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Video

Watch the students perform

Watch Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement students perform “Emmett” and “Gorgon” at the 18th Annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Denver

 

CNN’s “Who Is Black in America” documentary, featuring Vision and the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement

 

Citizen of the Week: Vision DiVirgilio

His Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement helps city kids find their voice—and wins international spoken word slams

His Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement helps city kids find their voice—and wins international spoken word slams

Otter Jung-Allen and Veronica Nocella stand side by side on a stage, illuminated and facing the audience. They hold hands for a moment, wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts, and take a deep breath. Then they raise their arms and recite together, “Ten lessons for the white sons we might have.”

As they go on, Otter and Veronica interweave their voices, emotional and clear, to snaps of encouragement from the audience. “Because if we don’t, every inch you grow could be another nightmare you’ll give somebody!” they yell. It’s this past July, and the teens are in Atlanta for the Grand Slams Final of the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival. Their team, the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, chose Black Lives Matter as their theme, which they wove through every poem, from “Emmett,” exploring the murder of Emmett Till, to “Gorgon,” about the poplar in the infamous photo of a white celebration under the lynched body of a black man. Now, Otter and Veronica build to a crescendo, before stomping off.

“To the white sons we might have, you will not be silent in the face of destruction,” they exclaim. “Not under my roof!”

The crowd goes wild—and PYPM goes on to defeat more than 50 teams representing cities around the United States (and several from around the world) to take home the title of 2015 International Youth Poetry Slam Champion, the third time Philadelphia has held the honor since the competition was established in 2006. 

“I’ve never seen a team work this hard,” says PYPM coach Perry “Vision” DiVirgilio. “We practice six days a week, eight hours a day. They never complain.”

Vision, born and raised in North Philadelphia, is the artistic director of PYPM and a renowned international poet who heralds Philly wherever he goes.

“There’s nothing wrong with pride,” Vision tells me over coffee in West Philadelphia where he lives. “I take big pride in being a Philadelphian. In every city where I perform, people say, ‘Alright, Vision. Enough. We know you’re from Philly.’”

“I’d be on the corner with my friends,” Vision laughs, “and I’d say, hold on I have to run down the block to see a girl real quick.” The girl was poetry. When he finally came clean, his friends laughed. “We know,” they said. “It’s who you are.”

Vision attended Simon Gratz High, in the 90s, when “the drug scene in Philly was really crazy.” His father was a talented basketball player and “playground legend” around his neighborhood. “I could never get away with anything,” he says. “Someone always called my dad.”

But it was his mother who got Vision writing at a very young age and encouraged his talent, which emerged for real when he was a student studying Sociology and History at Dickinson College, a small predominantly white liberal arts college outside Harrisburg. “It was a total culture shock,” Vision recalls. “I was so focused on the corner. I thought, this isn’t for me.” But soon the classroom gave Vision an environment in which he could explore deep questions about the world he had been experiencing. He stopped simply regurgitating information he learned in books and started questioning it. He started pushing back against other students in his courses who expressed views rooted in their wealthy white backgrounds. Then he took a Medieval history class required for his minor. It was boring, and Vision quickly realized that if he appeared to be taking notes, the professor wouldn’t call on him. He began writing poems during class. He wrote and wrote.

After graduation, Vision returned to the city, where he started attending October Gallery poetry events, at the time the place to be for an aspiring young poet. “If you want to get into the arts, Philadelphia is the city to be in,” he says. “It’s everywhere. Everywhere you go there’s a jam session, an open mic.” The series’ organizer took one look at Vision and said, “You’re a poet. You’re gonna read next time.”

“I’d be on the corner with my friends,” Vision laughs, “and I’d say, hold on I have to run down the block to see a girl real quick.” The girl was poetry. When he finally came clean, his friends laughed. “We know,” they said. “It’s who you are.”

Vision worked a stint teaching social studies at a Community Education Partners school, but quickly realized a traditional classroom setting wasn’t for him. Then he met Greg Corbin, a fellow local poet with a deep interest in youth mentoring who is now PYPM’s Executive Director and serves on the Mayor’s Commission for African American Males. “He said, ‘there’s nothing in the city for kids,’” and asked Vision to help him start an organization that would encourage Philly kids to write and tell their stories. Vision jumped on board.

PYPM holds workshops for high school students every Saturday morning at Painted Bride Arts Center, monthly slams at the Rotunda, an annual city-wide high school slam that attracts teams from 22 schools and has built a vibrant community of young people. “Name a neighborhood and I can tell you a kid we have that comes from there,” Vision says. The workshops are free. “All they have to do is show up. They miss a few. They can always come back.”

The sessions combine free-writing and structured prompts and assignments with deadlines, revisions, and workshops on topics as various as mic skills to safe sex. Every month, the workshops have a new guest facilitator, and Vision brings in local poets and artists as well as representatives from health organizations like the Mazzoni Center to speak to his mentees.  

Several years ago, Vision and his students were featured in Soledad O’Brien’s 2013 CNN documentary, “Who is Black in America?” Vision’s students spoke eloquently on what it meant to be black, who “counts” as black, and their conflicting and complex feelings about their status as mixed race.

Vision also teaches poetry workshops at the Juvenile Justice Center and for the Department of Human Services, and coaches Swarthmore College’s poetry team. He says he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. “Look at all the artists we’re coming up behind who are from Philly—art is a great tradition here,” he notes. “We just don’t have the access like New York and Los Angeles do.”

But even this has an upside: Philadelphia is less expensive, which means artists can create whatever they want here.  

Vision has big plans for this year: a new crop of mentees, another national tour for him, and along with the rest of his group, Spoken Soul 215, hosting The Harvest—“the largest spoken word event in the tri-state area”—in the downstairs of World Café Live. (Their next event will take place on November 2).

“We are the most talented city,” Vision says, leaning forward in his chair. “We’ve got to work harder.”

Header photo: Vision (center back) and his PYPM team, courtesy of PYPM.

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