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Young Detroiters unlock their inner poets, claim authorship of their experiences

October 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Detroit schools are turning their students into published poets with a little guidance from professional writers and a program called InsideOut. Jeffrey Brown reflects with U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey about visiting the Motor City middle-schoolers and the "sense of power" she witnessed as they found their voices.
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JEFFREY BROWN: I was in Detroit recently reporting on rebuilding efforts there.I also recorded another chapter in the series I’m doing with poet laureate Natasha Trethewey that we call “Where Poetry Lives.”

Our goal: to explore poetry and literature in various corners of American life, seeking to connect these trips to aspects of Natasha’s personal experience.

Here’s what we found in Detroit.

STUDENT: Poetry is your wife or husband going everywhere you go, sleeping with you even.

STUDENT: Poetry lives on your doorstep like a baby in a basket waiting for a new family.

JEFFREY BROWN: Middle school students at the Marcus Garvey Academy in Detroit reciting the work they’d just written.

Teacher and poet Peter Markus often prompts the students with a question.Today, he worked off our theme, asking, where does poetry live?

STUDENT: Poems live in stars, waiting to be wished on.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s part of an 18-year-old program called InsideOut that sends professional writers into Detroit’s schools, this year some 25 writers into 27 schools.

When Natasha Trethewey and I arrived at Marcus Garvey recently, she recalled her own introduction to poetry in the third grade.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY, U.S. Poet Laureate:I was writing poetry.

And my teacher and the librarian of the school took a group of my poems and bound them and put them in the school library.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ah, a published poet?

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: At third grade. 

(LAUGHTER)

PETER MARKUS, InsideOut:These questions that I ask you, is there only one right answer?

STUDENTS: No.

PETER MARKUS: No.

JEFFREY BROWN: InsideOut also turns its students into published poets, part of creating a sense of authorship and voice that Peter Markus says the program aims for.

PETER MARKUS: Number one, I want to build confidence with a pencil in the hand more than anything else.A lot of times, I can just tell that early on a child doesn’t like to write or feels, I don’t know what a poem is.

And then, as soon as I can, I want to sort of disable them from that kind of thinking and saying, sure you can.You just wrote a poem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Markus is unafraid to bring in sophisticated works by major poets.On our visit, for example, he used a poem by W.S. Merwin.

PETER MARKUS: We know that our pencils are more than just pencils.There’s words hiding inside of them.Remember that poem?What are the words doing inside Merwin’s poem?

STUDENT: They’re waiting to be written.

PETER MARKUS: They’re waiting to be written.

JEFFREY BROWN: The program, of course, can’t be separated from the city, the very troubled city in which it operates.The shrinking of Detroit’s population and its financial crisis have led to the closing of more than 100 schools.

And while there are some signs of growth and building in Detroit these days, areas of tremendous blight and poverty remain, including in the area around Marcus Garvey.

JAMES HEARN, Marcus Garvey Academy:Good afternoon, fifth grades.

STUDENTS: Good afternoon, Mr. Hearn.

JEFFREY BROWN: James Hearn is the school’s principal.

JAMES HEARN: The neighborhood is a high-poverty environment, single-parent home, really a lot of crime.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what’s the school become then?

JAMES HEARN: It becomes the haven.

JEFFREY BROWN: The haven.

JAMES HEARN: It becomes an oasis in the desert.

You guys are looking real good.

JEFFREY BROWN: One thing principal Hearn never imagined as part of all this was poetry.He says he was flabbergasted when InsideOut first came to him.

JAMES HEARN: It was unbelievable.We have so many needs for our kids, and to have poetry as an opportunity, I thought to myself, well, wait a minute, what, what?Poetry?

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you know much about poetry yourself?

JAMES HEARN: Oh, no, not at all, very little about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JAMES HEARN: But when I saw the kids produced a book at the end of this particular experience, and they could take it home, and the pride those kids have, that was outstanding.So, that really won me over.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see them getting out of it?

