Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Albert Mills
Music credit: Renewal, composed and performed by Doug and Judy Smith
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Art, we truly believe, instills that pride and community. It's truly empowering when our children understand the transformative powers of art, and how arts can change not only their lives but their families' lives and their community.
Jo Reed: That’s Nnamdi Chukwuocha. He and his twin brother Albert Mills are the Poets Laureate of Delaware. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Identical twins Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Albert Mills, known as The Twin Poets, are spoken-word artists who have performed both nationally and internationally. They’ve been featured on Def Poetry, and they’re the subject of a documentary called Why I Write. But the twins’ primary focus remains on the children of underserved communities in Delaware, especially in their hometown of Wilmington. The twins have chosen to serve that community as social workers, working with children to keep them out of trouble and off the streets, as well as advocating for them in the juvenile justice system if they do run into trouble with the law. The twins see poetry as a potent tool to combat the ills they find around them—ills like gun violence, drugs, and poverty. And poetry is also a way they can break through to the kids who have grown up accustomed to the cadences of rap and hip-hop. The Twin Poets often combine performances with workshops, working with the kids and urging them to write, to express themselves and examine their lives through art.
Nnamdi and Al have received many awards for their work including the Mayors’ Award for service to children, Mentors of the Year from the city of Wilmington, and the Christi Award for community service through the arts. But for all their accolades, nothing prepared them to be named Poets Laureate of Delaware. Al Mills remembers the phone call.
Al Mills: Our Governor Jack Markell, and who is a poet himself, asked would we be interested. And after I picked myself up off the floor, I immediately called my brother and shared the news. And with an emphatic, "Yes, we would definitely be interested to carry this mantle for the art form we love for our state—to advocate for the arts and literature and writing." It was such a great honor.
Jo Reed: You're identical twins. You're very close, but you have different last names. And I'm gonna take a wild guess here and say Nnamdi, you changed yours.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Yes, I did. I changed my name. Our father passed away in 1990, and I changed my name to honor our father. Nnamdi's actually a Nigerian Igbo name, and it means that my father's within me.
Jo Reed: Ah, that's very nice. You were born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware. What was Wilmington like when you were kids?
Al Mills: This is Al. A very nice, fun place. I mean, we have great memories of our childhood from going to the parks and the summer programs. So it was a wonderful place. I mean, it's a far cry from the violence-filled streets that we, unfortunately, live in today. I mean, as kids, we were able to play touch football in the street and hide and go seek and do all the wonderful kid things, I mean, without a fear.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Nnamdi speaking. Yeah, I would definitely agree. I mean, it was inner-city living at its best, from our library systems to just being able to walk through the park, and find a creek, and searching for cray fish. It was just a great experience. And having the opportunity to live in such a small city. I mean, it was city living, but it was still pretty laid back.
Jo Reed: Both your parents were active in the community. Your father, in fact, was a very influential community leader in Wilmington. Your grandmother took in foster children. I mean, they were very deeply rooted in the community. And you’ve made your life’s work building that community through your careers both as social workers and as poets.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Nnamdi speaking. I mean, it's just our way of life. I couldn't imagine anything else. This is who we are—our family, this community—we're a community, you know. And it's just – it's that simple. You know, our grandmother, our father, and our mother and their work – they were the greatest – they were the greatest social workers we ever met. I mean, my grandmother could stop a child crying just by the touch of her hand. And it was like a miracle. And just that love that she displayed in everything she did. I mean, we felt like we've inherited a great legacy, and it would be selfish of us to try to turn our back on it and abandon this obligation to our community.
Jo Reed: Now you both became social workers, and you both work with kids. Can you explain to people who might not know Wilmington very well, what kids in Wilmington face today?
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Nnamdi speaking. We have a city that has some struggles. Well, some pockets of struggles. Many of our communities and their perceptions of our community, in general, is that we're really being hampered greatly by the violence that's associated with drug activity that runs, of course, up and down our region and right through many of our neighborhoods on 95. So it is just a lot of violence. Our city has some very low performing schools. We have many, many vacant properties, and just an array of issues. I mean, I guess if you look at all of the ways in which poverty affects a community and impacts the life of a child, it's clear that many of those are evident in Wilmington.
Jo Reed: Well, the community in which you work can be the subjects of some of your poems. May we hear one?
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Sure. "Inner City Disease." A young man was one of my brother’s clients, and he told my brother he was sick of the streets. And it made me think of what's happening to our children. It was like they were under a petri dish, and you were looking at this illness of our community. And this was what came from that poem, "Inner City Disease."
