Imagine, if you will, that every Detroit school had a poet-in-residence. Here’s what I predict would happen: test scores would rise, skills would sharpen and confidence would soar.
Imagine the impact the InsideOut Literary Arts Project could have in our city across age, racial and other divides. Teaching children to “use their words” in constructive, creative ways would free their minds and spirits in untold ways.
That is the feeling one has when you hear the InsideOut program participants read their work. I had just such a chance Thursday night when the group presented “Get Versed,” a showcase of their best talent inside the Detroit Institute of Arts Film Theatre. It’s simply astounding what visual landscapes these students created thanks to the leadership of Detroit’s poets and fiction writers (and visionary founder Terry M. Blackhawk).
The event was free, open to the public and well worth the effort of driving through a soaking rain to see. These aspiring young writers elicited many a coo (how much do you love sparkly dresses on fourth-grade girls?) and a few chortles (like when one young man compared Detroit to a cheetah that loves to eat said girls).
But they also brought surprised gasps during certain performances. Take that of Ariana Washington, author of “Fifteen Years and Forty Poems Later.” Trust me when I say that Ms. Washington will be an author of note in short order. Her dark look into a daughter’s rage at her father for the death of her mother was somber in ways I could not expect and sophisticated enough to catch me and others in the audience off guard with its sharp ending. She brought the house down.
Some quick background on a group that deserves volumes: InsideOut Literary Arts Project places professional writers as teachers and mentors in Detroit-area schools. The goal is to give students an outlet for “literary self-expression.” The writers make weekly visits throughout the year, helping students write, edit and perform their works. Nearly 30 schools participated in the program this year. Truly, these kids are top-notch wordsmiths…they’ve even went to the White House this month to perform for the President. If that doesn’t prove you have the chops, I don’t know what does.
“Get Versed” featured live performances, musical acts, visual art and award-winning student-made videos. The audience was filled with supportive parents as well as regular old people. It was amazing to see folks hanging out to appreciate poetry; a terrific long-term memory for me will be when the audience started snapping their fingers in appreciation for one student’s words. So very Jack Kerouac.
The Project also gets involved in community projects, such as “The Big Read,” which brought the works of Emily Dickinson to Detroit through special grants from the Erb Family Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
My favorite part of “The Big Read” project came through a series of creative Facebook posts students from Western International High School’s drama students. They created these made-up entries in the voice of Ms. Dickinson. Best ones: “Someone came over today and almost saw me #close call,” “Bought a blue dress today LOL JK” and “Rare trip to the basement. So dark and mysterious!” (Really, for us former English majors, this is high comedy. Snap! Snap!)
Huge snaps also have to go to the students for the bravery on that stage Thursday night. What a gift this program is – not only to help young people find their voices, but to show them how to share it with an audience. There’s no way at that tender age I could have been so forceful and proud of my budding creativity. But these students get that and so much more from InsideOut. They were loud, strong, funny and true. These students will be impressive young people – and they are from Detroit.
To learn more about InsideOut and its programs, check out its Website here. And consider donating to this fine organization – it has a mighty fine PayPal site that is easy to use. For $50, you can provide a year’s worth of writing and art supplies for one classroom – that’s about the cost of what you’ll waste on your expired Groupons. Trust me.