Amy Briseño's high school classmates rarely heard her voice.
But a nerve-wrecking poetry slam began to change Briseño's quiet demeanor into one of passionate and heartfelt expression.
"It was so exciting to be up there and to try to put so much into a three-minute time limit," she said of her December 2010 debut. "I'd written poetry a little bit before that, but I'd never performed it."
Now 19, Briseño regularly inspires and entertains rooms packed with listeners, who cheer and whistle as she takes on social issues and shares her vision.
Poetry slams are competitive events, usually lasting no more than three minutes per performer, in which members of the audience are chosen to score a poet's work from one to 10.
Last month, Briseño's poetry earned her the Emerging Artist Award at Tucson's Lumies Arts & Business Awards.
It's a fitting tribute to Briseño, who is now committed to helping other poets.
"It's so exciting. It's your own story," she tells young writers. "We're giving you the tools to say what your story is, but it's up to you how you deliver it."
Briseño and other poets come together through a local non-profit, Tucson Youth Poetry Slam, which is for poets 18 and younger.
One of the founders is Logan Phillips, who grew up in Cochise County and discovered poetry slams as a student at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
Phillips said he immediately loved the rush of performing his work before a responsive crowd. The energy, he said, is contagious and liberating.
"But what kept me involved was the community aspect, a group of writers interested in hearing from each other and helping each other improve as artists and as people," he said.
Along with Sarah Gonzales and others, Phillips offers poetry slam workshops at local high schools.
"We've been able to reach over 5,000 students in Southern Arizona alone," he said. "A lot of our work is based on changing the interpretation of poetry and the stereotypes around it."
On the third Saturday of each month, slam poets meet at Bentley's House of Coffee and Tea in midtown. On the microphone, they average around 20 poets who perform to a standing-room-only crowd.
English teacher Kurt Fischer began offering extra credit for attending poetry slams a couple of years ago.
He discovered the art form a while back, when he heard Phillips perform at the Tucson Poetry Festival. Phillips, he said, just "blew me away."
A few years later, Fischer realized Phillips was heading the new Tucson Youth Poetry Slam. He went to a gathering with his son, then 11.
"After seeing that, I thought high school kids in my class would like it," he said. His students responded positively. "They had a blast," he said.
His Sunnyside High School students soon met poets from other local schools, and the group became a very supportive community.
"They used each other as role models, and they learned from each other," he said, "and they expressed the intensity of their lives through their writing.
"They challenged themselves to explore their own identity, and it has helped them develop the confidence to speak their truth."
He said he can't say enough about Phillips as a writing mentor.
"He made them realize that you can't just go up to the mic and freestyle it. You have to write something you care about," he said. "It became personal and empowering."
Araceli Montaño was one of Fischer's students.
Around the time Fischer introduced poetry slam, Montaño's life had been changed dramatically by the death of her 31-year-old brother.
Before the slam, Fischer played a video on the art form and, as Montaño watched, she found herself mentally composing a poem about her brother.
She soon grabbed some paper and began to unload her anguish. "I realized, 'Oh my gosh, I have so much to write,' " she said.
At that first slam, she performed three poems including the one about her brother's death due to an aneurysm. A glance at her mother in the audience brought tears, but she pushed on.
"I was really scared and nervous. I didn't know what to think," she said. "The positive vibes I got from the audience was a really amazing feeling. It was one of the most positive environments I've ever been in."
Montaño, the first in her immediate family to graduate from high school, is planning to attend the University of Arizona in the fall. Later this month, she and several other young poets will represent Tucson at Brave New Voices, a youth poetry slam festival in San Francisco.
In the meantime, she spends some of her time helping other teens with their writing.
"It sounds kind of clichéd, but it saves them. It gives them a voice," she said. "It's just healthy. When you're bottled up, it's detrimental to your mental health."
"It never made sense to me
We were not gods
We could not be born of just man
Or just woman
So why didn't we worship both?
I always thought like the scientist my mother wishes I was
That in this world you could not have one without the other
You could not have earth without sky
Up without down
Right without wrong
Chaos without order
So why was there God without Goddess
I have both
I have a Mother and Father
I have this Earth and this Sky
That keep me grounded here"
"You see, we were built from soil made into homes,
like Hopi natives patting down hope-filled mud bricks-
knowing that each square inch would count.
Risen up by callused Mexican hands, but-
your children cannot learn of the boiling blood that's seeped
into land first loved by us because our leaders, are freaking, nuts."
Want to learn more?
Look online at tucsonyouthslam.blogspot.com.
Contact reporter Patty Machelor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 806-7754.