“Little kids try to live their life all nice and clean. But the
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: inner city
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: is gritty and the dirt gets
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: all in between
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: their self-respect and their self-esteem. And by the time they're 13, they have given up on their hopes and their dreams, willing to settle for whatever life brings. Wasting time
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: chasing shiny things.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Hard for him to sleep at night because of the screams. He hasn't even seen 16, yet he had seen some things that'd turn a preacher into a fiend. And you can look in his eyes and you can see that he's scared. 'Cause tomorrow's coming and he know
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: he's not prepared.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: His future looks blank
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: like them tees that he wear.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: And to him, God is just like his father. He's
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: never been there.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: He's never felt his hand. He lives his life like a cellphone, doesn't have any plan. Just running circles and gimmicks.
Al Mills: The race starts.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: And it's finished. He gets caught and sentenced, labeled a menace. But really, just a troubled teen who has trouble
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: sleeping at night
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: because he dreams of
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: a father he's never seen.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: So he stays up late trying to make that cream. His fate
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: is a murder scene.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Then there's another murder. Another family having another funeral. Another mother passing out,
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: having spasms.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: I swear, if you sit quietly in the church
Al Mills: —shh—
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: you can hear
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: the devil laughing.”
Jo Reed: That’s a powerful poem.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: Thank you.
Jo Reed: How does poetry help you when you're dealing with the kids that you're trying to help?
Al Mills: Al speaking. It's a number of different ways poetry helps. One: expression. That key – getting kids to be able to express their emotions. You know, so rather than me going to get in a fight, or rather than me cursing at my sister, or, in some houses, cursing at my mother, I'm able to learn how to channel my anger and my frustration, be it me putting it into a poem, or me just venting—me starting the journaling process to be able to help myself. Or a young lady who's going through a lot, before she gets depressed, for her to be able to start writing and putting her thoughts down and her frustrations on paper rather than taking them out on herself. I had a young lady just last night, we were speaking at a group home, and she said – and the poem was, "I do this instead of cutting my wrists," you know. And it's – that's what the poem – she was just saying all the things that was leading to her to ready to just put little cuts in her wrists as she had did in the past. But instead of doing that, now I'm doing this. I'm writing—I'm writing all my frustrations out. So there – there's a great, great need for poetry in, I would say, every city, not just the ones plagued by violence.
Jo Reed: Did you read a lot of poetry when you were kids? Did you read a lot of books?
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Absolutely. Nnamdi speaking. Absolutely. Reading was just a part of who we were. That was our travel. You know, that was our television. I mean, reading was everything. It was very important to us as young men. Even today, within our family, we're both avid readers, and our children are avid readers. That was our joy—really finding a unique book and then sharing it with each other.
Jo Reed: When did you begin to write poetry? Was it something that you both began doing at the same time? Or did one of you start and the other one take it up? How did that come about?
Al Mills: Al speaking. It honestly just came about. I mean, it was gradually. Really, I can't say when it exactly began. When we had the little mom and dad birthday cards that we would kind of do, and our uncle and aunt and mother would have us writing, "Okay, well what does this poem mean to you? And you write what it means to you. Okay, you write your own poem." You know, that kind of thing, so we really don't know. I mean, once it started to take off and blossom into something special around middle school, we knew we had a gift that separated us from the rest of the students. Then we, I mean – that summer between seventh and eighth grade, it was light and day. It was like when we went back to school, we knew we were artists. You know, it was like, “Oh, no. We have a gift.” The teachers really didn't believe that we wrote these poems. It was like, "No, we did. My mom will write you a letter to prove that I wrote it." That kind of thing. And we knew we were blessed.
Jo Reed: Did something special happen that year, or was it just a magical summer?
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Nnamdi speaking. It really was just the environment—the experiences we had. A lot of our summers we spent traveling with our grandmother, visiting different family members from North Carolina, to Michigan, and –
Al Mills: Pittsburgh
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: – Pittsburgh, and all around. So a lot of it was traveling. And then, of course, we're in the car, so we spent a lot of time writing. And it just gave us that opportunity to hone in on what we wanted to say. And we were each other's eyes and ears. My brother would share something with me, and it would just always inspires me to want to write. So we had that constant fuel for each other, you know, and it’s steel sharpening steel. And we really began to develop our craft.
Jo Reed: There's a poem that you wrote called "Why I Write."
Al Mills: Yes.
Jo Reed: Is that one that you can do for us now?
