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Cleveland Teens Head to National Slam Poetry Finals in Houston

Raja Belle Freeman, Daniel Gray-Kontar and Nick Vitello

More than five-hundred young poets from around the country head to Houston next week for the national slam poetry championship, which is part of the Brave New Voices festival.

Cleveland sends a team of 4 young poets who've grown under the tutelage of former national poetry slam champion - Daniel Gray-Kontar.

Daniel Gray-Kontar [courtesy: Twelve Literary Arts]

Gray-Kontar's "Twelve Literary Arts" center in the Waterloo Arts District has become the team's home base.

"We're really just trying to expose writers to being in the tradition and also experimenting.  So as long as we're able to merge innovation with tradition, I think we're doing the work that we've intended to do with young people," Gray-Kontar said.

The team is made up of  Raja Belle Freeman, Nick Vitello, Tiana Wilson and Mary Barrett.

Raja Belle Freeman [courtesy: Twelve Literary Arts]

Freeman became interested in poetry at an early age.

"My [third grade] teacher was going around the room and reading people's [poems]. She was telling people how good they were doing, and I thought she was going to tell me mine was bad.  She got to mine and she stopped the whole class and said, 'Everyone listen to Raja's haiku!'" Freeman said.

Raja Belle Freeman reads her poem "Divorce Ring":


Nick Vitello [courtesy: Twelve Literary Arts]

Vitello likes the performance aspect of slam poetry as much as the writing.

"I am someone who likes getting opportunities to perform.  When I was given opportunities to perform at open mics I would scribble something down.   I had a very distant relationship with poetry for a long time.  But as the opportunities I've been presented build up, I've been more and more involved on the scene in Cleveland," Vitello said.

Nick Vitello reads his poem "Galactic Cleanup Crew":


Gray-Kontar believes the experience of writing and performing poetry prepares these young Clevelanders for the future.

"The biggest thing that Brave New Voices actually does for young people is to provide them with the tools to participate in the democratic process," Gray-Kontar said.

The Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival takes place July 18-21 in Houston.

Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.