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From Open Mic to the Spotlight

Newark Memorial student joins Bay Area team in 2011 national spoken word competition.

A young voice is emerging from Newark and onto the stage of a nationwide competition.

Seventeen-year-old Gretchen Carvajal is taking part in the 2011 Brave New Voices Youth Poetry Slam competition taking place in San Francisco this week. It is the largest spoken word event in the world since its inception in 1998.

Carvajal was shocked when she became one of the contestants moving onward to the national poetry slam after competing in last spring.  She described the moment as surreal.

 “I didn’t think I would make it,” she said.  “I knew a lot of new poets and veterans that were competing this year, and I felt more like a newbie than most of them. So it felt great to make it with them. It was even better because they’re all my friends. We work very cohesively as a team.”

This is Carvajal’s biggest success as a poet by far.  However, despite the openness and sense of maturity she brings to her poems, the Newark Memorial High School senior’s experience with the spoken word is actually relatively short. 

She was first introduced to the world of poetry during her sophomore year by a former Newark Memorial English teacher, Cathlin Goulding. Watching a video of spoken word poet Joshua Bennett in class is what led Carvajal to participate in her first open mic event at the Newark Library, where she read a poem about her mom in honor of her birthday.

“It felt like this was something I was supposed to do,” Carvajal said. “It was such a positive way of showing me to people without being too vulnerable about it.  You can be vulnerable but at the same time, while you’re speaking, it can be so strong with such integrity.” 

Her poetry on touches a wide array of topics, but often her poems focus on race, gender, family and the experience of being an immigrant. Carvajal moved here from the Philippines with her family when she was 8. Her object is to write on subjects that everyone can relate to, no matter who they are.

 “If I’m appalled by something that much, or if I’m passionate about something that much, it just makes me want to write about it,” said Carvajal. She is currently working on a piece in response to remarks made by former UCLA student Alexandra Wallance about Asians.

For Carvajal, poetry is an artistic outlet. It allows her to speak her mind without being too harsh about it.

“It’s a way of showing people what I think. Poetry is so freeing. It just really unleashes your soul,” she said.

From positive feedback to tears from her family members, Carvajal said her poetry has impacted others in different ways. But the poet is determined to continue developing her skills by exploring different styles, including extended metaphors. 

 “Poetry is not always beautiful literature fluff,” she explained.  “You can’t fool anyone with what they’re trying to say through flowery similes.  You have to be real, and I like to be as real as possible.”

Asked how she sees herself, Carvajal describes herself as a revolutionary poet and someone who is always bold. But she said she has a long way to go and hopes to help others experience what she has with poetry.

“I have so much more to experience,” she said. “I see myself as hopefully becoming a mentor to other people and doing so much more than just competing but really speaking to other people.”

While she has one more year at Newark Memorial, Carvajal already has plans to pursue writing in her studies in college.

She said she plans to apply for the First Wave program at the University of Wisconsin, a program with hip-hop affiliations that accepts 15 to 20 people every year.

Carvajal plans to major in creative writing and become an English teacher, hopefully one as influential as Goulding.

In the meantime, Carvajal has spent her summer vacation making weekly trips to San Francisco to prepare for Brave New Voices.  She describes the preparations as grueling, but despite their intensity, Carvajal is confident that the Bay Area team will win at Brave New Voices.

 “Everyone is really different on the team and I think that’s what makes us so great.  It makes us work in unison and at the same time, being our own selves and having our own style,” she said.

 “I think we’re all determined, especially since we’re all newcomers, so we’re all hyped up and ready. We have that newbie nerve mentality sometimes, but I think more than that, we are all so determined to show what we've got.”

The 2011 Brave New Voices will be held in San Francisco from July 20-23. Click www.bravenewvoices.org for more details on when the Bay Area team is competing. 

To watch Carvajal reciting one of her pieces, click on the video above.

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