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Sure.
Al Mills: Very much.
Jo Reed: Okay. Tell me a little bit about where this came from.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Just the process of really thinking about why we write. Brother and I were in the midst of a writing group working with children, and our writing exercise that day with the children was, “Why do you write?” And as always, we participate in the same writing activities with the students, so this is how that poem began, where we clarified our position about why we write.
Al Mills: “Why I Write. I write for the youth and who never had a chance to just
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: <singing> lie in the grass and look up at the clouds.
Al Mills: For the ones that hide on the inside when teachers ask for volunteers to read out loud. I write for the ones that never even looked up at the clouds
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: without expecting to feel rain.
Al Mills: I write for little girls that must Double Dutch their blood stains and don't know their fathers' names. I write to show the youth that it's far more important things for them to think and talk about besides the beef between 50 and Game and when the new Jordans’
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: coming out.
Al Mills: I write to give a voice to the everyday beautiful things, like birds flying south and leaves changing colors
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: that get over looked.
Al Mills: I write for the fiends out there that swore
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: they'd never get hooked.
Al Mills: I write for the nephews out there that know the pain of seeing their favorite uncle go from being one of the coolest cats on Earth to just
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: a junkie always begging for change.
Al Mills: I write for relatives that can't relate to one another. For little girls who are looking for love and found themselves teen mothers. I write for the circle of poverty that never ends in the PJs. And for grown men that prey on young girls these days. I write for the beautiful artists, the talented poets, singers, and scholars, whose talent won't stop
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: athletes' dollars.
Al Mills: I write because a man with a ball in his hand
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: never been a threat.
Al Mills: That's why Kobe and K.D. can cash million dollar checks. I write for jail cells that get filled
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: before prisons are even built.
Al Mills: I write for those who see prisons as businesses, and wardens as CEO’s. Those who think, “Let's
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: build these prisons and fill these prisons, and see how many people they can hold.”
Al Mills: I write for parents that don't have good parenting skills, like the ones that buy outfits rather than paying bills. I write because God's thoughts enter my mind in the form of rhyme. And my mind's rhymes take you to the confines of some
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: grimy urban places, some never which been seen by their faces.
Al Mills: But when I address the fact that so many black teens have never seen their fathers’ faces,
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: they label me racist. So I write.
Al Mills: I write to share my love affair of words with the children, because God is on my tongue, and the world is in need of healing. I write because the children didn't understand the depth behind the deaths of Big and Pac. I write because there is no more room at all for “Rest in Peace,” mad mans, and Mookie’s on my block. I write for all the mothers that had their children killed by guns. I write for all the "I love you’s” that fathers never said to their sons.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: So I write.”
Jo Reed: That's wonderful.
Al Mills: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That is some poem. I read it before I spoke with you, but it – and I thought it was great, but it doesn't compare with listening to you two –
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: <laughter>
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Thank you.
Al Mills: Appreciate it.
Jo Reed: – speak it. That's wonderful. I'd like to talk, if you don't mind, a little bit about how you collaborate. Do you write together? How does it work?
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: This is Nnamdi speaking. A lot of our writing process is we start with the title and build the poem around the title. So normally, one of us would have an idea, and we would share, and then we would write a part, and then my brother would write a part, and we would come together, and work it out. So maybe some of the poem that he created actually is a part of the poem that I'm reciting, and a part of the poem that he wrote, I'll have. So it's a shared work. So we try to mesh each other's work into the point where it feels comfortable in a performance poem for us.
Jo Reed: You build your voices together so beautifully. I mean, it really is like a chorus, and yet each is individual. That's really something.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Mm-hmm.
Al Mills: Yeah. I mean, that's – Al speaking – That's truly what we feel. That is the uniqueness of The Twin Poets; that's the gift. That's that – us being together every minute, like except for the first two. That's that bond where we can just complete each other's sentences. And oftentimes, as Nnamdi said, when we have the writing process, then he'll send the title and say, "Okay, this is that," and I would already have something already in my journal for that like, "I was thinking about that like a month ago, you know." That kind of thing.
Jo Reed: Do you find, especially with boys, teenage boys, where there's this toughness that kids feel like they really have to show? Do you find that you have to overcome a resistance to poetry?
