Verse becomes art on stage at the BHS SLAM Spoken Word club


Spoken word is a powerful performance of poetry that, rather than reflecting one’s own story, reflects a broader message about society as a whole. Spoken word centers largely around how a poem is performed using both vocal techniques and physical movements when delivering meaningful lines. 

The Berkeley High School Student Led Arts Movement (SLAM) Spoken Word club was originally founded in 1999 by three BHS School alumni: Chinaka Hodge, Rick Ayers, and Daveed Diggs. “It had a really big group and then it kind of fizzled out,” said Julia Segre, a junior at BHS and Spoken Word club poet.

While working with Youth Speaks, a San Francisco-based organization aimed to empower youth development through the art of spoken word, Segre attended a workshop on how to start a SLAM club in high school. After recruiting some of her friends, Segre took initiative and restarted the club last year as a sophomore. “People really want to be involved in something that’s meaningful, something like this, but you just have to go out and find them,” said Segre.

During club meetings, members write and work on their poems as well as rehearse their visual performances. The club also works year round to prepare for SLAM competitions such as Unified SLAM, a competition that invites various SLAM Spoken Word clubs from high schools across the Bay Area to compete. “(The events are) really nice places where everybody’s involved, and everybody’s really supportive,” said Cruz Foster, a sophomore and member of the SLAM Spoken Word club.

The club also looks to expand its presence in the larger BHS community. Last school year, the club hosted an Open Mic event during lunch where students were given the opportunity to come to the stage and share their poetry. “I think the event was super lively and vibrant and people were having fun,” said Segre, “and that’s what we try to have in our events.”

What makes the SLAM Spoken Word club unique is not only its nature of spreading diverse ideas through poetry, but also the interactive ways of presenting spoken word.

“When you choose a word, you are making an artistic choice,” said Lol-Be Ceaser-Santos, a junior at BHS and club member. During spoken word, performers may use harsh, cold adjectives to establish a gloomy tone, or speak really fast to the point of unintelligibility. “Spoken word is basically … sentences and phrases, but (using) different intonations and different points of emphasis and different ways of saying it to give it more depth and more meaning,” said Ceaser-Santos.

Club members value the SLAM Spoken Word club’s diversity of perspectives from students of differing small schools, ethnic groups, and religions. “We have a good mix of people in this group so that we can find both relatability and expose other people to things that they have not experienced,” said Ceaser-Santos. 

The diversity within the SLAM Spoken Word club helps to build community amongst BHS students by sharing different values and perspectives. “Poetry can make any social issue feel personal to you,” said Segre, “(because when) you hear a line from someone else, it becomes a personal issue.”

Foster has also learned how to integrate motion and timing into his poetic performances. Writing wise, spoken word has expanded his vocabulary, as the process of digging through synonyms and antonyms and definitions exposes him to new words. 

For Caesar-Santos, joining the club has taught her to open up when receiving criticism. While it can be difficult to receive feedback when the work is deeply personal, poets learn how to accept constructive criticism from their peers, and learn how to communicate clearly.

“Spoken word isn’t just writing poetry and keeping it to yourself … It’s sharing it with people who don’t know you, who have never met you,” said Ceaser-Santos. “You’re trying to give them a good picture (of) your world.”