YourWords STL

Brick by brick

Guest Blog Post from Executive Director, Steve Handoyo

The echo of youth voices and applause over the past month continue to wash over me in astonished waves. Commuting back and forth between Chicago and St. Louis, my month has been suffused with young artists building our future. Last week, I was blessed to witness the first official YourWords STL graduation at Lift for Life Gym. In a room a few blocks north of downtown, young female writers from 9-18 years old built a creative, encouraging, courageous, safe space with their workshop leader, Patsy Zettler. Their sturdy brick of creative space leads to castles. One shimmering example is Young Chicago Authors who patiently laid their bricks over the past couple decades, culminating in the 17th season of the largest poetry festival in the world, Louder Than a Bomb.


The LTAB Team Quarterfinals filled a classroom in Malcolm X College a few weeks ago. Besides a couple interlopers, I suspect the crowd consisted of some parents, a few high school coaches, but predominantly was a raucous class auditorium of high school poets and their fellow student hype teams. This was the most memorable iteration, as students from around Chicago heard each other, picked up poets when they faltered, and mobbed them at the end of their verbal self-sacrifice of pain, pride, and promise. The smaller venue was able to bottle up the passion in that room, shake it silly, and let it explode at the end of each piece.

Photo credit: Nea Reid

The co-founders of YourWords STL were graciously invited to the LTAB National Symposium in Chicago in Mid-March. The programming included tours around Chicago schools who have incorporated LTAB curriculum, including some that had paired resident teaching artists with English teachers.  Over 110 Chicago high schools have created slam poetry teams. Panels that week included many community partners and a dozen YCA alumni who have spread around the city and country as artists and organizers. The enthusiasm, hope, and talent that surrounded the hosted organizations from around the continent will provide a critical boost to all of our local missions and visions.

The Symposium nights culminated in the LTAB "Indy" Finals at the Dusable Museum of African American History and the LTAB Team Finals at the Auditorium Theater downtown. Each night was unique and indelible. The individual poets brought surgical strikes of stunning education to their audience.  As always, I am reassured by that knife-edged insight brandished by our country’s youth. Having heard high-school senior Ireon Roach twice now, I am reminded of how much I need to learn at the age of 40. To see students screaming for poetry is as glorious as you would imagine.


The Team Final was described to me as a celebration, and it was exactly that. The Quarterfinals involved several hundred in a college classroom, and the Indy Finals about 2700 in the still intimate DuSable Museum. For the  Team Finals, the event took over the 128-year-old, Adler and Sullivan-designed Auditorium Theater holding nearly 4000. Students f, coaches, YCA artists and alumni, families and friends of the poets, and Chicago folk appreciative of young artists filled the theater. At every opportunity, music and dancing organically exploded. The audience, hanging on each crafted syllable of the poets, snapped in assent until a twisted phrase pulled out irrepressible shouts. Pandemonium usually ensued especially after the brilliant group pieces weaving the crowd into knots through threads of movement, rhythm, and word.   The safety of this enormous space was evident, as poets felt empowered to crack cutting critique of the competition artifice throughout their pieces.   I am in awe of the sanctuary those artists created in an iconic island.

I was unsure if I should enter the sanctum of Lift for Life Gym’s back office on the last day of the 3-month workshops last week. Patsy and I planned exit strategies in case it was clear that the writers’ space was altered by my presence. From the precocious 9-year-old to the imminent Washington University high-school senior, these writers were courageous, hilarious, and nurturing to each other. They were undaunted by the dude in the back. I thank Patsy and Stephanie, our Lift for Life workshop leaders, for working with that room of writers to craft their narratives. I thank the young women for allowing me to visit their space and listen to their art.

On April 7th, YourWords STL will be bringing LTAB co-founder, Kevin Coval, and YCA National Director and former LTAB alum and champion, Nate Marshall, to The Stage at KDHX to discuss slam poetry programming and it’s capacity to empower students in the area. Youth poets, teachers, artists, and community organizers will discuss how to accelerate arts opportunities in St. Louis. Imagine how many bricks we can all build.


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