'Those who are doing it'

Jan 23, 2008 at 12:00 am

Think for a moment of being 16 or 17 years old in Detroit. Imagine the drudgery of taking a DDOT bus to school and home again every weekday, of returning most afternoons to meet the responsibilities of family life, of finding time to complete your homework while preparing for life after graduation, wherever it takes you.

Now imagine taking another bus downtown once a week to devote an evening to your talent with words. Imagine writing and perfecting a set of poems and learning to present them with passion. The Citywide Poets of the nonprofit literary arts organization InsideOut have done exactly that since 1997.

Citywide Poets travel downtown to the InsideOut office in the Palms building, next to the Fillmore on Woodward Avenue, where they're coached by local writers and performers. Some have already developed a bold presentation style, and some are quiet to the point of being shy, but all of them write with heartbreaking clarity.

The two Citywide Poets anthologies — fresh ink (2007) and ZERO gravity (2006) — demonstrate a wealth of talent.

Poets can only tell the story of their city when they've trained themselves to see it without the distractions of cynicism or nostalgia. The Citywide Poets look clearly at Detroit and see its many flaws. Oni Carver, a senior, writes of her father's youth on Clairmount Street as life in a concrete jungle. She neatly ties that time to the decade: "When city slickers dripped with Jerry Curls ..."

Yet these poets' fine-tuned observations give the reader a picture of the city that transcends history and grief. In "Imagine," Kendra West, a junior, insists that the future of Detroit need not be shaped by its past. In her vision, young women no longer exploit their bodies or turn to prostitution. Young people will not have to fight their way through discouragement. As she points out in the pithy language that abounds in this anthology: "... those who say it cannot be done/ shouldn't interrupt those who are doing it." Often the writers speak of love. Cameron Cullers, a senior, describes a young woman with these words:

She is the soundtrack of life,
dynamic and sudden
key changes and rapid time signatures
and then silence ...

In these poems Detroit becomes a panoramic mural of relationships and history, and language takes on the rhythm of hip hop or the texture of jazz.

Julian Easterly, a junior, writes: "Children of a strange generation/Why must we work to pull out our seams?"

These young adults understand the structure of society. They know the demands placed on them are unfair and maybe impossible. The speaker in another poem of Easterly's notes:

My pockets are empty
from minimum wage and even lower tips.
My palms are calloused
from hours at deep fryer handles ... I serve you your food ..
Tell me when have you ever served me?

Good question. InsideOut has served these young men and women with opportunities to create authentic poems and strong visual art while classes in art or writing are being cut in Detroit schools and across Michigan.

These young writers have put their souls on the page. Joshua Tuck, a senior, comments on community in his poem, "Breathing":

Breathing is instinct,
often taken for granted.
but I have conversed with my lungs,
and they tell me stories of air
they say that the air is composed of breath
exhaled with the residue of souls,
so I greet those souls
entering me, I inhale
and say goodbye to each bit of me
leaving. I exhale
until my body is empty

William Berry comments on life in Detroit in his poem, "The Most Beautiful Oblivion":

... I suffocate from feelings I never want to feel again.
above the ash lies a clear sky, a place full of light,
a place where dreams don't die

They're sometimes angry but more often sad. Molly Brown asks us to imagine a different kind of world in her poem, "What If":

What if feet didn't smell
and people weren't afraid of coming to Detroit.
What if no one was racist
and the world wasn't hungry.

Reading the work of the Citywide Poets is a first step toward Molly's vision: "a world without ... oppression, aggression, and dissection of everything — living,/ breathing, seething."

For more information on InsideOut and its publications, call 313-965-5332 or e-mail [email protected].

Dawn McDuffie is a former high school teacher and local poet whose latest book, Carmina Detroit, was published by Adastra Press in 2006. Send comments to [email protected].