Delivering a monologue to a packed room is enough to put most of us on edge. But for slam poets, who “perform” their own poems to live audiences across the country, it’s old hat. MSG Network has captured one microcosm of this modern art form with its “Knicks Poetry Slam” series (new season premieres Thurs, May 27, 8pm), which tracks scores of teenaged poets vying for a chance to win grants, scholarships and other prizes offered throught the KPS program. The competition operates “American Idol”-style—judges gradually pare down the pool as poets advance—and with each round comes a higher bar to overcome. MSG Net does a good job capturing the poets’ nervousness before they go on (and elation after they survive the stage), and unlike most reality shows it avoids the temptation to highlight relationships and infighting between the players. Instead, MSG focuses mostly on the kids’ struggles to express themselves as they riff about everything from beauty to love to violence to racism to homophobia and beyond.
Overall, Knicks Poetry Slam sticks to a straight-ahead documentary style, intercutting sideline interviews with the poets with their performances in front of enthusiastic audiences. To be sure, these kids are impressive, with even younger teens holding their own against more experienced 18- and 19-year-olds. Poems range from sweet refrains to furious rapid-fire rants, with some poems veering into hip-hop/rap territory and others simply giving an urban spin to what might otherwise be considered traditional poetic structure. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the show for those of us whose teenaged years are long gone is that it gives us a window into the fears, joys, anxieties and concerns of today’s youth. And despite common stereotypes, it’s not all about inner-city strife. One guy recounted his childhood trips in the back of a minivan, including his adolescent attempts to air-drum to Phil Collins. Others talked about love and loss. For adults, Knicks Poetry Slam confirms that being a teenager involves timeless anxieties, making it strangely relatable despite the youth spotlight.
In the end, Knicks Poetry Slam offers an interesting look at the creativity bubbling up from this subculture of Beatnik-esque wordsmiths who play with the English language until it abides by the rules they set. The program, which was created in 2003 to reach high-school youth, continues to put the sometimes untapped brilliance of this generation on display. With $350K in scholarships and prizes for this year’s competition, it was already a worthy endeavor. Watching it unfold in this 6-episode series just makes it all the more enjoyable.

(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX)

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