Seashell sanctuary

"So, um ... what's your favorite place in Detroit?"

For a reporter, that's an embarrassingly lame way to start an interview. But honestly, where else, besides with the doll, do you begin when you're interviewing a little kid? My question so happened to be the right one, because the girl's one-word answer had real observational weight and soul.

Tatiana Ziglar, a second-grader with pillow-y cheeks and an Asian cast to her eyes, says her favorite place in Detroit is "Mississippi."

She's totally right, you know. The best thing about the city is the South that's in it.

At her auntie's house on the city's east side, Tatiana sits at the dining room table, holding her blond doll while mom, Talma Fitzpatrick, lingers in the hallway, smiling. Tatiana's older sister Destiny sits on the couch in the family room, watching television next to auntie, who folds an endless pile of laundry. Several portraits hang on the dining room wall, one shows a few sassy girls, probably cousins, posing at a club in front of a Hennessey ad.

Though Tatiana claims "talking" is one of her hobbies, she's obviously shy during her first press interview. Still, you can tell she has poetic poise.

For this Detroiter, the camera's clicking and the recorder's rolling because a poem she penned in class has been selected by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser to be showcased in the 93rd edition of "American Life in Poetry," a weekly column syndicated across the country and here in MT's pages. His print column has an estimated 2 million readers each week.

Kooser developed the column two years ago simply as a way to give poetry to the people. Every Thursday, Kooser sends in his selection, a poem of about 20 lines or so, along with a few sentences explaining why he chose it.

This week belongs to Tatiana, because millions of eyes will focus on her 29 words. Tatiana is the first child to be published in Kooser's international column.

Kooser got his hands on Tatiana's poem when Terry Blackhawk, founder and executive director of InsideOut, a local nonprofit literary arts program, mailed him a package of students' writing. InsideOut places professional poets inside our city's classrooms. Suzanne Scarfone serves as a poet-in-residence at Stewart Elementary School on Detroit's west side, where Tatiana attended first-grade. Last year, she worked with kids to come up with Shimmering Stars, a publication of art and words by the students.

As a first-grader in Mrs. Brees' class last year, Tatiana would lay her head down on her desk. Brees would shut off the lights and turn on opera, preparing her students for a visit from Scarfone, who, a few minutes later, would enter the classroom and transform it into a mythical land called the "Poetry Palace." It's a land with an ocean, a river and a forest above watercolor clouds and inhabited by elves, faeries, princes, princesses, kings and queens.

Scarfone, who has a Ph.D. in English lit from Wayne State University, dresses in a robe and crown — as many academics do — however, she looks more appropriate in her get-up as she reads, sings and draws with kids.

Tatiana's class was interested in bodies of water and rain, Scarfone says, so she brought in seashells to draw. Sometimes she'd just have them take a good look them. After all, it's an object they don't lay their hands on too often, as inner-city kids. Tatiana, Scarfone remembers, coveted a particularly lovely and fragile snail shell, a violet-colored keeper of ocean secrets known as the "common janthina."

About Scarfone's work, Blackhawk says, "The collaboration and the safe, special atmosphere that Suzanne creates in her weekly visits is cutting-edge, exemplary practice for writers-in-residence everywhere."

All Scarfone knows is that she's taught college students and finds working with children more interesting because she can focus on her real passion: how one goes about using the imagination in order to create.

"Children have a really immediate world, they live in the moment," Scarfone says. "It's really hard for them to disconnect from an idea that's outside themselves, and they don't feel the need to articulate what they are perceiving on a piece of paper."

In the Poetry Palace, they are encouraged to approximate language by singing and chanting poems, mesmerized by the rhythms and rhymes.

Meanwhile, Scarfone's own work is about "the beauty that can be seen while walking to the corner store for bread." It sounds like her writing falls in line with what's often reprinted in Kooser's column. We affectionately joke at MT's office that American Life in Poetry is about, you know, moss growing, or yet another poet "looking back."

So what does Kooser think we can learn about the art from a child? "Children feel free to play, and poetry is a way of playing with language," he says. "We oldsters are often far too serious about ourselves and our lives."

"One of the biggest problems with writers' workshops and writing groups is that when someone brings in their work it seems that everyone is supposed to find something wrong with it, something that needs to be fixed," he continues. "I think we ought to be looking for things to praise. In this instance, I think it does help to know that a child wrote the poem because that's part of its charm, but this poem would be charming if an adult had written it. But could an adult have written it? Not likely. Adults are too constrained by reason and their sense of what is a poem and what is not."

It would be so easy to end the story right here, with a pathos-rich line about women helping a girl reach her fullest potential. But Tatiana's story doesn't end here.

This school year, Tatiana transferred to Cornerstone Academy, an academically challenging Detroit charter school. Tatiana was chosen as one of 23 elementary school students to receive a tuition-paid scholarship to the school as a member of a mentorship program for children with incarcerated parents. Over the holiday break, on Thursday, Dec. 21, Tatiana's teacher, Nelda Grant, and her daughter, Rachel Johnson, were shot to death. At the time of this interview, Tatiana hadn't been told the news. Her mom says counselors will meet with students at school when vacation is over.

By the time this story comes out, Tatiana still may not know what happened to her teacher. But the fact of the matter is that dramatically light and dark moments greet Detroit children every day. When InsideOut's poets enter their classrooms each week, they're dealing with kids who are adorable and enthusiastic, like Tatiana, but whose lives are often in constant disruption.

Knowing that, once a week, dozens of young ones rest their heads and listen to opera for a few minutes before the lights flash on and they get to visit a majestic palace that's built just for them, is about as warming as it is encouraging.

Seen Also:

American Life in Poetry
Detroit girl hears the ocean's poetry.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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