JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a war of words and poetry: Spencer Michels reports.
AJA CAVETANO: Who am I? I am Mexican, African American, Native American, and Nicaraguan.
SPENCER MICHELS: 16-year-old Aja Cayetano was the leadoff contestant in a competition among two teams of young, street-wise poets held at a San Francisco bookstore.
AJA CAVETANO: Man, remember the 80's? The mayfest dance and pompom girls? Now, that's the time where I was free -- free to be me and walk wherever I wanted to go.
SPENCER MICHELS: Aja's team is made up of women up to age of 21, all affiliated with an agency that helps young women at risk. The other team was all young men from a detention home called Log Cabin run by the San Francisco Probation Department. 15-year-old Djalma Majani Tillett is one of the team's stars.
DJALMA MAJANI TILLETT: The only way you'll find the enemy, man: Stare deep off in the mirror at the enemy plain, and the century insane, in this century insane.
SPENCER MICHELS: These contests, called poetry slams, have become increasingly popular as a way to reclaim poetry's oral traditions. An organization known as Writers Corps saw them as a tool to reclaim kids in trouble. The corps now administers poetry slam leagues in the Bronx, Washington, DC, and San Francisco. Janet Heller is project manager of the San Francisco operation.
JANET HELLER, Writer Corps: Getting interested in writing, being a little bit more introspective, and then having the opportunity to read, like at a slam, just helps kids be more confident in themselves, and they communicate better in groups, their vocabulary increases, and overall they just -- they want to be more directed.
DJALMA MAJANI TILLETT: So I'd sell drugs, I'd rob people, you know, but not that's what I do now. That's the past, and if I dwelt on the past, I would be living in the past.
SPENCER MICHELS: For Djalma, poetry, which he relates to rap, seemed to be a way to channel his thoughts.
DJALMA MAJANI TILLETT: My comrade votes. Some have choked me quote, but I'm the most.
DJALMA MAJANI TILLETT: It's just a good mind exercise. It just keeps me away from thinking the negative things, you know, or doing negative things.
SPENCER MICHELS: It sounds like you think rap and poetry are essentially the same thing.
DJALMA MAJANI TILLETT: It's all the same. It's just with a beat, and, you know, poetry sped up a little, sometimes slowed down a little. It's all the same, but it's all from the heart.
SPENCER MICHELS: Poetry has also become an important part of life for Aja Cayetano. Until recently, she was on the streets in San Francisco's Mission District, a gang member, often in trouble, who dropped out of school, bored.
AJA CAYETANO: I wasn't used to hanging around in a big group of 30 kids sitting at desks no more or stuff like that. So I used to not go to school at all and come straight down to, like, where all my friends be at.
SPENCER MICHELS: Wasn't it dangerous?
AJA CAYETANO: It was dangerous, but something about the danger at that time in me wanted to keep on going after it. Putting fear in people's hearts was what I was doing.
SPENCER MICHELS: In whose hearts were you putting fear?
AJA CAYETANO: Rival gang members. I was putting fear in older people that would see me just walking with my radios and glasses on and stuff.
SPENCER MICHELS: But about a year ago, with help from friends like Stephanie Dunlap, Aja began to turn her life around.
AJA CAYETANO: I decided that I would rather get my job, have a place, a nice good place over my head, and keep clothes on my back, food in my mouth, stuff like that, besides going and getting shot at or going and having people fight with me constantly or going and trying to make my money out on the streets till 7 o'clock in the morning.
SPENCER MICHELS: Today, Aja and Stephanie work together at the Center for Young Women's Development, which is committed to turning around girls involved in drugs and prostitution. They spend their time helping other girls and getting involved in poetry.
AJA CAYETANO: The streets are calling me. They're telling me to look out. There's trouble on these blocks. But do I listen? No. Across the street from me was some gang-banging enemies. I look slightly towards them and saw that they fought. They spoke to each other with the force of fighting in their voices. 'Ay, Charlotte, who's that girl over there?- To be looking like that, she must be from somewhere!'