Al Mills: Al speaking. Unfortunately, it's just a part of the society right now and a part of the music, the culture that, you know—this hip-hop culture—that they have to show this toughness. But I think we're able to get around that by showing them that we're men; we're in our community. You know, we love some of the hip-hop. But once we strip it down, this is just a poem. This guy did the same thing that you're about to do right now. He's about to put a pen to a piece of paper and write his thoughts down. So once we're able to get them to learn how to express themselves – because the majority of them love rap music – so once you get them to understand that rap and poetry are related, you know; they're first cousins, and you can't have one without the other, you know. It's – know that it’s family so, and get them to understand that the rap is poetry and make that connection for them, and say a few lines of some artists that they respect that are poetic, and then get them to see this is all poetry. You really like poetry; you just haven't been exposed to it.
Jo Reed: You don't know that it's called poetry <laughs>.
Al Mills: Exactly.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Yes.
Al Mills: You call it this, you call it that –
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Yes.
Al Mills: – but it's all poetry. And definitely, I would say, we try to strip it down and show our children, I mean, what is – I mean, hip-hop is an art. Really, it's just a poem on a piece of paper. And you have that same art in you; you could create the same stuff that he's saying, in the reverse if you don't like his message, you know.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Absolutely. Nnamdi speaking. And just to add that bit of clarity to that point in saying to the youth, in understanding that the power that they have in their own message—that what you just created on a sheet of paper is no less valuable than this song that such and such made and sold a million copies. What – your voice is just as powerful, and you just have to believe in that. “You have to have that same confidence,” is what we say to our children, “in what you're writing. You have to believe in yourself.” And art is a way, in which we truly believe, that instills that sort of self-pride and community pride in your – It's truly empowering when our children believe that. They understand the transformative powers of art, and how arts can change not only their lives but their families' lives and their community.
Al Mills: Definitely, and in the classroom, as well. I mean, I spoke a little earlier—I'm sorry, this is Al—about what it did to us—you know, that when we went back to school in middle school, and it was how we knew we were artists. And it empowered us. We felt different. It empowered us, and that, in turn, made us better students, as well. So I think that's what we want to pass on to the children right now, that same empowerment that it can give them as well.
Jo Reed: Can we have another poem from you?
Al Mills: Certainly, yes. Alright, this is one of our favorite poems, and the poem that we did on HBO Def Poetry, and it's entitled "Dreams are Illegal." And we often start, with our poems, with the title. So one day we were talking to the children, and we were going around the room, and we were asking the kids what do they want to be when they grow up. And they were saying these beautiful answers and, you know, doctors and dentists and lawyers and teachers. And there was one young lady in the front, and she was being real negative. And every time one of the classmates would say, "Oh, I want to do this," she would say, "Oh, you can't do that. Oh, you won't be a doctor. You can't even read." Or, "You can't do this. You can't do that." And Nnamdi said to her, "Dreams are not illegal. They can be anything they like to be." And then from that statement, we took that, and that became the title for this poem, from that statement. "Dreams Are Illegal"
“I heard that dreams are illegal.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Girl, you're not gonna be a doctor!
Al Mills: I heard that dreams are illegal.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Boy, you're not gonna be a lawyer!
Al Mills: I heard that dreams are illegal, but I am dreaming.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Don’t you know that dreams are illegal?
Al Mills: I heard that dreams are illegal, but I am
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Dreams are illegal, but I am
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: dreaming.
Al Mills: I had a dream. I had a dream I was in America.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: In America?
Al Mills: And I was actually in “The Land of the Free and The Home of the Brave.” My boss came into my office and said,
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: “Hi Bob! How’s it going?
Al Mills: “Why don’t you take off early, and here’s that raise!” And as I pulled my Suburban up to my suburban home, I got the mail out the box. I was approved for another home equity loan.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Great.
Al Mills: The Girl Scouts are there ringing the bell with cookies to sell.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Ding-dong.
Al Mills: Of course I bought a box as Hillary quieted down Marmaduke who had begun to bark. And then later on, when the wife and the kids took a bike ride to the park, when we returned, we had apple pie with ice cream on top. And then we buckled up and headed on down to the Red Box get some DVDs
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: videos
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: to watch.
Al Mills: When we returned, the kids put on their PJs and relaxed in the den for some family time watching
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: videos.
Al Mills: And then all these strangers turned and said to me, “What are you doing here? Don’t you know that
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: Dreams are illegal? What are you doing here, don’t you know that dreams
Al Mills: are illegal?”
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Pow-pow-pow.
