Thunder's First Poetry Slam a Hit

At first blush, you’re more likely to associate the Thunder with slam-dunks than with slam poetry, but think again. As part of its ongoing commitment to promoting reading and education in the community, the Thunder recently kicked off its first Poetry Slam, a contest aimed at fueling creativity and expression among high school students.

Held Monday, March 8, in the auditorium of Oklahoma City’s Northwest Classen High School, the tournament drew 16 young poets vying for first place and its $500 scholarship. Sitting on the panel of judges was the Thunder’s Etan Thomas, who knows a thing or two about writing. In 2005, he authored a collection of poetry, “More Than an Athlete: Poems by Etan Thomas,” and is a contributing writer to the popular blog, The Huffington Post.

He urged the Slam competitors to keep at their craft.

“All of you are passionate about what you’re writing about,” he said shortly before performing one of his own poems for the kids. “I would just encourage you to keep going. Everybody’s going to have different things they feel passionate about. Just try to express it. It’s all about expression – whatever’s inside of you.”

Thomas, 31, has participated in Poetry Slams since he attended Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High School, where he steadily moved from reading poetry to writing his own.

A spoken-word movement that first gained popularity in the 1990s, Poetry Slams give competitors up to three minutes to recite their original poetry for a panel of judges who then assign numerical scores from 0 to 10. Content is obviously important, but Poetry Slams also grade competitors on the passion of their performances.

The Thunder’s inaugural poetry slam drew no shortage of talented young people brimming with creativity, insight and guts. Their poetry delved into some meaty subject matter: God and love, beauty and sorrow, self-expression and self-reliance. Oh, and there was a poem about basketball, too.

Kelsey Grae, a senior from Oklahoma City’s Classen School of Advanced Studies, took home first place. The 17-year-old, who said she learned about the contest from a flyer at school, wrote her poem during a snow day. Two second-place winners -- Tiffany Johnson, a senior at Oklahoma City’s Northeast Academy; and Madina Iskandarova, a senior at Oklahoma City’s Dove Science Academy -- earned $250 scholarships apiece.

The three winners will be honored during a presentation at the Thunder’s March 12 home game against the New Jersey Nets. All the participants, however, received tickets to the Thunder’s game Wednesday, March 10, against the New Orleans Hornets.

The panel of judges also included noted Oklahoma City slam poet Lauren Zuniga, slam poet and Thunder drummer Matt Vaughan, Oklahoma City Public Schools spokeswoman Kathleen Kennedy and a woman randomly selected from the audience.

Echoing his fellow judges, Thomas said he hopes the Thunder Poetry Slam will continue to grow in scope and popularity.

Based on the quality of this year’s contestants, he is optimistic.

“They all represented their work really well, were passionate and well-written,” he said. “I thought it was great.”