STEPHANIE: I love that poem. I love that poem. And like Aja was saying earlier, you know, poetry isn't about being -- you know, having an English major. It's not about, you know, ten years of school. It's about what comes from the heart, and it's about what you know, and so if you have that in poetry, then you have everything.
SPENCER MICHELS: Stephanie is 19, and her life was a little different than Aja's. She moved to this depressed, drug-infested San Francisco neighborhood as a child, but because of a supportive mother, she avoided gangs and the rest.
STEPHANIE DUNLAP: I always had my mom there, and she was always exposing me to the positive things of life, positive things about life. You know, it was like when we lived in Potrero Hill, it was like, yeah, you know, yeah, we live in the projects, but we don't have to have that mentality of the projects, you know.
SPENCER MICHELS: Stephanie started writing poetry four years ago.
STEPHANIE DUNLAP: My people are the sidewalk sitters, the one who sits on stoops, writing here. Late-night barbecues, Marvin Gaye, smooth in the air. As I sway down the street, not knowing what tomorrow might bring, I have a flashback, and oh, God, is it mean. My people in chains outside in the rain, crying for freedom, but holding in the pain. Not even hell knows where I'm going.
SPENCER MICHELS: Most of these young poets work quickly under the tutelage of a teacher who comes to the center to guide and encourage them.
TEACHER: Okay, I can write you letters of recommendation.
SPENCER MICHELS: Mayana Minohal is one of seven teachers who spend 15 hours a week with at-risk youth, working on writing and preparing for the poetry slams. Over five years, about 4,000 youngsters have enrolled in these classes. The Writers Corps claims two-thirds of them have improved writing and performing skills.
MAYANA MINOHAL, Poetry Teacher: Poetry is about speaking the truth, and a lot of the students that I've taught, they've been through a lot, and because they're "at risk," their stories don't get heard.
YOUNG WOMAN: I am a woman. I cooked your meals every day. I took care of your kids that weren't even mine. Then you left me. I cried for you a while, and I felt weak, for my lover had left me. But then I thought, 'hey, I'm a woman. And I'm crying over him?' But I'm a woman, a single woman, an independent woman/ a woman with a plan. (Applause)
SPENCER MICHELS: The intense work the youngsters do in class culminates in the energetic poetry slams, which are held monthly. They take on the feel of a sporting event, with a rap band warming up the crowd and a disk jockey leading cheers. The poetry itself is hardly traditional. There's an air of young people discovering how to talk about themselves and the rough world around them in each poem.
YOUNG MAN: I'm in the world against me, dude, two different reasons: Violence, crime, and scandals from the system that we call justice. (Cheers and applause)
SPENCER MICHELS: Aja read one of hers about women.
AJA CAYETANO: I gave birth to lawyers, doctors, fathers, healers, priestesses, Jesus, and many others you might have heard of. I come from the land itself. I come as the messenger. I come for all your souls. (Applause)
YOUNG WOMAN: I am the wild in the animals of Africa. I am the first one on the moon. I am the inventor of all inventors. I am the future of my culture. Thank you. (Applause)
MAN: All right, all right.
SPENCER MICHELS: The highest score of the day went to a teammate, Lateefah Simon, who at just 21 is the director of the Women's Center, a single mother, and now a poet.
LATEEFAH SIMON: I thought I was a little bit different from everybody else in the hood. Well, now I know a little bit more about life. Now I know a score of 620 on the verbal don't mean [click] when you two dollars short of a pack of diapers. Right, right? I'm a little girl myself. I'm not much different from the girl in the hood. I am the girl in the hood. (Laughter and applause)
SPOKESMAN: Look at that! All tens! (Cheers and applause)
SPENCER MICHELS: With the competition over, it was time to pick the winner.
SPOKESMAN: And the winner is -- Team "A."
SPENCER MICHELS: By a tiny margin, the women's team outscored the young men. Yesterday in Washington, DC, two other youngsters from San Francisco joined four poets from around the country in the finals. They outscored a team of established poets in the poetry slam championship.