Mention of the spoken word movement may conjure phrases like Go Innnnnnnnnnnnnnn and Spit, Poet!, an obligatory reference to a body part (ribcage, sternum, tongue are among the best) or a hopeful chorus of yes yes’s, guttural sounds and snaps that accompany a reading. Rarely is it said that it is most genuinely performed by middle-school students.
In the Co-Op High School auditorium Tuesday evening, The Word – a collaboration between the New Haven Public Schools’ Department of Performing and Visual Arts and the Institute Library – showed just that.
In its second year, The Word seeks to “enhance poetry education in the public school classroom.” Led by playwright, hip hop poet, Artist-in-Residence and nationally recognized writer Aaron Jafferis, the program helps middle- school students at Columbus Family Academy and Fair Haven School learn the fundamentals of written and spoken-word poetry: writing, editing, peer critique and performance.
Over several weeks, they work alongside Jafferis and teachers at each school—Kristin Mendoza and Mnikesa Whitaker at Fair Haven School; Judy Leach and William Wagoner at Columbus Family Academy – to see their poems from rough infancy to adulthood, gleaning inspiration from rhyming verse to Neruda’s swoon-worthy odes and Japanese Haiku.
As the project progressed, it became abundantly clear that the young poets dovetailed with the Institute Library’s mission to foster “learning in a context of mutual encouragement.”
“When we heard about what Aaron Jafferis was doing, we thought of those eight founding members” Will Baker, executive director of the IL, said at the event. That the institution’s earliest patrons included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Anna E. Dickinson and Frederick Douglass seemed less coincidence and more fate Tuesday evening, their great literary ghosts sitting giddily in the back of the auditorium as the newest faces of lyricism took the stage.
Thanking Baker for “doing such strange and wonderful things with the library,” Jafferis added to the students: “There are people here whose lives you can change by reading these poems. It is a blessing.”
What followed was a testament to his words: close to 90 minutes of frank and fresh writing from several 6th through 8th graders. As students read, audiences were invited into jarringly adult scenarios: gang violence, especially visible in the past three weeks, the absence of a parent, the dull but unrelenting pain that comes with dealing with grief and loss, as in 7th grader Jordin Mendez’s poem “Pain” (in the video at the top of the story).
It seems that some of the community’s youngest (and unfortunately not yet voter eligible) members are posing the some of the most meaningful and hard-hitting questions. Carlos Lebron, a 6th grader at Columbus Family Academy (in video, above), asked “is your reputation worth the slaughtered thousands?” Another student was afraid that her brothers were becoming part of that “boom boom bang life.” And Brianna Morales (pictured) wondered aloud if safety on the streets would improve anytime soon.
“We talked about being able to ‘get dirty,’ to put our hands and our poems into something hard to talk about,” Jafferis explained of such pieces.
While other work was significantly lighter – one student had an “issue with her tissues” while another asked her brother for forgiveness for eating three of his chicken nuggets – a lyrical kind of wake-up call hung over the evening.
“We hope that the audience can help answer some of these tough questions,” Jafferis said. An umpteenth round of thunderous applause suggested that he might be on to something.
Accompanied by guest performances from the poets of Co-Op High School, Solar Youth and Self Suffice the Rap0et, the evening also suggested a future of answering these tough questions through one more channel: a mentorship program between middle and high school writers.
That future starts now. On Friday, The Word, in collaboration with The Future Project will hold a second performance of High School Students at Wilbur Cross High School from 6-8 p.m.
Like Tuesday’s performance, it will be a large step toward Self-Suffice’s closing hope that “All of us in here get the respect that is due.”
For more information on Friday’s performance of The Word, visit The Institute Library’s events page.