By Semaj Brown, Flint’s First Poet Laureate
I prepared a large pot of chamomile tea for us. You do not particularly care for the flavor of Chamomile? I must confess; it is not my favorite. I prefer the sweetness of Blackberry or the spice of Chai. Nevertheless, I sit with Chamomile leaves steeping as a precautionary measure. They say that this brew helps one to relax. I certainly needed calming after I devoured the latest statistics related to reading and incarceration rates. I certainly do not want you to join the growing ranks of sleepless educators. Let’s have a sip of Poet-tea, and talk?
85% of juveniles who collide with the court system are functionally illiterate. 67%, of adult prison inmates cannot read. Poor children hear 30 million fewer words than their wealthier peers by the age of 5. In other words, the relationship is direct between not knowing how to read, and being incarcerated. FACT: Literate people live longer. Literate communities are healthier, and the literate are less likely to be impoverished. The 2018 3rd grade literacy scores dropped 75% to 11% literacy when compared to five years before the onset of the Flint Water Crisis.
My tea sipping turned into tea gulping after consuming those statistics. I exchanged my delicate hand-painted tea cup and saucer for a big brown mug. I entered the threshold of the kitchen, often, making a tea-line to the stove where water boiled, and I boiled over. I was angry. Hot steam to the face soothed me. I watched the bubbles grow and burst, grow and burst until a moment of clarity reflected up from the wavy liquid that swashed about in my big brown mug.
Maybe “that lady” was right, I thought as I swallowed warmth, my anger dissolving with the taste of honey. On September 27th at the Flint Public Library, during the close of my Bleeding Fire! poetry reading, A proclamation from then, Mayor Dr. Karen Weaver, presented by Dr. Pamela Pugh, Director of Health Services was delivered. I received the venerable honor of being appointed, Flint City Area’s First Poet Laureate —Thank you. A laureate is a person who is honored with an award for outstanding creative or intellectual achievement. A Poet Laureate is a nonpolitical, nonpartisan position, and in my case, it is completely voluntary. I view the duties of this position as a continuation of 17 years of extensive community service, art /science programming that was launched with my husband, James Brown, MD, initially fueled by his medical practice in 2004. Poet Laureates have platforms, and my platform surrounds literacy, using poetry to teach reading and writing while integrating art and science.
Amid the glow and excitement of that evening at the Flint Public Library, an elder woman, “that Lady” to whom I refer, a retired teacher took my hand, and spoke, “You’re a baad sister,” she said, “powerful! You know, we could turn this thing around. We could turn this WHOLE thing around.” It was a surreal moment, watching her arm wave as if she was directing energy into the future. Something shifted. She was looking beyond me. Her eyes were like marbles swirling history forward. In that instant there was a knowing.
Flint, I believe her, “that lady.” I know we can turn this whole thing around. And, yes, I know about the seemingly impenetrable, constructed social barriers. I know. There has always been classism, sexism, racism, ableism and on. I know. But, I also know that nothing, nothing can stop the will of well-organized enthused, and determined Flintstones!
There is much to do. I am asking you, Flint and Friends of Flint to help me to first address the 30 million fewer words statistic. This is my reasoning: I read. My friends read, and their friends, and friends of friends read. And, you are reading this right now! What if we came together, in an organized manner of course, and decided to reduce that 30 million word gulf by reading to children? There are people like you and me who are waiting to become Reading Word Warriors. This is a part my poetry platform that derives from the more comprehensive Poetry Pod Project.
I imagine the City of Flint as a living pod bursting with possibility. Have you ever seen a pea pod that was so plump, green and full of potential? That’s us! In this pod, there is poetry. Poetry is a key to increased literacy. I see Flint as a Poetry Pod that grows a literate, healthy community. It is time for the Poetry Pod to open, and yield an environment where poetry is read, written, and spoken. Flint powered by Poetry!
The power of poetry is real. A poem can enter your mind and change how you feel. Poems are words arranged into a healing life force of self- expression, self-determination, and reflection. In our Flint Poetry Pod, we speak poetry because we are poetry. We are the creative imagination of our futures. We understand that thought or an idea is the poetic spark from which all disciplines arise. There is poetry in a painting and in the curl of sculpture. Song is poetry. Dance is poetry. And, then there is the math of poetry. PL= 1(SB) to the power of FLINT.
In the Poetry Pod, vocabulary and synonym games transform the landscape. Writing and Reading Warriors expand the pod. Classics are consumed and dramatized. Reading is fun. Poet in Residence pods are deployed throughout Flint. Power terms are exchanged in a new value system, championing words to a level of currency. Poetry Planners support parents and teachers. Writing is fun. The PLSB (Semaj Brown Poet Laureate), website is a hub of information and communication where Goodnight Poetry is a video bedtime story. Poetry Pod pen pals are formed across neighborhoods, and nations. The Poetry Pod is a safe innovative place to learn, to remediate, and to invent twenty-first century language. But first, The Flint Poetry Pod must open.
I envision Poetry Pods beaming with energy, bursting open! Light, is shining through the prism of your eyes, Flint. We are being called to the open mic of enlightenment. Calling: the griot story tellers, rock star retirees, teachers, ministers, writers, CEOs, rappers, tech folk, songsters, scientists, workers, students, professors, cousins, institutions, corporations, non-profits, businesses, foundations, celebrities, and philanthropists —we are all being called to become Poetry Pod builders. We are calling you to transmit rays of hope, resources, and skill. We are calling you to make Poetry History— endow the legacy of literacy! You know, we will turn this whole thing around. Now, I think it is time to pour a cup of Blackberry tea. Won’t you join me?
Semaj Brown is the author of Bleeding Fire! Tap the Eternal Spring of Regenerative Light (Broadside Lotus Press and Health Collectors LLC, available on Amazon.
In 2016, Dr. Mildred Smith, professor emeritus, Michigan State University, charter member, and past president of Flint chapter of Pierians Inc. a national arts appreciation organization approached me regarding the poet laureate position. She understood the benefits such a position could yield for our Flint community. Dr. Smith shared her vision with the Flint Chapter Pierians, and the members under chapter president, Velynda Makhene adopted the poet laureate initiative. I extend heart felt gratitude to chairs and members of the Poet Laureate Committee who worked to bring the poet laureate initiative into fruition: Mildred Smith, PhD, Elizabeth Jordan, PhD, Velynda Makhene, Sharon Simeon, EdD, Nelda Hebert, Joyce Ellis McNeal, and Elner Bailey Taylor — Thank you!