CT Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate Jaida Taveras. Al Larriva-Latt Photos.
“No scar on my body has ever healed,” spoke CT Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate Jaida Taveras, her voice between a tremor and a howl. “I have scratches across my back, burns all over my fingers, and bruises on my arms and legs.”
“This has to be my ancestors’ way of reminding me that my ancestors have been enslaved longer than they have ever been free,” she continued.
The poem, titled “Five Stages of Grief,” processes the trafficking and enslavement of West Africans during the Transatlantic slave trade. Saturday night, it was one of the many poems at WordFest Jam 2022 that dealt with the long and ongoing history of racism and violence against Black people and women across the globe and in the U.S.
Top: Musicians Cliff Schloss, Jocelyn Pleasant and Izaiah Richards, who comprised the house band. Bottom: Jonathan Lamboy. Al Larriva-Latt Photos.
With students from all experience levels, WordFest became a welcoming and inclusive platform for students to work through deep concerns—and to have their voices listened to. The event, held in the recital hall of the Neighborhood Music School on Audubon Street, returned to New Haven after a pandemic-enforced two-year hiatus. Each student had two chances to present.
The 12 student performers included Caden Davila-Sanabria, Ariana Morera, Day Day 83, CTK, Eli Short, Jaida Taveras, Jayden Carty, Jayleen Nieves, Jonathan Lamboy, Sy Barrett-Diaz, Tae Fetty, and Ta'Nina Gatison. All were Black and Brown high school students, the majority of whom were from New Haven.
Guitarist Cliff Schloss, bassist Izaiah Richards, and drummer Jocelyn Pleasant accompanied the performers. Over 40 people attended, spanning parents, siblings and friends, and the broader New Haven community.
Sharmont “Influence” Little.
“I commend you,” said Sharmont “Influence” Little, a spoken word artist, nurse, and actor in New Haven who was a special guest performer. “You’re writing your pain, your love, your sorrows, your misunderstandings, your concerns. You’re writing them down, you’re putting them on paper, you’re letting the world hear your voice. And that’s the best gift you can ever give yourself: to let people hear your voice.”
Young poets were on the same page when it came to mental health—which has become a crisis during the pandemic. Reading back-to-back, Lamboy and Barrett-Diaz transported the audience to their own mental headspaces.
Lamboy, a rising senior at Common Ground, was a first-time performer who’d written their poem at 9 a.m. the morning of the show. They shared with the audience their experiences with depression, which they equated to drowning.
Top: Nieves. Bottom: Poet Sy Barrett-Diaz.
In a papaya orange dress and sandals, the rapper and poet Barrett-Diaz followed with their poem “Sleep Well,” about grief, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and resilience.
“I say I love myself / Even though I hurt my body / I’m an angel who has fallen / Without wings I am not godly,” read Barret-Diaz, their voice swinging from one word to the next. As they spoke, a look of determination spread across their face.
Short’s poem about substance use disorder expanded on the same topic. Short explored the temporary escape drugs offer, but pointed to all the underlying mental health struggles they fail to solve. Standing tall above the audience, he roved the stage, his feet carrying him from one side of the audience to another. He rhymed and flowed in front of the mic.
“Couldn’t find a way to deal with the pressure proper / Like what’cha do when you feel it raining on top ya,” rapped Short.
His poem crescendoed into an anthem about resilience.
“I put the blunt down / I deserted all the drinking / Cuz all that it was doing was disturbing all my thinking.”
Jayleen Nieves, a student at Metropolitan Business Academy and member of Students for Educational Justice (SEJ).
One performer explored the mental health crisis from an advocacy standpoint. Jayleen Nieves is a Metropolitan Business Academy student who has been organizing with Students for Educational Justice (SEJ). SEJ’s ‘s current campaign pushes for the removal of School Resource Officers (SROs)—which students view as another form of the police–from the New Haven Public Schools system. Not all New Haven Public Schools have SROs: Metro has a school security guard.
Nieves performed a poem about a stabbing incident at Metro. It occurred because the Metro administrators failed to provide adequate mental health care to the students involved, Nieves said.
“We ask for help, but somehow, that isn’t funded / We only ask for help, but somehow, that isn’t our need. / We have to stop this / We have to save some time / But somehow, we are one of the news lines,” said Nieves.”
Top: Jayden Carty. Bottom: The final bow.
Influence closed out the first half of the event with two electrifying poems about racist policing and violence against Black boys, and Black fatherhood—themes that aligned and complemented those addressed by the student poets.
For all the seriousness there was also joy.
Fetty leapt up from his seat and rushed toward the piano, directing the band to accompany him in the key of A flat. Oozing charisma and ease, he began to perform an original R&B song entitled “Yours.” A San Diego Padres baseball cap flashed atop his head.
Another source of levity was Morera’s poem, dedicated to a “someone special” in the audience. Morera proceeded to speak of the happiness and security the relationship has given her. As she read, she glanced deep into the audience, where her partner was sitting.
In a freestyle rap session, Day Day 83, CTK, Carty, and Barrett-Diaz took the stage and arrayed themselves in a tight arc. A remix of Estelle’s “American Boy” blasted from the speakers on both sides of the stage.
As the four passed the mic back and forth, they coaxed each other into words, then sentences, then fluency. Carty and Barrett-Diaz began to flow, and the two boys beside him began to dance. Arms hanging low, Day Day 83 and CTK kicked their feet to the rhythm, then bent their knees and dropped to the floor. The crowd looked on, rapt–then cheered.
The shyness of the quartet onstage began to evaporate into pleasure. The spotlight was on them, they were being seen, and they were being listened to.
“Thank you guys for actually listening,” Lambert spoke into the mic at the event’s close. “Damn.”