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TIGER POETS The Story of the Kensington Poetry Team 2019 Season


The Story of the Kensington Poetry Team 2019 Season Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Team: Yuriel Amonte, Margibeth Diaz, Sonieris Diaz, Fantaja Jones, Michelle López, Tywan Madden, Lexus Roman, Michael Nieves, Sally O’Brien, Manny Ramirez, Manny Ramos, Mia Rodriguez, Kenyon Stafford, and Cyara Wongus.

Photographs and text by Maggie Loesch. Edited by Maggie Loesch.

Text set in Alphabetized Casette Tapes, Avenir, VAG-HandWritten &


© Maggie Loesch 2019. Self-published in Philadelphia in 2019. First edition printed and bound in Philadelphia, PA, in Spring 2019.

The Key

by Maggie Loesch

My camera is a key It unlocks doors to other lives Permission to enter Spaces I would otherwise never see.

KENSINGTON POETRY TEAM 2019 ROSTER HEAD COACH Sal y O'Brien ASST. COACH Fantaja Jones POETS Yuriel Amonte ‘19 Margibeth Diaz ‘19 Michel e Lopez ‘19 Tywan Madden ‘19 Sonieris Martinez ‘22 Michael Nieves ‘19 Manny Ramirez ‘19 Manny Ramos ‘19 Mia Rodriguez ‘21 Lexus Roman ‘21 Kenyon Stafford ‘21 Cyara Wongus ‘19

INTRODUCTION “Strong, rowdy, teamwork, and loyal,” are the words that come to Assistant Coach Fantaja Jones’ mind to describe the members of the Kensington Poetry Team (KPT). Established in 2017, the team is the 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 to practice at KHSA, and compete against other high schools every other Friday after school in the Philly Slam League’s East Division. PSL is held at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central Branch.

When the final bell of the day rings, nothing about Wednesdays after school at KHSA seems different from any other day at any other school. Not at first, at least. Students scatter; they grab their bookbags and head to the store to grab a snack with their friends, others go to sports practice or after school jobs. But a few hang around, first goofing around in the hallways, and eventually making their way to room 104.


Margii (left) takes a selfie on Snapchat with Tywan in the hallway outside Ms. O’Brien’s classroom at KHSA.


Fantaja writes prompt ideas on her notepad before practice.


The first person in the room is almost always 18-year-old Fantaja Jones, an alumna and founding member of the poetry team. She graduated from KHSA in 2018 and now serves as the Assistant Coach. Fantaja creates some of the prompts the team writes from during practice and works on her own poetry.


Students leave KHSA at the end of a Wednesday.



From left, Fantaja, Ms. O’Brien, Michelle, and Tywan talk about strategies for the season’s remaining competitions. Scoring is based on writing and performance, with five judges rating poets from 1-10.





“She is the glue that holds our poetry team together.” Sally O’Brien, the team’s coach, is an English teacher at KHSA and helped start the team years ago. “She is the glue that holds our poetry team together,” said Fantaja. “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.” Wednesday practices at KHSA range from poetry games and brainstorming sessions, to giving feedback on new pieces written in the past week, to talking strategy for the next competition. There’s always pizza from Fiore’s, a local shop that offers discounts to high schools. Much of the team’s poetry comes from metaphors given to ordinary items; One exercise began with students listing everyday items they can hold in their hands, and pushed them to craft a poem comparing their poetry to the item they chose.


Coach O’Brien stands at the board during a practice, recording new poem ideas as team members call them out.




My Pen is a Mop by Manny Ramirez

My pen is a mop. It helps me clean up The mess of words that I try to speak. They come out as giberish But are written in cursive. It helps me fix the mayhem Of slurs and accidental tongue rol s. It fixes the perspective I never show when I speak. Nice and neat to see clear as day. So much to say but not today. Easy to figure out but hard to put out. End up speaking fast and it comes out like trash. Not that easy to speak so I'm gonna take my seat.


“It’s about putting your feelings out on paper, and being able to see what you have went through.” Kensington’s 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 writing, it’s not about poetry, it’s not about reading,” said Fantaja. “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 don’t often 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].”





“We got the bars, it’s just no one ever appreciates them,” said Cyara, a junior at KHSA who grew up in Philadelphia.


Diana by Margii

My dog: she’s a smal chihuahua, she’s light brown and white, she’s always with me like whenever I’m crying or upset, she kisses me to let me know I’m okay, I give her food and love and affection, I wish she would understand me whenever I told her she means the most to me She’s the one thing in the world that keeps me going and not give up because if I’m nobody in life how can I treat my dog like she’s the best? And she’s the best! Every time I lay in bed I look at her and know damn wel I would be so hurt if something ever happened to her, I wish she would understand me when I say, “Te amo Diana,” or “I Love You Baby”




A note from Coach O’Brien is written on the white board of her classroom before a slam competition. Members of the team all have hectic lives, and it’s not uncommon for a poet or coach to turn up just in time for the competition. Even with family, school, work, and other obligations, it is clear that the team is a priority for nearly everyone.



