Community Health and Wellness

Making COVID-19 downtime ‘transform time’

Featured photo of Semaj Brown, photo by Jerry Taliaferro

Written by Tanya Terry

Semaj Brown, Flint’s first poet laureate, considers the time she has because of the pandemic “transform time.”

“The time was transformed into something else,” she said. “My year was almost booked with performance and poetry theatre. I was also supposed to go to Freeman Elementary School and do poetry lessons and go to different churches. All of a sudden it was no theatre, no in-person classes-no nothing! I started writing an opera. I have the first draft. I have been working out the music.”

She wrote and delivered several essays as lectures such as The Buying Frying Making Baking of African American Stereotypes at the University of Michigan Law School, Senior Law Class with Professor Susan M. Kornfield.

Brown participated a video presentation for the Earth Ethics Vote the Earth Forward Where Am I From National Project for Kent State University in New York, New York.

Brown said she was not familiar with the “whole new online world,” but she quickly became familiar with it because there was “no other choice.”

Brown was initially scheduled to go to the Family Life Center, but she could not because of the pandemic. Pastor Ralphael D. Read took his literacy program; Reading with Pastor Read, online. Then, Brown developed her Children’s Poetry Show for the program.

For Brown, it was different for her and the show attendees to only be able to see each other from the head up. Brown’s question was: ‘how am I going to do this?’

“I had never seen this movie, but I’d heard about it; ‘The Bone Collector,’ the film where Denzel Washington was paralyzed and he had to do all his acting from the head up,” Brown said. “I said I don’t know what that’s like, but since it’s been done, I’m going to have to do it, too.”

Brown used various hats, played the drums and had a boom box for music behind her.

“I was like a one woman show from the head up for the children.”

Brown’s show became totally different from how she had originally anticipated it would be. She became even more animated and used even more colorful costumes than she initially planned to.

“When you’re on a screen, I thought this is all new. So, I’ve got to do something that’s going to capture them! So, that’s what I did.”

Before the pandemic, Brown had also been working with Genesee County Intermediate School District (GISD) Early Childhood Development. Because she has a platform, as she was going around talking to people, she was asking for “reading word warriors;” people who would volunteer to read in schools to children who were early childhood development ages as part of Brown’s Poetry Pod Project. Then, the pandemic hit and the volunteers couldn’t go read to the children anymore.

“That was blown out of the water.”

Brown was asked by Dr. Elizabeth Jordan, Ph.D., if she was going to still read to the young children-using Zoom.

“I said I don’t think I’m going to have their attention. So, I came up with an idea. I said they need puppets; poetry puppets.”

Brown was asked by Ladel Lewis, Ph.d. last summer if she would read in EJ’s garden located in north Flint, in the Sarvis Park neighborhood.

“I said ‘I can’t because of COVID.’ She said ‘but it’s outside.’ I said ‘I just can’t do that because people will see me and they’ll want to hug me and get close. I just can’t take a chance right now.’”

Time went by, and Brown had an idea.

“I said ‘you know what we could do? We could film it! You can film it and have a big screen in the garden.”

Brown was told her idea was great. But, she needed funding.

“I never asked for funding. It just came! That let me know this is supposed to happen.”

Brown will not be using hand puppets for this show, which will take place in the fall.

“No, no. These are real art puppets that are going to be as tall as your elbow up to your hand, and they’re going to be specially made by an artist in New York to go along with the characters in the book I’m putting together. But, I don’t call this spare time. This is work time.”

Brown’s book “Feasts and Fables from the Planet Kingdom” is all about vegetables in the planet kingdom.

“They have all kinds of schemes and things that they do and get into trouble. Well, I’m going to take some of those characters and have them made into puppets, and then I’ll write a little story about them, and we’ll film it.”

The project is to be called the Brownell Blvd Coalition’s Storytime.

She will also be using the same puppets when she performs for early childhood development aged childhood.

As part of the Poetry Pod Project, as her civic duty as poet laureate, Brown created other Youth Programming during 2021 -2022. This includes poetry pen pals, poetry and visual art, poetry in the Planted Kingdom and Reading Word Warriors. She plans to also be working with McCree Theatre in Flint on workshop and performance and intends to still teach poetry at Freeman Elementary. Curator/Collection Educator for the Mott-Wash Collection Stephanie James has agreed to allow Brown to incorporate the African American collection into her classes.

Brown was also invited to Western Michigan University in the fall to teach.

“I’m creating literary devices. They’ll be looking at my work from a certain lens.”

Indiana University brought Brown in December for a seminar via Zoom to examine her piece “Mother Ocean (Making of a New Tribe).”

On Feb. 24, Woodside Church, in Flint will bring Brown in to discuss “Mother Ocean (Making of a New Tribe);” the same piece, via Zoom in an entire seminar. The poem features Flint’s first librarian and has been examined at the African American Museum in Detroit and the Flint Institute of Arts, as well.

Also, on Feb. 24, Brown plans to launch her website: semajbrown.com.

“I’ve lost 15 people to COVID-19. I think my poetry has helped me cope with this. When I’m communicating with other people on Zoom it doesn’t feel like I’m locked in or inside. It feels like I’m there. Wherever your mind is, that’s where you are…It’s very important to take your mind and put it where you want it to be.”

Brown asks anyone looking for an activity to do while at home and looking for an opportunity to make downtime “transform time” to ask themselves what they could imagine. She suggests journaling; writing ideas down. She said once you write it on the paper it’s getting ready to jump off the paper and become alive.

“What did you want to do that you weren’t able to do? Maybe you had an inkling of it and now you have the time. I think you should do those things-inside your house and make your house this exploratory place. Make it your refuge; your safe place. Make your dwelling into what you want it to be!”

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