JAMES HEARN: Love of writing.This poetry really gets them truly motivated and excited.And I’m talking about my football players, my athletes, my basketball players want poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

JAMES HEARN: Really.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, you’re saying that smiling.You’re surprised.

JAMES HEARN: I’m surprised.It’s stunning.

JEFFREY BROWN: Natasha and I had the chance to talk to three of the children after their class, 12-year-olds Eddie Stewart and Quintin Pope and 11-year-old Ricki Porter.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: So it sounds like, because you’re writing from memory, you’re also writing about your experiences.

RICKI PORTER, student: Yes.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: What kinds of things have you written about?

RICKI PORTER: The things I have written about was when I was in kindergarten, about when it was my birthday and I cried on my birthday.I wrote about embarrassing times.I wrote about funny times.I wrote about a lot of things that happened.

EDDIE STEWART, student: I don’t really think it’s hard to write poems like this.Really, you just let your imagination run free and you just write.

JEFFREY BROWN: It just comes out?

EDDIE STEWART: Yes.That’s my way of saying it.

I didn’t like to write before this class.But I learned that it’s OK to express personal stuff when you write.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

EDDIE STEWART: So that’s why I started to like poetry, and I like this class because I don’t usually write and this gives me a lot of free time to do what I like to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

EDDIE STEWART: And I love to write.

JEFFREY BROWN: Quintin told us he wanted to make sure each line is a deep thought.

QUINTIN POPE, student: The deep — the deep thoughts that I put in my poems are not about me.It’s about what affects everybody else, just not me.

JEFFREY BROWN: What kinds of things?

QUINTIN POPE: I would say, my poem is a monster scaring you until the lights are on.So, I have been scared or had a nightmare before and turned the lights on, and thought someone was there for…

JEFFREY BROWN: That ever happen to you?

QUINTIN POPE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Afterwards, I asked Natasha what had struck her most.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: It was a sense of power that they have from being able to imagine, and to create, to name themselves, to speak for themselves.

It did really remind me of being in my school and learning poets, the work of poets, African-American poets, that I have carried with me since then.And I carried it with me particularly when I was bussed later on into a white school when I was in eight grade.One of the poems that struck me was Langston Hughes’ “I, Too, Sing America.”

And going to that school, where people didn’t exactly want us, I could be armed with that poem, “I, Too, Sing America.”And it was like sort of a force field around me.

JEFFREY BROWN: You saw that — a little bit of that here today?

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: I saw a lot of that today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Terry Blackhawk, a writer and former teacher who founded InsideOut, says evaluations of the program have documented improved writing skills by participants.And she also sees a large civic role.

TERRY BLACKHAWK, InsideOut:We’re trying to revive our city, not just in the cultural center, but neighborhood by neighborhood.And I think that every school needs a poet, because this poet can help the school, the children give voice to their lives.And you can also build connections in the community at large.

So we have parent writing workshops.We have ways of bringing the community into the school.

JUSTIN ROGERS, poet:Welcome to my city.Beauty isn’t obvious, but anger beats at our front doors like police giving a last warning.

JEFFREY BROWN: That night, InsideOut held a public reading that featured several of its alumni, including Justin Rogers, now a student at Wayne State.His poem “Small Town City” was a portrait in words of the plight of his hometown.

MAN: I am one of the faithful citizens rooted like flagpoles writing love poems to my city, no matter how many dark alleys I tread through or potholes that I almost swim in.

JUSTIN ROGERS: I was trying to touch on really specific situations that people encounter on a regular basis.I looked at what my city is now and realized I enjoy what I have here more than what my fantasy city is, and that these negative things, they are there, but there are so many other positive things, that I’m going to enjoy what I have here.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was a positive moment in a city that can use them, led by poetry bring bringing, as young Quintin Pope had put it, the deep thoughts from the inside out.

 

Natasha Trethewey is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University.