The Word Grows Up

Judy Sirota Rosenthal Photo A harsh, pink light fell over Garth Harries’ face as he approached the microphone. He blinked, drew back, came closer. A bead of sweat had formed at the left corner his forehead. He wasn’t facing a Board of Ed grilling, though. Not angry parents, either. This was the beginning of a poetry jam, and Harries was about to get serious — very serious — with the words of poet Mary Oliver in a tribute to Jericho Scott.

Judy Sirota Rosenthal Photo “You all know we’ve had a tough week in New Haven,” Harries (pictured) said. “This is a poem that I had been carrying around before this week, but I think it’s appropriate right now.”

“Who made the world? / Who made the swan, and the black bear? / Who made the grasshopper? / This grasshopper, I mean — the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the / one who is eating sugar out of my hand?” he began.

Glances shot across the room. His voice trembled. “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” he said. “I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down / into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, / how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields.” Close to a hundred softly breathing bodies stilled in the space. There was a collective deep breath; some heads bowed, others looked to their neighbors. He pushed onward, his voice rocking with Oliver’s cadence.

“Tell me, what else should I have done? / Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? / Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Harries looked up, his eyes wide and damp. “We can imagine our own words and we can tell stories with them, and that is what I believe you as young people are doing in this city.”

So began the second night of The Word: A Youth Poetry Jam, a collaborative venture spearheaded by the Institute Library and several community-based organizations that brings middle- and, as of this year, high-school students together annually to perform poetry near the end of National Poetry Month. At Co-op High School last Thursday and the New Haven Museum on Friday, parents, teachers, and members of the New Haven public came together to hear what some of the city’s youth had to say.

Lisa Daly Photo A lot, it turns out. And it’s not always easy to hear. Thursday night’s reading made clear that many of the Elm City’s middle schoolers are wise beyond their years — and wiser than they should have to be. Coached by Word Artist-in-Residence Aaron Jafferis (pictured above) with blocking help from A Broken Umbrella Theater Company and Collective Consciousness Theater, students from Fair Haven School, Columbus Family Academy, and Edgewood School shared writing that ranged in subject matter from absent fathers to grappling with depression.

Hitting hard, the poems kept coming. Speaking in Spanish, Stephanie Santiago wanted the audience to know that she was like a pair of botas negras with her eponymous poem, and couldn’t be judged by her outward appearance. Brianna Morales wasn’t getting it twisted: she was going to share her version of society straight from the stage.

“Let’s put the hopes up and the guns down,” her classmate urged, joining the discussion.

There was a little something for the love poetry purists in the room, too. Columbus Academy student Miguel Robles shared that a girl’s face had become “the dubstep to my heart.” And Ana Laura, channeling the true spirit of poetry, opened up about the flowers and the stars.

“I want to express my gratitude to you for changing my life,” Jafferis said at the end of the evening. “Please keep writing, keep saying what you need to say. You never know who needs to hear it.”

Taken Too Soon

The words continued to pour forth Friday night at the New Haven Museum. As close to 40 students from James Hillhouse High School, Riverside Academy, New Horizons, High School in the Community, Wilbur Cross, Career High School, New Haven Academy, Metropolitan Business Academy, Co-Op, Sound School, Common Ground, Dixwell New Light, Hyde School, ESUMS, Amistad Academy, and Eli Whitney shared their writing over almost three hours, stories of friends and colleagues taken much too soon filled the New Haven Museum’s second floor space.

Completely poised, one student shared a freestyle tribute to Scott, who had been a friend of his at Cross. In a poem entitled, “Vocabulary,” Mark Ifill-Haney voiced his concern that the letter G was quickly becoming the language of the gun, and the community was struggling because of it. Rasheeda Shahid asked, “why are we fighting instead of uniting?”

Sexuality, teenage love, and capitalism also played prominent roles. Sound’s Leenecy Rivera came out with “bi-pride” during the first half of the evening and Common Ground’s Tori Santos (pictured below) laid out the realities of the wage gap in the second, captivating the crowd with the story of her mother’s struggle to pay an internet bill. In more adventurous digs, Godwin Jean-Baptiste made “high school soup” — the “nastiest and best soup you will ever have” — and Amani Daniels spit hot fire with her piece “America’s Alphabet,” with the line “killing me softly with your kitchen knives” as one of the night’s best.

“What excites me most about this evening is all of us coming together to build a community, and to build that bright future for our young people and for the city. I challenge us all to use our words to create unity, to build vulnerability, to build trust, and to build love,” said Sarah Tankoos, Movement Director for the New Haven chapter of The Future Project and one of the event’s coordinators.

Community of Words

In an essay published in The Paris Review in spring 2000, Yale Professor Harold Bloom declared slam poetry the death of art, and I have no doubt that he would have suffered a lily white aneurysm had he attended the event. But while there is a kernel of truth buried somewhere in his statement — slam and jam genres can privilege shoddy, rant-like writing, exploitative prose, and verses that rhyme with themselves — he missed one big aspect of art: the community that is necessary to build and sustain it.

Friday, that community was everywhere. Students pumped up their fellow performers with ear-splitting whoops of encouragement. Supportive embraces multiplied around the room as feet stomped and fingers snapped.

This kind of storytelling from the young and vulnerable heart of New Haven was and continues to be a very beautiful thing. Reading Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” towards the end of the evening, City Youth Services Specialist Earle Lobo tried to make it clear that he, Harries, and State Representative Gary Holder-Winfield were listening, and had no intention of stopping anytime soon. 

“You guys are awesome,” Lobo said. “I want you to know that both the City of New Haven and the Board of Education is behind you. We’ve been working really hard together to get some things done for you guys, because you are our future ... and you guys have such a bright future. You don’t even recognize the talent that resides within you. I want you to think about every dream you’ve ever had, and know that it’s attainable.”

The applause to that? Deafening, and resonant.

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posted by: ferocious.humingbird on April 29, 2015  4:50pm

I thank Aaron, Sarah, The Word, the New Haven Museum and most of all the student poets for an inspiring night! (I also thank Garth Harries for taking our students and their poetry seriously and supporting this event.) What a positive and productive event for our students, especially in light of what has been happening in our neighborhoods, both locally and nationally. Congratulations to you all.