Brave New Voices: Passing the Mic to a New Generation of Detroit Slam Poets

On a recent Monday evening at downtown's Cliff Bell's, teenagers in a booth near the stage fiddle with iPods, sip Coca-Cola and send text messages. At first glance they seem like typical kids hanging out on a summer night. But their reasons for being here are anything but ordinary.

In fact, each of these young Detroiters is here to showcase an extraordinary way with words at Cliff Bell's weekly slam poetry night.  

"You can't call yourself an advocate if you don't support the youth," Crockett Technical High School senior Myriha Burton tells me before the slam begins.

Seem like a strong statement for a girl of her age? Well, for these eight, young Detroit-area slam poets, every statement is a strong statement.  
"Us poets," says Justin Rogers, a recent graduate of Detroit's Henry Ford High School, "We're just trying to be heard."

And that's exactly the opportunity that Rogers and his fellow poets had last week, when five-hundred Teen Poetry Slam Champions from over 50 cities worldwide convened in Chicago to perform their poetry at the twelfth annual Brave New Voices National Poetry Festival.

Since 1998, Brave New Voices has celebrated young poets and performers, ages 13-19, from the around United States and beyond. The festival is held annually, each year in a different city, allowing participating youth to experience a diversity of cultural and creative demographics.

Some of the young poets that comprise Detroit's Brave New Voices have been writers their whole lives. Others, amazingly, have only been writing for a year or less, since they stumbled upon poetry writing in school through an organization called InsideOut Literary Arts Project.

Mentoring creative writers

The program was founded in 1995 by award-winning poet and educator Terry Blackhawk, whose book, Escape Artist, received the 2002 John Ciardi Prize from BkMk Press. Her poems have appeared in Marlboro Review, Poet Lore, Michigan Quarterly Review, Southern Poetry Review and Yankee. Blackhawk also received the 1990 Foley Poetry Award, nominations for two Pushcart Poetry Prizes, and was a finalist for the Marlboro Prize in 1997 and 1999.

InsideOut places professional creative writers -- known as writers-in-residence -- as teachers and mentors in Detroit Public Schools. The program aims to engage K-12 students in the process of literary expression by nurturing creativity and increasing in-school exposure to poetry and other forms of creative writing.
In addition to offering programs that are conducted in schools during class time, InsideOut also facilitates Citywide Poets, an after-school program funded through grants from the Skillman Foundation. Citywide Poets' weekly workshops are held at multiple sites around Detroit and focus on poetry performance.

While the majority of Citywide Poets participants come from Detroit Public Schools, the program also serves high schoolers from all over metro Detroit – even home schoolers – so that students from all areas can join in the pleasure of creative and performing arts experience. Detroit's 2009 Brave New Voices Slam Team was comprised of Citywide Poets from Detroit Public high schools, U of D Jesuit High School, Oak Park High School, Wayne State University, area charter schools and others. The team was led by InsideOut writers-in-residence and Citywide Poet leaders, Nandi Comer and Jamaal May.

According to the Detroit Slam Team members, Brave New Voices is less about competing and more about sharing. In addition to performing their poetry, participants attended workshops conducted by world-renowned poets and writers, participated in youth development programs, and had the opportunity to be representative voices of a new generation of writers, performers and leaders.

Though "performing takes bravery," as team-alternate Isaiah Mitchell tells me, festivals like Brave New Voices also allow young poets and writers to feel the support of a larger literary community.

"We remember that we're not the only ones doing this," says graduating senior Reonna Barnes, “and that's the most beautifulest thing I know.

"Yeah, I know that's not a word," Barnes counters quickly, "But I'm a poet. I can do that."

Revealing Detroit beauty in words

Combining confidence with coyness, and fact with the fantastic, the poetry of these young adults deals with difficult oppositions and mature topics. Over the course of the evening they expound on everything from family and childhood, to physical and emotional abuse, to the tension between creativity and inner-logic, to the pitfalls of the creative process.

Joseph Verge, sophomore at Martin Luther King High School, tells me that in addition to writing about their experiences growing up in Detroit, the team members often actively write poems to dispel myths about the city and to show ways that Detroit is beautiful. In fact they spent weeks preparing a poem for multiple voices on this very topic to perform at the festival last week.

By bringing their words to life at festivals like Brave New Voices, the six team members and two alternates -- Myriha Burton, Joseph Verge, Andrew Barnhill, Reonna Barnes, Justin Rogers, Aijalon McLittle, Isaiah Mitchell and Antinette Brown -- hope to make an impact on their audience and beyond.
"Poets are saving the world, Barnes tells me. "We're saving it slowly . . . but it's gonna happen."

Rachel Harkai is an intern for Model D. Send feedback here.


Myriha Burton

Reonna Barnes

Terry Blackhawk

Aijalon "AJ" McLittle

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here


Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.