Between the D and D.C. 

An innovative poetry project between Southwest Detroit high school students and their peers in the nation's capital prove that writing is not a lost art.

Dear D.C., if you’re going to love me you need to know that … being scared is only temporary, like the rain.

Dear Detroit, if you’re going to love me … I want to be able to trust you.

There’s physical space and there’s social space. The 524 miles between Detroit and Washington, D.C., is not going to change unless some really unusual geological event happens. However, the social space between the two places was very close last Thursday, when students at Western International High School in Detroit and at Young Playwrights’ Theater in D.C. used video and the Internet to co-present the 524 Project, a live presentation of poetry developed over the past school year. 

The Western students are part of the Inside Out Literary Arts Project, which has been placing writers in classrooms across the city since 1995. The program is older than these students. But some of the students’ thoughts and ideas are as old as they come.

Was it love at first sight, or love on first night?

I can’t identify the writers because the poetry came fast and furious from the folks here and there. By the time I could get one thing written down, they’d be off to the next person’s work. Not all of their ideas were classic. There were new and unique thoughts woven throughout those that might strike a more familiar chord. 

One poem likened graffiti to tattoos on the body of a living city.

Many of the pieces were themed, as those Dear D.C. and Dear Detroit pieces are. That allowed students in both places to riff on common themes and connect the projects. One, “Five years ago … five years from now,” had them examining the changes they had experienced and anticipating the changes they’ll soon experience. One D.C. girl anticipated that she would have two babies in that time frame. 

Another common theme began with My art is so loud … :

It looks like a caterpillar being born.

It looks like nature taking back its land.

It looks like a timbale solo.

They also traversed more somber themes, discussing death, violence on the streets, tough future prospects. One piece stated, “The only thing I’m good at is messing up … I’ll never be successful.” Another said, “You don’t know how it is out here, people dying every day.”

When teenagers say those words, their ability to say them comes from stepping out of their comfort zone. To be able to reveal your real feelings in front of adults, in front of strangers, on social media — that takes some doing. And that’s what these kinds of projects do. They help those feelings come out and be expressed in a constructive manner.

That’s what the young people talked about at the end, as they discussed what the program had meant to them, stepping out of their comfort zone and finding themselves to have a depth of thought they didn’t know about. One young man talked about his fear in returning to Detroit after some years in California, how his image of the city was gleaned from media, and, when he walked down the street in the evenings, he literally walked in the middle of the street for safety.

They also talked about what they learned about Detroit throughout the course of the year: things like we had the first stretch of paved road, the first enclosed mall, the first freeway. That’s something teachers were able to infuse in a way that was acceptable, even celebratory. They celebrated the “awesome” things that go on in Detroit that you seldom hear about.

And they learned that D.C. is a lot more than they had perceived from the media. That it’s not all glitz and glamour with the president and politicians ruling from Capitol Hill. That it is, indeed, a lot like Detroit. 

The students who presented at Western are Jessica Chavero, Ashley Villarreal, Deleecea McDaniel, Kimmy Nguyen, Jacob Craven, Morgan Michael, Ashley Gonzalez, Sean Moore, and Joshua Salazor. They also had an impressive book available, with more poetry by more students included. It is printed and bound in the old ink on paper standard. Titled Ink on the Tracks, and it’s the seventh volume from the Western Inside Out program. Some of the same poems, plus many others, are included here.

Esmeralda Baro wrote “All I See”:

All I see in my neighborhood
Is the beauty of the trees and snow
I see the wind blowing rapidly
Against my cheeks.
I sense the smell of my neighbors

Smoking a cigarette …

Antonio Gallegos wrote “The Edge”:

My mom is walking on the edge of a cliff.
Bones as brittle as toothpicks,
Muscles aching through the whole work day,

Tears running down her cheeks as a torrent of water
Rages on. My brother and I are the stairs

Used to step away from the cliff. …

Joshua Guerro gave us “Random Bursts”:

Hip Hop. Lights. Scenery.
Techno. Depressed. Ghost.
Death. Sacrifice, War

Refugee.
What is done

Is done. …

Apparently writing is not a lost art to these youngsters. Their thoughts come out more sophisticated than random tweets. One theme that came out again and again was a defense of Detroit. Western is on the southwest side of Detroit, where the news often made is about crime or the unwelcome substances dumped on their doorstep along the riverfront. These students have stepped up to assert that we are so much more than what you see of us on television and in the news. They have a microscopic view of Detroit, details that are more than hoodies that so many can’t see past. And they know how to open it up to others.

Leo Culver wrote in “I am Detroit”:

I am the diamond in the rough — the up-and-coming underdog.
I am the small glare of light in the darkness.

I don’t think anyone working in the mayor’s office could have said it better. If they can bridge the 524 miles between our cities, maybe they can go to work creating regional cooperation here in southeast Michigan.

MORE ACTIVE YOUTH 

Our Power Detroit will take place June 27-29, with youth and young adults coming together to strategize on transitioning away from a polluting environmental economy. For more info, go to emeac.org.

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