“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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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].”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Teachers, parents, grandparents, City Year, and more came out in full force to cheer on the Tiger Poets.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Editor: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Kristine Aponte