Al Mills: Gunshots. Gunshots ring in the heat of the night, followed by
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: screams
Al Mills: violently disrupting my dreams. You see, in my neighborhood, I don't need to
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: read the paper or watch the news
Al Mills: to know that something bad happened around here tonight. But once the ambulams leave and the police sirens stop and the crowd
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: disperses,
Al Mills: that silence—that silence
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: soaks into my soul, sobering my senses,
Al Mills: and it's often over-intoxicating society and I. I try to relax.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Let go.
Al Mills: I try to relax, but the devil just
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: Won't let go.
Al Mills: He keeps pointing to the signs that are posted all around me that read,
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: “Dreams” –
Al Mills: “are illegal.”
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: “ahh illegal.”
Al Mills: See, my neighborhood is the bottom of the borough
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: where drugs get mixed.
Al Mills: Here, there are no brothers and sisters,
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: just confused
Al Mills: brothers and sisters. Here, people drown in the backwash of the latest
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: political scandal.
Al Mills: Here, the devil is in sweet control
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: as dreams are stole.
Al Mills: And you know there is no honor amongst thieves,
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: so dreams are stolen with ease.
Al Mills: A high school graduate, barely 17, gives up her college dreams
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: for a pair of tight jeans
Al Mills: and a chance to be the
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: next
Al Mills: inner-city queen. Inner-city checks and basketballs bounce with
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: regularity.
Al Mills: Life and death
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: intermixed with no disparity.
Al Mills: Some children
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: live for nothing,
Al Mills: and some children
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: die for nothing.
Al Mills: Every day, blue skies are gray. All they know is that they want to make dough.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: I wanna get paid.
Al Mills: The devil has them chasing the colorless rainbow. And at the end, there is no pot of gold,
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: just a pot of steam, which he exchanges for their dreams.
Al Mills: You see, bona fide slaves are made in the devil's dream trade.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: Without dreams, you are equivalent to being non-existent.
Al Mills: You see, our children—our children need to be told they can achieve, and that God bless those
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: who hold on to their dreams. We have to take down the signs, so the kids won't know
Al Mills: that the devil is trying to make dreams, not, not drugs, but he's
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: trying to make dreams illegal. But dreams are not illegal.” Thank you.
Jo Reed: Wow, that’s wonderful. Your poetry, your art, and your work in the community are so intertwined that, as you say, who are you writing for? In "Why I Write," it's for the people that you deal with every single day.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Nnamdi. No, no question. It's one and the same. I mean, it's Al and it's Nnamdi. You know, it's our poetry; it's our social work. One of our books is entitled Our Work and Our Words. I mean, they go hand in hand—our work and our words. One fuels the other. Our work every day encourages us and inspires us to write. And it's our art that inspires our social work, so we can do something about the issues within our community that we write about. They go hand in hand. I mean, they're our bread and our water.
Jo Reed: Yeah. You get energy from one to do the other.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Absolutely.
Jo Reed: And vice-versa.
Al Mills: Yes.
Jo Reed: You’re the twin Poets Laureate of Delaware. Tell me what that position entails. And what would you like to make of it?
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Nnamdi speaking. To advocate for poetry and to advocate for the arts and literature and writing. I mean, write poems for state events. To visit schools, libraries, to promote poetry. My brother and I, we have our own platform—our issues that are core to our service as Poet Laureates. We want to visit every school in Delaware. We want to visit our library systems. We also want to visit the juvenile detention centers and adult correctional facilities, and to share our work, and also to work with the VA for the veterans who are suffering from PTSD.
Jo Reed: Oh, yeah. The arts are so important for all of these people, especially when we see arts having been cut so much in schools. You, as Poet Laureates and speaking to the schools, would seem to have, you know, an extra significance, because I bet for some kids, this is going to be the first time they ever look at a poet.
Al Mills: Yes. Al speaking. Yes, very much so. And it's unfortunately. And it's not the good old days. It's not the school system that we were in. Some of these kids have never been to an art class; they don't have an art teacher. So they don't know this. Poetry is just something they do during English time every now and then.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Nnamdi. And I guess to add insult to injury, not only is art missing from their schooling, but also within many of their homes and in their communities, so they have almost an artless existence. So exposing them to poetry and spoken word and other forms of art is so rewarding. It frees them in a way, because it gives them exposure to things they've never seen, gives them the opportunity to travel, gives them the opportunity to venture within themselves, and to bring something out. Many of them have never had that opportunity before.