From Boys To Men By Tywan

When a young boy gets older he hopes to be like his father And if he dosen't know who his father is, then he wonders what he was like After al , a young boy is his father’s son A replica of the original copy A flower sprouting from his seed There is no bond like the bond a boy shares with his father A boy needs his father to mold him into the man he's supposed to become But what happens when a boy dosen't have his father in his life What if that boy dosen't grow up to be the man you want him to be What if he takes an unexpected turn and ventures down a new path Does that make him intolerable? Does that make him less worthy of your love? Maybe that makes him a disappointment You cast that young boy away like he's a rotten peice of fruit And abandon him like a vacant building


A man is a lover of women and a starter of families A man provides for his family while holding down the fort A man never sheds a tear Because that's what men do So When a boy isn't the man you want him to be you turn a blind eye to him You don't accept his sexuality because it's unmanly


Your disapproving eyes makes the boy ashamed of himself, but you don't care because his way of life is unmanly You won't let him around your children because his negative influence is unmanly If only more fathers were accepting of their not so masculine sons You’d rather drown him with overwhelming masculinity than understand why he is the way he is He'l hang the boy with scriptures cal ing to his god to cleanse his son's tainted soul Your son should be a man and you'll accept nothing less than that When will you understand that it isn't just a mans world any more Or does everyone who isn't a man get to make those types of choices Girls may be pressured into looking a certain kind of beautiful But boys go through a life long internal battle becoming the man people are eagerly awaiting for Or not Either way, a boy dosen't need to be beaten into becoming something that he isn't meant to be And he dosen't need to be criminalized for deciding to be his true self A boy simply needs supported in whatever path he decides to take.. . . n





Fantaja and Ms. O’Brien cross Front Street under the Market-Frankford Line tracks as they lead the team towards the York-Dauphin stop, where they will board a westbound train to Center City to get to the Free Library.




Manny Ramirez waits on the platform at York-Dauphin Station on the Market-Frankford Elevated Line during the team’s journey from their high school to the library.




Fantaja (left) and Cyara gossip on the train on the way to the slam.


Cyara practices reciting her poem “Summer Nights� on the way to a Philly Slam League Competition. Memorizing helps teams earn points as deductions are made for holding a phone or paper.





Fantaja and Yuriel talk on the escalator after getting off the train at 15th Street Station near City Hall.





Fantaja and Cyara have a heated discussion while waiting to cross the street on the Ben Franklin Parkway in Center City. On the 3/4 of a mile walk from the Market-Frankford Line stop to the library, there’s plenty of time for the team to practice their pieces, talk, and banter. The total journey from KHSA to the library is about four miles, and takes 30-40 minutes to complete with walking and transit.



Cyara jokes with KHSA English teacher Mx. Luebbert as they walk up the Ben Franklin Parkway on the way to the slam. Mx. Luebbert is a huge supporter of the team and makes it to every competition they can.




With each season running from February to May, Philly Slam League aims to be a safe place for youth to explore their voices. The audience is encouraged to cheer for every poet as if they were their best friend, and to “speak back” when a poet’s words speak to them by snapping to waving a hand as if they’re holding a pen (better known as “pen swag”). Although it is a very inclusive environment, the slams still have their own cliques and teams that usually win. This usually doesn’t include the team from Kensington.


Cyara takes in the crowd as she performs her poem “Summer Nights� on stage at the Montgomery Auditorium at the Free Library of Philadelphia at a Philly Slam League competition.



By Fantaja Why am I like this? Left without self-love or self-worth, Always feeling worthless Always letting my temptations get In the way of my life,

I know I’m stronger than this But I can’t seem to get my strength up and Do something different I’m stuck in my same old ways Same old routine, and now it’s getting to be too much I real y need to do something with myself, But my person won’t acknowledge the fact that I can’t get myself out of the hole I dug, And al I seem to do is bug everybody around me, I find myself becoming more mean to the ones That love me, and give more respect to the ones that Don’t love me, I’m always fucking my own life up, And instead of my inner demon getting me Back on track, he’s got his claws in my back Effortlessly dragging me down the wrong path I Can’t get myself out of. I have drove myself into despair, They told me to leave but they don’t want Me to disappear I’m told I know where I stand But do I real y, or too ignorant and just don’t care, I’m stuck in a fairytale of what if’s and Maybe’s or one day or hopeful y,



