December 2, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In high school, Gina Keplinger urged her teachers to embrace her slam poetry ambitions. So, the confident teen resorted to a more direct insinuation—she bought them a ticket to one of
her performances.

“I knew that I could win somebody over if I just got their butt in the seat to hear me perform!” Keplinger says. “And that was all it took.”

It was that performance, Keplinger says, that got her teachers at Duchesne Academy to pay attention to the budding slam poetry scene that she and her classmates cared so much about. “Once they heard it there was a total switch. And it was just ‘Yes! We believed you before, but now—now you’ve got us sold. This is the real deal.’”

Keplinger performed locally and nationally alongside her classmates. She recently participated in the 2014 National Poetry Slam in Oakland, Calif. “People don’t expect a lot from young people. And I think it’s really important, for me, to be representative of an age and a generation and be able to say ‘Hey, here we are having these really interesting thoughts.’ It’s not just me, there are hundreds of us—thousands of us—and take us seriously!”

Young poetry is predictably full of revelations about self-discovery and lists of firsts, but powerful performances about rape, social issues, drugs, and heartbreak are as equally abundant. “I think it’s really important to foster youth poetry and kind of eradicate that ‘Oh, you’re young; you’ll understand when you’re older mentality. No, no, no! We understand right now, you know? And if we don’t understand, we’re trying to,” Keplinger says.

In 2013, Keplinger performed her original poem “Hey Mama” for the first time in front of her mother. Gina demonstrated her word-smithing talent and her embodiment of the slam poet swagger. It also was a declaration of love and celebration of the woman who has always pushed her to pursue her passions.

In “Hey Mama,” Keplinger hints at her impending departure to college. “This is…for loving that I’m leaving. I am leaving. I have left. I love you—just because. I am inaccurate meteorology and unpredictable rainstorms, but your eastern-sky smile reminds me to seek the sun, always. Mama. If this heart is a compass you are my due north…”

Now 19, Keplinger is a sophomore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She’s studying English with a concentration on poetry writing and women’s and gender studies while also concurrently fulfilling pre-dentistry requirements. She said her work now has more science and math influences. With little free time, she says her writing is much more cathartic now than ever. And of course, her mama keeps her moving.

“It’s amazing how one person’s voice can combat all the negativity that comes at you,” Keplinger says. “She was my one voice that just kept saying, ‘Keep trying. Keep going forward.’ And she still is that voice for me today…which is great.”

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