Flint’s first poet laureate awarded $50K to infuse poetry throughout city with focus on literacy
FLINT, MI — Semaj Brown, Flint’s first poet laureate, was recently awarded $50,000 to implement poetry programming in the city of Flint as a way to enhance the appreciation for poetry as well as using poetry to enhance literacy.
She was bestowed the title on June 3 of Academy of American Poets Poet Laureate Fellow and awarded $50,000 from the Academy of American Poets, with support from the Mellon Foundation.
Brown is one of 23 individuals who serve as poets laureate of states and cities across the U.S. These poets will lead public poetry programs in their respective communities in the year ahead.
“I just went blank,” said Brown of her reaction when she was told about the achievements. “I didn’t say anything and then she said, ‘congratulations.’ “That’s when I went giddy.”
Brown, appointed as Flint City Area’s first poet laureate in 2019 by former Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, has plans to implement poetry programming geared at children and adults with the hope that the experiences will transcend throughout Flint and beyond.
“As we begin emerging from COVID-19 restrictions, poetry, which has provided such comfort these past fifteen months, will continue to be a source of insight. We are honored and humbled to fund poets who are devoted to their own craft and also their community. Poets will most certainly help guide us forward,” Jennifer Benka, president and executive director of the Academy of American Poets, said.
At the Flint Institute of Arts theater, Brown recently read a poem titled “Where Am I From?” that she wrote last fall as part of a project that focused on the intersection of environmental injustice or ecological problems and racial and social problems, organized by Kent State University in collaboration with Columbia University and EarthEthics.org.
The poem, read by Brown, was based off a poem of the same name crafted by writer and teacher George Ella Lyon.
“In the poem, I’m talking about all these racial problems intersecting with environmental problems with the earth and the survival of the earth,” Brown explained.
The Poetry Pod Project (P3), which integrates music, visual art, performance, and games to enhance literacy and the appreciation of poetry through the listening to, reading, and writing of poetry is Brown’s civic platform for Flint and has been active since she was appointed.
P3 will launch the inter-genre seminar, Poetry Letters: Poetry as a 2nd Language, which embraces three continuous, yearlong workshops: Poetry Voices, Poetry Painting, and Poetry Pen Pals.
Brown will launch the Poetry Pod Project in collaboration with the Flint Zeta Foundation.
“It engages children, it also engages adults, because adults need poetry as much as children do,” she said. “I mean there’s a real need.”
Brown, a Detroit native who moved to the Flint area in 2003, began writing poetry when she was six years old. She was encouraged by her mother, who was a classically trained pianist based in the Detroit area, and would often read poetry to Brown and her sister.
“The idea of a poetry pod project is that there are these pods just like a pea pod and in each pod there’s programming of poetry, so when it blossoms, when the sun comes out, just like new day thinking,” Brown said. “New day. We’ve been through a lot as Flint and as a country, so what I’m looking at is a new day thinking, we’re blossoming.”
The latest project under the Poetry Pod Project umbrella is called Poetry Letters: Poetry as a 2nd Language, where there will be discourse between poems. The project helps participants think and communicate with poetry.
“When you communicate in poetry that means you’re thinking in poetry and if you’re thinking in poetry, so that it becomes a second language, a dialect, a conversation, it means you’re using an expansive way of looking at your world or a very contractive way of looking at your world because poems do both,” Brown explained.
“It involves enhancing the appreciation for poetry as well as using poetry to enhance reading and writing skills to enhance literacy,” she said.
Author of the book, “Bleeding Fire: Tap the Eternal Spring of Regenerative Light,” Brown has been working in the community since moving to the area, she said. Brown added she helped her husband Dr. James Brown, a family medicine specialist, by using creative ways to educate the community in Flint and Genesee County on nutrition.
Under Poetry Letters: Poetry as a 2nd Language, the Poetry Painting pod involves fifth- and sixth-graders from Freeman Elementary School. The students will engage with artwork from the Mott-Warsh Collection, a private collection of fine art created by artists of the African diaspora and others who reflect on it, in Flint.
Artwork will be selected from the collection that will either expand or enhance the students’ work from their social studies class. Students will be taught about artwork’s time period, the medium used, the artist and time period of the art. Students will be taught the elements of poetry by Brown and, as a result, respond in the form of poetry.
The second pod called Flint Reads Poetry: Poetry Voices of Flint will feature everyday citizens reading poems from a certain era on a virtual platform. The first era will be the Harlem Renaissance. The first era will be read by members of Flint Zeta Foundation.
The third pod, Poetry Pen Pals, will have pen pals that will write to each other in the form of poetry, which will initially begin with Freeman Elementary students and then expand to other groups across the city and even to other countries and continents as Brown has friends who have schools in Africa, she said. The poems will be posted online.
“Just by practice you become more thoughtful, more methodical. It’s an extension of mindfulness,” Brown said. “You have to be deliberative when you’re writing.
Funds from the Academy of American Poets will fund the three pod projects, Brown said.
The fourth and last project, Poetry in the Garden, is also a part of the overall pod project, but it is funded by an angel donor. Brown will read poetry in comedic light at Sarvis Park in Flint centered around science and vegetable consciousness.
The projects are set to launch by August or September.
Brown said the project is an opportunity for people to get excited about words and literature and language.
“I’m trying to effect some kind of fundamental change and I know art and poetry can change lives and that’s what I’m trying to do to make futures possible,” Brown said.