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Detroit Children Tell Us "Where Poetry Lives" -- on PBS NewsHour

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I'm not usually one to share my dreams. The labyrinthine houses, storms or exotic birds that spring from my unconscious mind at night seem too tedious or "TMI." But sometimes dreams can be life markers. A recurring dream from over 25 years ago (I was back at my college, I had not finished my BA, I had to re-enroll, I didn't recognize the streets but needed to find housing or turn in a missing paper) set me on my path to a Ph.D. The dreams stopped as soon as I immersed myself in studies toward the degree that eventually opened the door to the founding of InsideOut Literary Arts Project.

A current dream has again set me pondering life significance. It came to me the night before the broadcast about iO on the PBS NewsHour in which U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey introduced the world to the beauty of Detroit's children in her series "Where Poetry Lives."

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Photo Credit: Mary Jo Brooks. l to r: Jeffrey Brown, Natasha Trethewey, Eddie Stewart, Quintin Pope, and Ricki Porter discuss poetry at Detroit's Marcus Garvey Academy.

In this dream, I am at a conference, ready to register, when a young woman reaches across the table and introduces herself as a former student, one who had given iO its name some twenty years ago. After I clasp her hand saying, "Of course, I remember you!" she guides me through the auditorium, which has partially morphed into a desolate Detroit neighborhood. As we approach the front rows, the landscape takes a sudden turn. Instead of looking up onto a stage, I am standing at the edge of a cliff, gazing across at mountains and down at carefully cultivated hills and valleys that put me in mind of one of my favorite Italian Renaissance paintings, Giovanni Bellini's "St. Francis in the Desert."

It's a welcoming, peaceable vista, radiant and full of life.

I like to think that this dream tells me about my life and the life of my organization. We at iO are complex. We embrace those whom we have served and learn from them, letting them guide us. We move on, we overcome adversity, and as we stand now on the verge of a new school year, rich projects are opening up all the time.

The gaps that iO aims to close are daunting as ever. They persist in the individual lives of our students and in the narrative of our city. The images of vast abandonment that permeated my dream continue to dominate media presentations of our city. In the eyes of some, such as CBS's 60 Minutes, we are led to believe Detroit is akin to "Mogadishu.'' But I am proud that our work, and that of so many other committed Detroiters, paints a truer picture. I'm especially proud that our Poet Laureate chose to spotlight the heart, soul and spirit of Detroit's young people through their poetry.

Principal James Hearn and his staff at Marcus Garvey Academy have created the kind of haven children in Detroit need. It warmed my heart to hear this outstanding Detroit Public Schools principal express his 'conversion' to the power of poetry in children's lives. "This poetry really gets them truly motivated and excited,'' he told PBS NewsHour's Jeffrey Brown. "And I'm talking about my football players, my athletes, my basketball players want poetry."

When even the football players are excited about it, we know it must be cool.

It also warmed my heart to learn that last week iO's Peter Markus received the following from Dr. John Roemischer, a retired English professor from SUNY:

"I would like to inform you that I have sent a letter of appreciation to one of your poetry students, Eddie Stewart. His comments on the PBS News Hour moved me deeply. I was a college teacher for 56 years, now retired, and in all of those years I never heard a student say: poetry 'freed my imagination.' Of course, my expression of appreciation is due you for inducing Eddie's reflections."

Last spring Eddie, then in sixth grade, took the stage at iO's year-end gala in the Detroit Institute of Arts, creating a rousing audience response to this poem:

"What Is a Poem,'' by Eddie Stewart

A poem is a ball of fire
lifting into the sky.

No. A poem is a girl with hair
long enough to climb.

A poem is a car speeding down the road
going past the speed limit.

A poem is a flower blooming
faster than all the other flowers.

No. A poem is a lesson that you will
always remember.

A poem is a mother bird
teaching her babies how to fly.

A poem is the happiest mother in the world
on Mother's Day.

No. A poem is a man riding a dragon saying
"This is the best day of my life."

Hey, don't you know that you can rise up
to become what ever you want.

Did you know the world is a better
place with you in it.

I'm Eddie Stewart and I want everyone
to get off their feet and be as happy as they can be.

Everyone, I want you to share some
happy times in your life with friends.

Don't be afraid, you can make a big difference.
Remember: you are a Queen bee watching over the hive.

Eddie and several of his classmates have been invited to perform for the W. K. Kellogg Foundation during a Leadership Community and Civic Engagement conference this month. I am glad that the audience for our young people continues to grow. In the face of the myriad social factors that militate against them and against the economic backdrop of our city, voices like Eddie's give me hope for the future.