The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Creating Emerging Artists: InsideOut Literary Arts Project's CityWide Poets

Citywide Poets alumnus and community liaison Justin Rogers performs his spoken word in Detroit. Photo courtesy of InsideOut Literary Arts Project

In 2011, InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit launched a Big Read program around the poetry of Emily Dickinson, an ideal choice for an organization that teaches students the art of poetry and literary expression. In an interview with the NEA at the time, Terry Blackhawk, InsideOut's executive director, described why they feel poetry is such a useful tool: "The mission of InsideOut Literary Arts Project is to engage young people with the pleasure and power of language. We believe that the teaching of self-expression through poetry transforms people's lives and that exposure to poetry broadens intellectual curiosity and appreciation of language."

But InsideOut's work does not end in the classroom and does not stop on the page. For students who are drawn to the performance aspect of poetry, InsideOut offers CityWide Poets, which provides an after-school outlet where students can hone their writing and performance skills with professional artists. The students also participate in poetry slams in their community through local events such as Scratch the Page, as well as on the national level through the Brave New Voices National Youth Poetry Slam. In 2009, CityWide Poets was recognized by the White House with a Coming Up Taller Award (currently known as the National Arts & Humanities Youth Program Awards), which recognizes outstanding after-school and out-of-school programs taking place across the country that are transforming the lives of young people. In 2011, students participating in CityWide Poets were again invited to the White House to participate in a poetry workshop with the First Lady.

Poet Norene Cashen worked with InsideOut's in-school program for four years as a writer-in-residence, and last September took on a new role as the CityWide poets coordinator. We spoke with Cashen to learn more about CityWide Poets and how the program is working to create a new generation of artists.

NEA: Can you begin by explaining a bit about what CityWide Poets is for those who aren't familiar?

NORENE CASHEN: CityWide Poets is our after-school program for high school-aged students who want to take their poetry from being student-level, with a captive audience in the classroom, to becoming an emergent artist. They devote time after school out of their own schedule to go to meetings each week where they work with a professional site leader, who is also a published poet and a performance poet. These students really work on honing their skills, both with writing on the page---we publish their work in an annual CityWide Poets anthology---and they also have opportunities to compete at local, regional, and even international poetry slams. Brave New Voices National Youth Poetry Slam is the big one. We will send a team of four to six of our CityWide Poets to compete. We have competed in the past, and about two or three years ago one of our teams took fourth place overall---that's a really big deal because they had really tough competition.

On a very regular basis we bring in professional writers from around the world to workshop with the students. We have an event that goes on between three and four times a year called Scratch the Page that's completely separate from the on-site, weekly meetings. We go to a venue like Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit or the Virgil Carr Cultural Center and the students have an opportunity to workshop for an hour-and-a-half. They have dinner together, they work with the guest writer, who is usually an out-of-town person and usually a notable poet, and then after the dinner break we open the venue to the public. The guest poet will perform some of their own work and the students who wrote that day will also have an opportunity to [participate] in an open mic, casual reading.

We really try to give them all we can because the time goes quickly. Sometimes we don't get kids until they're in 10th or 11th grade so we don't have a lot of years to get them to a new place. They learn to find their voice. Some of them give themselves names and identities and they go compete independently at other slams they find out about; there are lots of slam opportunities and poetry competition opportunities around Detroit. Or they'll go to an open mic or they'll work with someone they know who's a musician. Some of them are into hip-hop and rap so it really opens things up for them.

NEA: How does CityWide Poets fit into InsideOut Literary Arts' overall mission and in-school work?

CASHEN: By the time kids get to high school, there are those students who show a great deal of promise, enthusiasm, and passion for writing and performing. We want to give those students an opportunity to do what they could not do just in the classroom. Our classroom residencies are very focused on writing. They're great but there are some students who have a capacity to do more and so our CityWide Poets program allows them to do that. Not every kid is going to be able to devote one day per week, plus go to the Scratch the Page events, plus work at home on their own time on rehearsing and composing poems. Not every kid is equipped to go to that level but there are some and so we have a program that is there for those students who want more.

NEA: So it's quite a commitment on the part of the students who participate in this program?

