongus, a rising senior at KHSA who grew up in Philadelphia.

Manny Ramirez waits for the El on the way to a Philly Slam League competition. The team gets on together at York-Dauphin, near KHSA, and gets off at City Hall station to walk the final three-fourths of a mile to the library. (Photo by Maggie Loesch)

Even so, the team still makes the 30- to 40-minute public transit and walking journey from KHSA to the Free Library for each and every competition. 

Manny Ramos performs his poem “Nikki” at a Philly Slam League competition. (Photo by Maggie Loesch)

The competition has its own set of rules that poets must follow, including time limits and content restrictions. A team will be disqualified from the day’s bout if one of their poets curses, says the n-word, performs more than once or fails to identify a “trigger warning” for sensitive topics. 

Manny Ramos is comforted by City Year leader Jeff Johnson in the stairway of the Free Library of Philadelphia after the team was disqualified during his piece. (Photo by Maggie Loesch)

During one of this season’s competitions, poet Manny Ramos stumbled on a line in his emotionally-loaded poem “Nikki” and cursed on stage. This was hard for him personally as well as the team, and even though they could not compete on stage, poets Cyara Wongus and Lexus Roman were determined to perform their poem “Liberty and Justice” for their family members and City Year faculty who showed up to support the team. They did so outside after the competition had ended.

Cyara Wongus and Lexus Roman perform their poem “Liberty and Justice” outside the library after the team’s disqualification. (Photo by Maggie Loesch)
Lexus Roman (right) celebrates with boyfriend Kenyon Stafford after performing “Liberty and Justice.” (Photo by Maggie Loesch)

This set back refocused the team, who came on the top of their game for the Semi-Finals competition. For the first time ever, the Kensington Poetry Team qualified to compete at the Philly Slam League Championships at the Kimmel Center. 

Members of the Tiger Poets celebrate after learning that they have qualified to compete at Slam League Championships. (Photo by Maggie Loesch)

They were the only neighborhood school of the eight teams to make it to the championships, held at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater on Friday, May 24. 

KHSA English teacher Maddie Luebbert throws their hands up in celebration and cheers with other faculty, staff, and City Year leaders, as they learn that the Tiger Poets will advance to the second round at championships. (Photo by Maggie Loesch)

Teachers, parents, grandparents, City Year, and more came out in full force to cheer on the Tiger Poets.

Manny Ramos performs on stage at the Philly Slam League championships at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater on May 24, 2019. (Photo by Maggie Loesch)

While they were eliminated after the second round, the team was more focused on enjoying the opportunity to perform at such a renowned venue for the arts. 

“It felt great to perform at championships — like my dedication paid off,” said rising senior Manny Ramos. “But it’s not just about me, it’s a team thing. I know there’s greatness in everyone on the team.”

The team has a chapbook of poems out now to support their team dues, transportation, and snacks. The full version of this project can be seen as a magazine here. The chapbook and magazine are both available for order by emailing loesch@temple.edu


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Editor: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Kristine Aponte

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