But Izzy my reality told me it would never be That one person just don’t want me, Then I sit back and reflect on why I ain’t enough, What do I have to change in myself so that I could be enough??? But I guess that’l never happen, Am I thinking too much? Am I thinking too less? Why can’t I just figure out what’s best? Why in my mind do I have to rely on someone Else to make me feel loved? Why do only then do I think my life wil fal Into place? It shouldn’t have to take for me to feel loved So that I could actual y live my life, I’m like an angel with its wings cut off And I’m running for my life to keep up While everyone already had took flight And I can’t seem to catch up no matter How hard I try to make a new pair of Wings, I wil always fly a little too close to The sun (powerless) (no self control), Letting the weight of the world be too heavy for my scrawny shoulders. (Helpless) (Hopeless), I’m supposed to be the light to my darkness, But instead I’m just the wal s colored black To make my dark darker, Everytime I look into the mirror I see Something I don’t want to be and I want to Change I just don’t know where to start, It always feel like my life’s fal ing apart, Maybe if I stay silent and let the world Do the talking I’l get somewhere n

Tywan waits for his name to be called to perform at the Philly Slam League.





Michael (center) nervously presses his hands to his face before performing a group piece with Tywan (right) at a Philly Slam League competition. “Group pieces” are poems that feature two or more poets performing together. They automatically gain more points than individual performances in the Slam League’s scoring system, and have been a struggle for KPT because their team is small.




KHSA English teacher Mx. Luebbert (right) and some team members cheer as they hear that Kensington Poetry Team has made it to the third round of competition in the last regular-season slam. Making the third round had only happened two other times in the team’s history; other slams they found themselves misunderstood by the judges and audience, or even disqualified.


Manny performs his poem “Nikki� at the Philly Slam League. This piece was emotionally loaded for him, and after stumbling on a line, he cursed on stage.


The Slam League’s rules include grounds for disqualification of the whole team if... • A poet curses • A poet says the n-word • A poet performs more than once • A poet does not identify a “trigger warning” for a piece with sensitive content




After the Kensington Poetry Team was disqualified, poets Lexus (right) and Cyara performed their piece, “Liberty and Justice,” outside of the library. They were supposed to compete in the competition’s third, most competitive round. Only four teams from the week’s bout are selected for the third round, and the team only made it to that round twice this season.


Liberty and Justice by Cyara and Lexus

How can I stand up high and fill my face with pride, When every single day more of my people die? How can I salute the red, white, and blue when the red sticks to our bodies like glue, holding us down and pushing us through? Blue bruises reminding me what we really are to you. As the red and blue passed, I thought, "Was I about to pass?" Hands up, don't shoot! God make me glass. I ain't giving him bunny ears when I'm holding this piece behind his head Should I make peace and put it down or should I light off a couple rounds until his face hits the ground? "Make America Great," but all we do is study hate Can't even walk in these streets without being a cop's new fresh meat BANG! Why did you do it? It was self defense Why did you kill him? The moment was too intense; his skin full of melanin glowed in my police lights. I saw that young man having a future, you know, really taking flight.


CityYear fellows who work at KHSA watch and record Lexus and Cyara’s performance outside the library. They came to support the Kensington team at a Philly Slam League competition. CityYear is an AmeriCorps program that places supportive staff in high-need schools.

I saw that man having a wife and kid, his little girl was so bright. And to be honest, I did it out of spite. Now bite me, because I still have my job. Say something wrong and you pulled to your face based on Don't judge me for speaking my mind because I stil have speech, right?

get a gun your race.. what's on freedom of

Mind your business cause it'll pass just like he did. Man my gun was heated, even before I pul ed the trigger. Guess it didn't like that black ugly n****r. His life was gone in a flash.. In my defense, I was only playing cops and robbers like when I was a little kid. My dad told me take the bad guys out or you won't live, so I did and I'm still breathin'.


How can I pledge allegiance to the flag when we're the ones marked with stripes? When we're the ones seeing stars? Ripped and torn is our flag, our blood, and our hope.. When we can final y cal this place our home, is when we receive Our liberty and justice, For al ! n

Cyara celebrates with friend and fellow poet Tywan after her and Lexus’ performance outside the library.

Lexus and her boyfriend Kenyon hug following Lexus and Cyara’s reading of “Liberty and Justice.”



Weeks later, at the East Division Semi-Finals slam, Lexus and Cyara were able to debut their poem on the stage at the Free Library. The crowd went wild, snapping their fingers and waving pen swag throughout the performance, and giving a standing ovation at the end.




Team members react to the news that the Kensington Poetry Team has placed in the top four of the East Division at Semi-Finals and will be advancing to the Slam League’s Championship competition at the Kimmel Center. This is a first for the team.



“That’s my coach!” shout Soneiris, Margii, Manny, Fantaja, Mx. Luebbert, Kenyon, and Lexus after a poetry slam (L to R). “That’s my coach!” answers Ms. O’Brien as she points to Fantaja.




The Kensington Poetry Team will compete at the Philly Slam League’s Championship at the Kimmel Center on Friday, May 24, 2019. Their goal is not to win Championships, but simply to enjoy performing in such an esteemed venue and celebrate the hard work that got them to this point.