To some, asking a Detroit student to create a poem might seem incongruous with the city crumbling around them. To the teachers and mentors at InsideOut, it makes perfect sense.
Perfect because few things express a young person’s inner monologue better than a poem. Poetry is a barometer of thoughts, feelings, reactions and anticipations. Add Detroit, its people and its problems as the tension, and you have the makings of something that excites the mind and spirit.
On Thursday evening, some of the 5,000 students who are positively affected by the InsideOut Literary Arts Project performed their poems at the Detroit Film Theatre. This majestic setting within the Detroit Institute of Arts pales, I dare write, against the weight and depth of the words expressed during this always amazing annual event.
“Get Versed” gives you a hint of the words exchanged during the thousands of hours spent between Detroit students and the InsideOut staffers. For 18 years now, Terry Blackhawk and her group of poets, writers, teachers and creators have helped bring another side of the arts to these classrooms. And it is clear that all involved are better for it.
Master of Ceremonies Khary Kimani Turner put it best: The poems the audience heard require integrity and authenticity. They are unfiltered and uninterrupted. They are original and outrageous. And they deserve our applause both in terms of hand claps and contributions (more on that later).
Poetry, Turner noted, “explains the space between raindrops…the hole in the doughnut…the song of the heart.” He called Blackhawk, a longtime friend to Detroit school children, a “die-hard believer” in their potential and the importance of performing and celebrating their words.
There are so many dreams. There is Ramon Morones of Clippert Academy’s beautiful vision of “The Marvelous Sea,” the first bilingual poem for InsideOut’s Get Versed. There was the nearly dripping description of a bee pursing a flower by Arzelia Williams of the Detroit School of Arts, describing her “plum-colored beauty.”
There were so many unforgettable lines. Eddie Stewart, a crowd pleaser from Garvey Academy, was asked to imagine “What is a Poem?” He easily drew the audience’s biggest laugh when he said, “It is a man riding a dragon, saying ‘This is the best day of my life!’” He followed that with, “A poem is the happiest mother on Mother’s Day,” earning him several iterations of “That’s right!” from the dark amphitheater.
There were eyes blazing as Nazifa Chowdhury of the Detroit International Academy for Young Women read her poem, “I am the One Who Was Chased by the Sun.” Her emotive verse silenced even the youngest audience members with lines such as,” I am the outrageous scribbles you drew on your notebook.”
And the incomparable Joseph Verge, an InsideOut graduate, took the anger from an absentee father and channeled it directly into his fast-paced, “Birds.” The image of a parent holding a child under its wing was ideal for this aggressive poem, read so passionately by Verge (dressed in a cardigan sweater that made him look so vulnerable and yet so old at the same time). “Hearts are like fire and you shouldn’t play around with them,” he growled at his not-so-fatherly figure.
There are so many moments during this evening that make it memorable. Garvey Academy’s Quintin Pope’s suit. Damon Brown of Clipper Academy garnering strength to speak into the microphone, breathing heavily for the audience to hear as he worked himself up to the first word. The circle of girls from Burton International School and Spain Elementary School, sharing their voices as one.
Let such an event remind us of the importance of words. Of the importance of childhood, of innocence, of how the things our kids see and hear are filtered and remixed. Of “The Sound of Silence,” told by A’leetzia Burns of the Detroit School of Arts, that “loud, obnoxious silence” that is so easily filled with noisy nothingness.
Another year of amazing work, Ms. Blackhawk and crew. As it should be.
You can donate to InsideOut and help the staff procure the matching $25,000 it hopes to earn. IO’s founding donor, Hollywood film producer, Bob Shaye, has just pledged a generous matching grant of up to $25,000. So every cent counts. Let your support be heard and felt here.