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Nation’s student poet laureate hopes her Detroit visit will give the city a bolder voice

Student Poets Group Shot2749

Natalie Richardson will make her first visit to Detroit this weekend, acting as an ambassador of teen culture, wisdom and values. She is, after all, one of our nation’s Student Poet laureates.

Student Poets Group Shot2749You might have heard of city, state or national versions of this wonderful position – people called to serve as the lyrical voice of a generation. There also are five youth versions, asked to share their work and lessons with other students over the course of a year.

Richardson, a 17-year-old Chicago-area resident, represents the Midwest. She will be in town Saturday as part of Feed Your Soul, a poetry conference taking place Saturday at the Woodward Avenue branch of the Detroit Public Library.

Two groups that help young people find their words – Detroit’s InsideOut Literary Arts Project and 826michigan in Ann Arbor – are presenting the event. (InsideOut also held a high-school writing conference this week in conjunction with the event; 135 students from 10 schools gathered at Wayne State under the topic, “Who Understands Me But Me?”)

Richardson says she is looking forward to her time in Detroit, a place where people tell her she will find inspiration and many new friends. Best of all, she will be meeting many hopeful student poets and sharing her love for the written word.

For Richardson, poems are the medium she uses to communicate her thoughts, feelings and aspirations. She never struggles to find the next sentence; it all flows. (For an example of her work, read here and watch here.)

“I always felt like with poetry I was in my element. No other form of writing ever felt as natural,” Richardson said in a telephone interview. (Aside: There is nothing sweeter than a source asking you to hold on for a minute, she has to tell her parents she is taking a call in her room.)

Some background: The National Student Poets program is a partnership between The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. Five high school poets are selected annually as literary ambassadors for poetry, encouraging a wide range of youth to explore and develop new creative capabilities.

Richardson, a poet from Oak Park, Ill., is known for her excellence in spoken word poetry. She also has received a Scholastic Art & Writing Award for her writing. Her workshop Saturday will begin at 1 p.m. and she will participate in a poetry reading at 3 p.m. with the likes of Detroit Poet Laureate Naomi Long Madgett.

As a poet, Richardson said she writes mostly about what she knows, she said, “experiences that have moved me or changed me as a person.” That may be a personal story, or, as she has been experimenting lately, a story about a character.

“That was more challenging,” Richardson said of her work in another voice. “I liked it because it enabled me to tap into a character other than myself, to find similarities between my life and someone else’s life. I liked the physicalness of it – to try to take on someone else’s characteristics, to see how he would stand or move.”

That is the big lesson Richardson says she tries to share with students during her year as a poet ambassador – test of your skills. Her first piece of advice? Don’t settle.

“Always challenge yourself. Don’t be afraid to be afraid of writing. Writing is scary sometimes. Going out of your comfort zone is scary sometimes. I’ve found the best way to acknowledge my fears is to say this is scary but I’m going to do it anyway,” Richardson said.

And if you feel scared, it’s probably the right move. That’s part of the reason she likes poetry – she had to share it with others to get the reaction, the movement she needs.

“Share your work and read your work out loud,” said Richardson, who describes herself as primarily a stage poet. “Few (poets) share their work out loud. But it’s so important. It creates such a community, such a bond with people around me. I think that’s the ultimate form of the art. I write it to share with other people as well. Sharing it out loud gives a whole new life to a poem; it is reborn into something entirely different.”

Granted, not every poem is easy to share.

“Initially, it was terrifying because most of it was personal narratives. I was sharing it with people I wouldn’t know,” Richardson said. “But becoming part of the scene, I felt I could learn so much from others. Every time I got on stage, I could translate those feelings to someone watching me – into just sharing something important to me with an audience. I have the ability on the stage to inspire someone or to make someone think about something they have never thought about before.”


One more thing to mention. This week, I’ve been to two events where people have talked about Detroit as a brand. And they didn’t just talk about it as a local or even as a national commodity. They expressed its value internationally – that people are curious about who we are and what we stand for as a city.

hajjThe first was from Hajj Flemings, who was the keynote speaker Thursday morning for Corp! magazine’s DiSciTech awards at Oakland Community College in Auburn Hills. The second was from Toni L. Griffin, Founder of Urban Planning and Design for the American City.

Griffin, the Detroit Works planner, spoke Thursday evening at the inaugural meeting of Culture Lab Detroit at the Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, College for Creative Studies. (Can I mention there are too many good events in and around Detroit lately? It’s remarkable how much there is to do in one night nowadays.)

Flemings talked about the importance of personal branding, natch. But he also touched on what it means to add Detroit to your brand. He encouraged the audience to become hyper local. Own your geographic real estate…like Detroit. Own your town and make where you live part of what defines you.

So when Griffin echoed those thoughts just a few hours later, I had to take notice. Part of the reason Jane Schulak founded Culture Lab Detroit recently was to help people share what Detroit means – locally, nationally and, most importantly, internationally.

Thanks to Ms. Schulak, Detroit hosted designer and artist David Stark at the first Culture Lab event. He’s now working with Pewabic on a new line of plates and other decorative accessories. That’s amazing. It’s going to be beautiful. And people around the world will know and buy it. Another push toward the tipping point, I’d say.

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