Curiously Strong

06/16/2015 02:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2016

With my retirement on June 30 barely a heartbeat away, it is, as the hash-tag says, getting real.

Each day has the tinge of poignancy, of last times. I know I will miss looking out of my iO office window onto Cass Ave. through the leaves of the honey locusts that so gracefully filter the light. Only two floors up, I can sometimes catch sight of a friend or colleague from Wayne State University walking past on the sidewalk, or try to make out the various passerines flitting among the branches, thinking where oh where are my binoculars when I need them.

When we moved the InsideOut Literary Arts Project offices here to WSU's State Hall in January 2011, from offices in the Palms Building opposite Comerica Park that we had called home since 1998, I felt as if I had moved to Paris, and indeed Detroit was once called the Paris of the Midwest. The architecture of the Detroit Public Library right across Cass Ave from my office windows, or the Beaux Arts Detroit Institute of Arts across the way tells us why. With the sidewalks full of people, the lovely light (especially at sunset), the filtering leaves - I could be in an Impressionist painting.

I loved my office in the Palms Building, too. What's not to love about a 10th floor corner view, looking east to Comerica Park - which I watched being built - and south down Woodward to the Detroit River and then to Canada. I also loved the sunsets in the Palms Building where our meeting room for Citywide Poets looked west across Detroit rooftops, and I loved the weekly meetings with students in the first years when we gathered at sundown to read, write, and share poetry. In her prize-winning poem, Lena Cintron, a 2008 graduate of our program, captured the special ambiance of that corner room.

Tenth Floor, Left Corner
(poetry class)

Bare shaven camera heads
like film exposed. Green nails
on small hands. From the deep
crevices of cold sparkly purses,
wasted bits of paper full
of words too powerful to fit
their allotted space kiss
tiny notebooks (moleskins)
that cost more
than the expensive cup
of coffee needed to fill them.
Discarded gloves left
by the tableside to make
room for anxious fingers
that grip pens like oars
in a boat rushing to shore.

This is poetry's womb.

CWP started small and for several years met as a group of 8 to 12 teens working with poets, such as myself, Aurora Harris, Leslie Reese, Ella Singer and Kristin Palm who loved, cajoled, challenged, and celebrated their words and their ideas. Each year, this small band of poetic merrymakers gathered weekly in "poetry's womb." But with an invitation to apply for funding from the Skillman Foundation in 2004, CWP began to grow, adding new sites, with leadership coming from iO alumni such as Nandi Comer, who directed the program's expansion for several years, and more marvelous poet mentors such as Jamaal May, Kahn Davison and Matthew Olzmann. In 2009, CWP brought iO to Washington, D.C., where Lena read this poem at a Kennedy Center reception the evening before a White House ceremony where First Lady Michelle Obama presented InsideOut with that year's National Arts and Humanities Youth Program (then, "Coming Up Taller") Award.

2015-06-15-1434333561-1093566-terryblackhawkwhitehouse1109.jpg White House Official Photo

One of my proudest moments in all of these twenty years was hearing our First Lady, in her opening remarks that day, single iO out. "Perhaps one of the poets from Detroit's InsideOut Literary Arts Project said it best when he wrote, 'When you ask a child to dream, they will dream.'" And dream they do. It's been my privilege to see these students' dreams take hold and, as our mission statement says, to watch as "their pens launch them into extraordinary lives."

Our CWPers graduate high school (100% since 2008) and go on to college (85%). They earn awards for writing and performing as well as college scholarships, and many are in graduate school. Two are teaching in Europe; three participate with Cave Canem, the selective retreat for emerging African American poets whose faculty includes winners of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

In April Deecha Draw, CWP 2002, surveyed 34 program alumni as part of her work toward a Masters in Public Policy at DePaul University with the following results.


I love that one of our own alumni came up with this survey, and that personal development - beyond academic and professional - had the highest relevance to our alums. Here's Deecha herself, June 13, 2015, with her sister at graduation, Masters Degree proudly in hand.


One extraordinary life is that of Will Langford (CWP 2007). Will recently returned home to Detroit after two years in Africa. As a Fulbright scholar in Kenya he taught in an all girls' school, bringing the iO spirit with him as he created a literary program complete with a professionally printed literary magazine. No small feat, given the location of the school, a 45 minute ride by motor bike from the nearest city. As an iOer in high school, Will represented Detroit at the Brave New Voices slam in New York City; edited Ambiance, Cass Tech's literary magazine; and won local, state and national awards for poetry.

He went on to attend Michigan State, where he helped to build a spoken word poetry/slam community modeled after CWP and was selected to present the student commencement address (a poem, of course) at his graduation. He completed an MA in English at Penn State before traveling abroad. His recently launched website brings to life his journey in Africa and shares many of his powerful poems. Like me, I know you will enjoy clips of Will feeding a giraffe and busting judo moves at MSU. You will applaud his advocacy for the Children and Youth Empowerment Center that serves vulnerable Kenyan children, and you will have your heart broken by "Jesse Owens," his poem to Trayvon Martin, which has been included in the course pack for Harvard University's First-year Urban Program.

Finally, I will miss the pleasure of daily contact with Justin Rogers (CWP 2009) who is a member of our current staff, serving as iO's Community Youth Liaison. Justin participated with iO at Cody High School, where Nandi was his Writer-in-residence, and then on our slam team that came in fourth in the world at the Brave New Voices 2011 Youth Poetry Slam. Justin continues to help mold students on the inside, coaching this year's slam team among other duties, while juggling his college career and outside performances for iO. It's been a joy to see Justin grow into a gracious, thoughtful adult and now a new father, as we congratulate him and his wife iO alumna Brittany Rogers and welcome a new poet, Eli Rogers, 8 lbs 12 oz, born June 5, 2015, to the iO family.

Each year students from the various iO CWP sites contribute to an anthology, and one of my favorites was City Breaths, from 2008, with its breath mint themed cover developed by Ian Tadashi Moore, himself a Detroit Public Schools grad and former Artistic Director of InsideOut.


Yes, we are the 'curiously strong' city, as our youth prove time and again. With alumni like Deecha and Will and Nandi and Lena and Justin - all children of Detroit from hard-working Detroit families - iO lets us know that Detroit has been 'curiously strong' for a long time.