“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry,” Emily Dickinson once wrote. She continues: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” This powerful quotation came to me by way of Emily Southerton, an itinerant poetry teacher focused on how the form can encourage students to find voice and advocate for social change.
Southerton’s newest initiative, the Poet Warriors Project, aims to teach poetry to middle school students as a way to raise their voices and encourage them to speak out on social issues. A Teach For America alumna who began her teaching journey with English Language Arts in Jackson, Mississippi, Southerton has extended her work to 15 cities and some 2,500 students. Their poems are then brought together and published online.
“When my students and I dove into a poetry writing unit in the dregs of a long and antsy winter, I focused on the freedom and power that poetry writing offers,” she explained in an interview with Hyperallergic. “I taught poets like Langston Hughes, Carl Sandburg, and Gwendolyn Brooks who affected dramatic social change through their work, and my students were enthralled. My students connected immediately with the poets’ content and the passion in their works, and began writing some of the most powerful pieces that I have ever read.”
The poems read with a sharp awareness of the yins and yangs of life, like Zarian Brown’s “Just Like the Melody of the Sad Blues“:
“No you listen here,
don’t you give up,”
my grandma said to me,
“It’s just a matter of time
before the world opens up doors for you.”
Every time she would give me a lesson
or tip to survive the world,
I used to think to myself,
Why is she always happy?
but then I realized it’s not that.
And then there’s Jessica Thomas’s “Silence Hurts“, where she writes that “Silence is like an unborn in your stomach that doesn’t know how to get out. / Whether it’s just plain suffering or pain it comes and always be there.” And Tim Aguirre’s “Escape“, on healing from trauma:
This is when I realized.
If someone carves into a small sapling with a knife
the wound is as big as the entire trunk.
Even though that will never heal,
you can grow the tree around it,
and in turn will make that wound smaller.
“What they at times lacked in traditional writing skills my students poetically made up for with an entirely unique and shakingly insightful perspective; they made up for it with the acute use of voice and dialect, the ability to paint a picture rich with culture and unique sensory details, and most importantly they had the rare knowledge of what stories needed to be told and the bravery to tell them,” Southerton said.
While Southerton notes the internal transformation made possible by writing and poetry, the act of publishing and sharing that poetry is also critical. Part of what makes the Poet Warriors Project interesting is the way Southerton uses social media and the internet to share the poetry. Each poem is tagged for discoverability and includes buttons for responses like “This poems makes me Think” or “This poems makes me Smile.”
In this regard, she helps bridge poetry for young people into the social media worlds they are growing up in. The site divides the content along topical grounds, like “Community,” “Family,” and “Place”, but it also lives on in Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. In an interesting aesthetic choice, she shares the poems as images rather than straight text, which on the one hand discourages remix but on the other allows for more expressive typography — and presents the poems as art objects in themselves.
What’s evocative about the title of Poet Warriors and Southerton’s own stated goals is the social mission she hews close to, combining poetic traditions, contemporary social issues and the internet to extend voice and build community across schools and regions. This is poetry as both expressive and social act, coming from the voices of a generation so often dismissed as narcissistic or isolated for wanting to share their voice online.
“I believe it is so necessary to show students how poets, writers, and leaders through history have used their voices to create dramatic change,” she explained. “The Poet Warriors’ curriculum works to show students the similarities between themselves and great writers, and so we read mini-biographies of all the writers we study, including information about where those writers and leaders were at our students’ ages, and what they went on to do.”