CASHEN: It is. We have one student who lives about 30 or 40 miles away who comes to our Detroit main library site. We even draw kids from outside of Detroit proper, in the tri-county area. Recently we [participated in the] Louder Than A Bomb Youth Poetry Slam Competition in Ann Arbor where we competed against five Michigan teams. [The students] had to go all day Friday, spend the night in a hotel, and then do a slam "bouts"---those are the rounds that they do---the next day. They are devoting weekends, they're devoting evenings. For some, who knows how much time they spend on their own, writing at home, memorizing---it's a lot. I call these kids emerging artists. They're really taking on their own identity, thinking about what they believe and how they want to voice it. It's a whole different thing.

NEA: For a time, there was a program called CityWide Agents, which was made up of CityWide Poets alumni. The students who participate in CityWide Poets seem to develop a deep connection with the program and want to remain involved.

CASHEN: That program is no longer running, but some of the students who were CityWide Agents are now either employees or contract employees of InsideOut. And CityWide Agents have gone on to create an artistic collaborative on their own called Detroit Witness. Justin Rogers, who is one of our long-time students who continued to evolve into a CityWide Poet, he's our community liaison, an employee of InsideOut. There are a couple other CityWide Agents who are still doing things on a contractual basis with InsideOut. We have a high school conference every year so they may be involved in teaching and workshops. We're present at a couple of community centers around the city and I know some of the CityWide Agents are involved in those. Also, we have assistant site leaders, so there's an entryway for a young person who is pursuing this to move from assistant site leader to a site leader at a CityWide Poets site. If you've ever watched Brave New Voices, season one, Ben Alfaro, who was on the Ann Arbor team in that documentary, he's now our Detroit Public Library main site leader.

We've had an alumni theme this year, where we've brought people back who have gone out and done really successful, amazing things, who used to be with us. April 17 is our next Scratch the Page at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit with a published poet who's now based in Ann Arbor, named francine j. harris. She has a book out at Wayne State University Press called allegiance. francine had a full-time position [with InsideOut] at one point. At the [previous] Scratch the Page event, [our guest was] Nandi Comer; she started out as student of InsideOut and then became a CityWide Poet and then she worked here. She did what I do.

NEA: A theme that often comes up in slam poetry is social justice. Why do you think poetry is such a useful tool for communicating social justice issues?

CASHEN: You have young people who are asked to observe how other spoken word artists speak out about what they see, to dig deep into their own hearts and minds about what their values are and what they believe---to look at their own experiences in a way that might be inspiring to other people, or hopeful to other people, or satisfying to other people, like, "Oh yeah, I could never articulate that, but that's my experience too from where I grew up or from my neighborhood, or how I've been treated." As we're asking them to write, compose, and perform, we're asking them to flesh out what they really believe about their own experiences and to speak out about that. When you're speaking out, you're always thinking about your audience, you're always thinking about who might hear this. And they get feedback too. If they go and do a performance, they get people coming up to them and saying, "I want to do what you do. I love what you said. I didn't know there was a program like this." Social justice is a natural thing that comes into the picture.

NEA: In your time working with CityWide Poets, what kind of changes have you seen in the students who participate?

CASHEN: Just getting in front of a microphone, in front of people, I think changes the student and the way the student thinks about their own work and it ups the ante a little bit. It just becomes more real and it pushes them forward because they're in these real life situations where people are there to hear them and what they have to say. I see a lot of confidence being built in these young people. You can't afford to be afraid because they're going to push you up in front of the microphone and you're going to have to do something. And then there's the competitive edge which I think is a very healthy part of it that motivates them.

NEA: The CityWide Poets program has received a lot of national recognition in recent years, especially with the Coming Up Taller award. What does this kind of national recognition mean for the program and for the students involved?

CASHEN: There's a PSA clip on YouTube highlighting the Coming Up Taller award. In the interview, Terry said, "It just means our programs have been recognized for giving something back." [The filmmakers] also came to my classroom and I said something like, "These students are looking for ways to articulate their experience and talk about themselves and the way they see the world and when you give them a tool like poetry, it gives them something inside them and that doesn't ever go away." For people to recognize that, the White House, the Coming Up Taller award, anybody who saw that public service announcement, anybody who gives us recognition or support, it's inspiring, it's great, it just tells you to keep going because you're doing a good thing and it means something."

NEA: Is there anything else you would like to add?

CASHEN: I would like people to know that August 7-11, CityWide Poets will send a team to Brave New Voices, the youth slam competition, and to watch for us. We'll be having some events around the city, we'll be having a slam so we can narrow down the team through competition, and some different showcasing events and fundraising events. That's the highlight of our year.

For more information about InsideOut Literary Arts Project and CityWide Poets, visit their website and Facebook page.

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