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At the ripe old age of 12, Jessica Rawls has found her mission in life. “I wanna be a poet laureate,” says the seventh-grader. The young wordsmith is in the right place to reach those lofty goals. Rawls attends Hart Middle School, one of three middle schools participating in the East of the River Inter-Scholastic Slam League. ERSL conducts workshops for the burgeoning young writers and organizes them into teams, which then compete with other middle schools in a poetry slam. “The idea is to create a competition where kids get a chance to compete in an intellectual arena,” says ERSL coordinator Nancy Schwalb.

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The program began at Hart and has expanded to Kramer Middle School, Evans Middle School, and Johnson Junior High School. ERSL works specifically in areas that are considered underserved—that haven’t enjoyed the best of American education. But Schwalb says that literary undernourishment can be a plus. “I find that the kids are more open,” says Schwalb. “This isn’t a remedial program. The kids appreciate the fact that they’re getting something that the other side of Rock Creek Park isn’t getting.”

Slapping each other around with metaphors and imagery is one thing, but on May 8 at Borders Books & Music, the best from ERSL are going head to head with some of the giants of the literary world. Among them are Linda Pastan, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Naomi Ayala. If last year’s attendance figure of 700 is any indicator, the event, dubbed “Bring In Da Slam 2,” should be a blast. Despite the star-studded competition, Schwalb is unfazed. “As far as they’re concerned, my kids hear poetry on the radio every day.”—Ta-Nehisi Coates