11/20/2012 01:21 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

With a Pen in My Hand, I Can

I have the good fortune of traveling a lot. Wherever my travels take me, I represent Detroit proudly and I waste no opportunity to boast about the voices of the city's youth. (I post this now from Las Vegas, where I am presenting a session for the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention on "The Imaginative Leap" in teaching writing.)

I can afford to boast a bit. I've been at this work listening to and learning from young writers for 17 years, a fact that has led more than a few people to ask: What keeps you going?

Often the question is genuine. Sometimes, it's rooted in disbelief that InsideOut Literary Arts Project, a homegrown nonprofit focused on sharing the power of poetry with students, could thrive in Detroit.

No matter how the question is asked, my answer is the same. IO keeps moving, and so do I, because I've seen what happens when you put a pen in a child's hand. It's like a match to the imagination. The beauty and bravery that come forth in poems, such as those I've included below, is simply breathtaking.

Of course, there is another side to story. Words alone can't erase or ease hard truths. This is difficult work in a city with deep, deep and largely unfunded needs. For those of us determined to help, there are few pots of resources to draw from. We're all forced to run the same race at the same exhausting pace.

I learned recently that there are over 47,000 nonprofits in the state of Michigan. It's overwhelming to think of the dreams and hours poured into each separate entity, the energy required to oversee these endeavors, and the many individuals and donors who are inundated with worthy requests from all sectors. We drown in this sea of ink, this chorus of appeals.

But inevitably I return to the words of students. What a great anchor they offer. Detroit youth are never shy about letting us know what they think, and there is an immeasurable joy that comes from hearing a newly minted young author read a poem or simply say,"Thank You."

I felt that joy before Thanksgiving in November 2003, as our students' refrain -- "With a pen in my hand, I can" -- rang out through Orchestra Hall as the opening performance at ArtServe Michigan's Governor's Arts Awards. And this season I give thanks to a new IO partner, Paradise Pen, in the Somerset Collection, who on December 1st will take up that same refrain, as they host "The Gift of Possibility" featuring a silent auction, student poetry readings and lots of fun for InsideOut. Details here.

Last year, from Detroit to Chicago to Washington, D.C. IO youth performed for audiences of over 4,000. I carry the excitement of their public successes with me, and I also beam thinking of all the magic that happens for children (over 5,040 last year) in Detroit classrooms just because we dared to believe that writers can be powerful change agents in schools and in children's lives.

The rewards show up statistically as well as anecdotally. Our most recent evaluation (of over 400 IO youngsters by Community Service Systems of Ann Arbor) showed that IO students are 2.5 times more likely to see themselves as writers than their counterparts. And they behave like writers. They are 47 percent more likely, for instance, to read and re-read their work and pay attention to sentence structure and word choice.

I take special pride in these evaluations because they underscore our story. IO connects with the hearts and minds of children using the oldest tools around: words. While newspapers are routinely filled with Detroit's multigenerational illiteracy struggle, we're heartened by stories from teachers and principals, and we're thrilled by results such as these.

As a former teacher, I love sharing these data and this point in particular: students who take their time reading and writing are usually students who hunger to learn. That's news I would love to see energize all Detroiters.

It's at least half of what keep this Detroiter believing, and pushing, toward better days.

* * *


Your hands
make a stone man
turn soft.

I am heavy
with the memory
of your touch.

Miguel Rodriguez

* * *


Mother drilled me
like a set of drums.
Her eyes shot me
in the back before she
went to the store
leaving me to comfort
myself. We never went
to see horses run. No
baseball games. She knocked
on the door to my spaceship,
crushed my heart
like ice cubes, used
big words that would burn
my soul. After the whipping
I could hear the sound
of the waves. I could see
the colors. I could feel
the door slam.

Gekisha Smith

We Are Dogs

We ride 80 miles an hour
down Chicago Street.
Ant stops to harass
this little boy. We beat him up
for yelling gang slang
& throwing rocks
until the cops come.

When the cops come,
Trav runs, crowds start racing
towards us. Ant and I
just back into the car
through the open windows.
I hit the gas, peel
out of control.

Later, we sit on a rooftop
with our BB guns ready
to shoot. When three dogs
come into our sights,
we put 48 pellets
into the side of one
while the other dog runs
off into the night.

The streetlights shine.
I look down and see
one glowing eye
looking back up at us.

Darrius Peterson

* * *

Big Mama's Yard

Yesterday, on Turner where Big Mama lived, I walked around my back yard again. The tire that hung on the tree now lies on the ground, branch broken, rope around its neck. The fence I scaled pretending to be Spiderman leans to the south defeated by wind. Jimsonweed and wild sunflowers hide the baseball diamond we made together. I entered the house slowly, tiptoeing at the creaking of old floorboards. Rising dust replaced country air. I was accustomed to the morning aroma of banana nut pancakes and hot maple syrup made with her secret ingredients. She always opened the window when she poured her syrup over my pancakes so it would glisten in the sunlight as it dripped from a brown metal pot she called "Honeybear." She told me that was God's blessing over my food. Now, no light penetrated the dingy wood strips nailed into the spot that once welcomed us. My eyes began to water at the black hallways and white rooms. Big Mama wasn't there to color them in.

Nathaniel Wallace

These poems, culled from IO publications in the late 1990s, appear in the upcoming Third Wednesday whose editor Larry Thomas writes: "These poems stand up with much of the writing I encounter. I am moved not only by their skill and variety, but by the pictures they show of lives finding expression in poetry."