Taking young poets to a bigger stage

A Flint-based arts group is helping young poets hone their talent with a goal to compete in an international youth poetry festival and slam contest. Along the way, they’re making connections and spurring on other young spoken word artists.
Words can hurt, but they can also bring people together. A Flint-based “arts and awareness” group called Raise It Up! is doing just that, using the power of poetry to connect local youth and expand their horizons.

Every year, area teens between the ages of 13 and 19 compete for a chance to join its five-member poetry team. They’re drawn by the appeal of participating in Brave New Voices, an international youth poetry festival and slam competition that the team has performed in for the past three years.

The team’s current lineup features Danielle Horton, Destiny Shannon, Sapphire Newby, Dezha Peterson, and Razjea Bridges. These young poets are razor-focused on carving out a place for themselves at Brave New Voices when it comes to Philadelphia this July. They’re also seeking to outdo their predecessors, who back in 2011 placed in the top ten out of fifty teams.

“When we made it to semifinals, and we missed finals by point four, it was a sad moment. But the team was also extremely proud of themselves that they made it as far as they did,” Crystal Turner, a coach and program associate for RIU says. “This year we plan on making it to the final stage.”

To prepare themselves for the slam poetry competition, team poets attend workshops at the Flint Public Library and practices at RIU’s office on Saginaw Street to brush up on writing and performance skills.

“Usually there’s a lot of writing,” says Turner, “A lot of working on group poems, working on performance and building stage presence. We do vocal exercises and also focus on a team vibe, because they’re going to have to be a unit to be on stage performing.”

The group also studies poets like Sierra Demulder, Deonte Osayande, Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou.

Team members receive training from a trio of talented coaches. Turner, an assistant coach, has published poetry books and runs her own company, Aivii Publishing. Head coach and RIU executive director Natasha Thomas-Jackson has released several albums and had spoken word performances featured in the Emmy Award-winning documentary, “Making Genes Dance.” Jonah Mixon-Webster, a poet and educator who teaches creative writing in Ypsilanti, rounds things out as the other assistant coach. The team also receives support from Lyndava Williams, who serves as the team’s manager and program director.

Thomas-Jackson, who co-founded Raise It Up! with Williams, formed the team after being approached by a local poet named Jay Price about getting Flint youth to compete in Brave New Voices. Like RIU’s other programs, it promotes youth voices and empowerment.

This definitely comes out in the team members’ poetry, which explores topics like body image, self identity, mental illness, and social issues. Over the years team members have struggled with things like financial difficulties, domestic and sexual assault, and a dramatic wave of school mergings and closings in Flint’s educational system. Poetry has served as a powerful channel to address these and other challenges.

“Whatever their personal issues might have been growing up in the city, being with their school or their home life, or how they live in their neighborhood, they’re doing something about it,” Turner says. “They’re not just sitting back and letting things happen to them, even if their only way to fight back is to get it out in a poem.”

In addition to improving their poetry skills, the program has allowed team members to expand their vistas. Over 600 young people from 50 different cities compete in Brave New Voices, which moves to a new U.S. city each year. In addition to the HBO-televised slam, the festival also features several days of workshops, performances, dialogues, and forums that help create lasting bonds with poets from around the world.

In a previous year, team members also made friends with another group from Cape Town, South Africa and remain pen pals to this day. One former poet, who participated in 2011, even won a full-ride scholarship to Wiley College in Texas, due to a contact she made at the festival.

The poetry team is active in Michigan too. They’ve given performances at the local YWCA, opened up at a youth-led event called Project Voice, and gone on road trips to Detroit and Southfield. Members have also helped run workshops for a RIU poetry club open to other youth that meets on second and fourth Saturdays at the public library.

Turner believes this hard work and the team’s visibility is having an impact on younger poets in Flint’s poetry scene.

“They’re seeing poets their age going to a national youth poetry competition, so it’s not impossible [to make it as a poet],” she says, “It’s totally possible to do. The youth in Flint, they really have a voice.”