Jo Reed: You started a nonprofit called Art for Life- Delaware. Can you tell me just a little bit about it? I love the title.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Nnamdi speaking. Art for Life is our youth development through the arts, and it's currently focused on giving youth the opportunity to be exposed and to participate in the arts, in all forms of arts. So it's based in the community and in youth development. Both of our backgrounds working with youths, and then using our art form as a way in which we guide youth along the development path. And the more you expose them to how art is in their life, the more they begin to realize that art is all around them every single day. Rather it's photography, or rather it's design, or designing clothes, art is in your life every single day and in so many facets. And when they begin to realize that, their lives change, because they realize that art is very important.
Al Mills: And once we can get them to—I'm sorry, Al speaking—get them to understand that, I mean, that it's a reason, you know. It's a reason that you guys are listening to this music. It's a reason that this video is done this way. It's a reason that your neighborhood is full of Newport signs and all these liquor stores. It's a reason. So we get them to think and look, and they begin to question their own existence. I think that's the power of art.
Jo Reed: I’d like to close with a poem.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: This is one of our poems in which we try to ensure that our children have the opportunity to smile. And we show them how art can remove all of their burdens and just give them that opportunity to smile and enjoy life. And it's called "The Science of Love and War."
“There's a girl in my science class. She makes my heart stop whenever she walks past. Believe me, she's the reason that lip gloss was made. Together, we can be the Beyoncé and Jay Z of the fifth grade. But there's just one small problem. And time after time, my mind keeps reminding me of this.
Al Mills: She doesn't even know you exist.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Yeah, I know. I know. I'm just trying to take it slow. Now my mind's always giving me hints and suggestions of things that I should do in order to make her mine.
Al Mills: You can buy her flowers and candy. Yeah, girls love candy.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: “Okay, okay, okay,” I say. Now one day, I'm in science class and I'm daydreaming about
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: you know who
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: when out of the blue, she steps up and asks if she can borrow a pen. You would have thought she asked me out for a date, because I couldn't move. I was froze in place. My mind said,
Al Mills: “Sh-sure.”
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: And nervously, I knocked my pencil box to the floor, and I picked it up and I gave her my favorite pen:
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: my SpongeBob pen.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: She said, "Ooh, ooh, I love SpongeBob." My mind said,
Al Mills: “Say, ‘Me too.’ Say, ‘Me too.’”
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: But I didn't. I just let her walk away. And at the end of the day, my mind said,
Al Mills: “Go talk to her. Well, at least go get your pen back, stupid.”
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: I said, "See. That's my new strategy. As long as she has that pen, she'll always have a part of me." My mind said,
Al Mills: “You're a idiot. You gotta change your methods. At this rate, she'll never get the message.”
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: And from that point on, besides eating and sleeping, me and my mind spent most of our time trying to figure out ways to make her mine. My mind said, "Look. It's as easy as 1-2-3." You know what? You're right. You're right. I'll just step up and ask her to go out with me. Now every day, my mind says,
Al Mills: “Today's the day,”
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: but day after day, I keep putting it off. And I have to keep reminding my mind, "Look here, buddy. I’m still the boss." My mind sets up what he calls the perfect moment—
Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Al Mills: —the golden opportunity.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: And everything went smooth until the moment of execution, my mind starts screaming. My mind screamed,
Al Mills: “Just do it! Just do it!”
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: I'm like, "Will you please just shut up, stupid?" She turns around and says, "I know you're not talking to me." "Oh, oh, no. I was talking to myself," I said. Oh, great. Now she thinks I'm a cuckoo who talks to the voices in his head. "Thanks a lot. Thanks for nothing," I said. My mind said,
Al Mills: “Get ready, champ. Here she comes again.”
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: I open my mouth, but-but-but-but no words come out. My mind says,
Al Mills: “Come on! You could do it! You can do it!”
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: But I have butterflies inside, and my legs have turned to fluid. My mind says,
Al Mills: “Ah, you blew it.”
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: You know what? I’m tired of fighting this war. So now I'm in love with someone else, because I realized that my mind didn't want the girl for me; he wanted her for
Al Mills: himself.” Thank you.
Jo Reed: <laughs> Thank you.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Thank you.
Jo Reed: Congratulations to you both.
Al Mills: Thank you very much.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: Great, thanks.
Jo Reed: Thank you very much. And I really look so forward to what you're going to be doing in the coming year.
Nnamdi Chukwuocha: <laughs> Oh, thanks a lot.
Al Mills: Truly appreciate it.
Jo Reed: We were talking to Twin Poets Albert Mills and Nnamdi Chukwuocha. They are the current Poets Laureate of the state of Delaware.
You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Poets and social workers, the twins’ primary audience have been Wilmington’s underserved children.