When does authorship begin? Maybe it’s when you take your text (or mess) in both hands, claiming responsibility for whatever happens — on the page, in public. Then again, you might want to hibernate or woodshed until good and ready for the slings and arrows of the literary scene. Notoriety can’t be your only goal, not if anything worthwhile is to come of all those hours of scribbling. But there’s nothing shameful about wanting to be read or heard. In fact, a little exposure can go a long way in the motivation department.
The InsideOut Writing Project, a labor of nurturing and love by Detroit poet-teacher Terry Blackhawk, has been encouraging and sustaining the writerly impulse in Detroit public school students for the past five years. By funding writer residencies in the schools, student literary magazines and an annual anthology of student work, the project puts its accomplishments where its mouth is, letting the stories and poems speak for themselves.
So here comes next year’s date book collection, Feels Like Jazz!, written, illustrated and edited by students from Detroit middle and high schools, full of the kind of positive energy that state and federal legislators can only dream of generating. If any of these young authors is on the way to fame and fortune, then, cool. But in the meanwhile, they’re connecting with some of the most genuine experiences that any of us can help them uncover.
Take, for example, Southeastern High School of Technology student Larsira Cunningham’s short prose piece:
I Watched Her Sing
My mom used to sit on the piano stool. She’d begin on a note that seemed to rise higher than the mountains. Her mouth opened as if she was beginning to holler at me. Her chest slowly puffed out. Looking like she was about to scream. Instead, the gentlest, high-pitched sound came out to form a song.
She would stand and you could feel the emotion, it deepening in your heart. Her eyes would fill with tears, and her head would angle toward heaven as the strong tune would play with your ears.
You begin to absorb every musical note on the edge of your seat. But the song is over, and she sits as if nothing happened while your heart has caught her voice like a mitt leaving a permanent mark.
The act of nailing this memory for herself — almost coincidentally letting us in on the rush — makes writing and reading seem so much more vital than most of what we do to kill time or spend money in this vale of fears.
Then, within the economy of the haiku form, Devonne Madkins of Mackenzie High School realizes the hook-up between perfection, simplicity and truth:
I love how the blues
Come through on the radio
Nights when I’m alone.
Moving this ancient three-line form away from accurate perception over to clarifying desire, Mackenzie’s Leroy Riley lays down the contempo-word in no uncertain terms:
I Got the Time & the Time is Now
I want the ghetto
To be loved
Like a Rolex watch.
Blackhawk’s protégés, while adding another proud volume to the InsideOut series, engage such issues as self-confidence and self-expression, testing their uncertain relations with the world they’ve inherited. Coffey Middle School’s TaQuilla Martin, in fact, fashions her poem into a shy manifesto about getting over:
Words get stuck in my throat like
gum on my shoe.
The words just won’t flow.
I try to scream.
I try to shout,
but the words are stuck
without a doubt.
It makes me wonder
if it’s right
to say the words
I think I might.
With one page devoted to each week’s agenda throughout the year (52 of them), and companion pages (52 more) full of a heart-mind harvest to beat the everyday blands & blues, Feels Like Jazz! is some righteous wordifyin’.
Feels Like Jazz! can be ordered by calling InsideOut at 313-965-5332 — or faxing them at 313-965-3165 — or stop by at 2111 Woodward, Suite 1002, Detroit.