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Detroit students know where to find the joy within their city…it’s all in their poetry


Photo Slideshow: Ashley Hennen

If you wonder what a child in Detroit really sees, teach them to write. Specifically, teach them to write poetry.

Because it’s pretty amazing to hear what’s going on inside a child’s mind when you empower them with words. And if you really, really, really listen…Listen as if they are adults and accept their wisdom, a child’s words can tear you apart, make you snort with laughter, have you shaking your head with surprise and keep you thinking for days afterward.

Erin Kirkland

Here’s what Wednesday’s “Get Versed” student poetry showcase taught me about Detroit kids: They are more tuned in that you expect. The students, who participate in InsideOut’s Literary Arts Project, are alright – but just barely.

They talked about the economy. About home foreclosures. About school closures. About feeling ugly and cutting themselves up. About dying soldiers. About Tweeting and dancing and singing and love. And they talked about joy – in fact, the word “joy” was in multiple poems, something I also didn’t expect.

Some background: This is the second annual “Get Versed” event. The purpose is to highlight the work of Detroit-area students who are learning to write, dance, sing and create art in all forms through InsideOut. If you don’t know iO, its mission is simple: “By immersing students in the joy and power of poetry and literary self-expression, InsideOut inspires them to think broadly, create bravely and share their voices with the wider world.” Ah, that’s where the joy came from!

Led by poet and teacher Terry Blackhawk, a group of professional writers work directly with students in the schools, serving as mentors. And the results are amazing. Granted, the audience is partly filled with parents and family. But it also has absolute strangers like myself – I don’t know any of the students except those who were repeat performers – who sit back to admire the bravery and poetry therein.

Take the teens from the Detroit International Academy of Young Women. Their stomping interpretation of the painting “Tuesday Night at the Savoy Ballroom” by Reginald Marsh was exactly right – a soulful, free-wheeling mix of sexuality and verbosity. My favorite line talked about “the sweet liquor of Billie’s voice,” a dead-on description of Ms. Holiday’s talent.

Then there was Andrew Barnhill, who hit just the right note with his “Super Hero Poet,” whose plans to save Detroit’s schools should be inacted immediately. A highlight: Barnhill’s advice to youth, encouraging them to “take your school back like a swat team.”

Erin Kirkland

Equally awesome was the dance and poetry from the Detroit School of Arts, particularly the work of Maya Mosley, Aziza Gilbert and Alan Merriweather. All three brought tears to my eyes with Mosley reading a poem about a girl’s remembrance of a lost love – a dying soldier – and the final grasp reenacted through the dancers’ bodies.

Family was a recurring theme among the students of Langston Hughes Academy. I loved the comparison of a mother’s love to melting butter on a pancake from “Love,” by Maurice Brown. And Shanejah Ramsey impaled her words in my head about the loss of her grandmother, which made her “heart split like a banana peel.”

Read that one again – her words are so dead on, so right. I wanted to tap the woman at my right and repeat Ramsey’s line to her…A heart split in such a dramatic way – like a banana peel. I never saw heartache like that before…and that is poetry in every sense of the word.

Bravo, once again InsideOut. Bravo, students. Bravo, Detroit, for inspiring rather than destroying these children. “We believe in the power of poetry,” Blackhawk told the audience. Yes, I’d say I believe it as well.

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