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Students’ Moments of ‘Quiet Potential’ with Writer-in-Residence

Sometimes the hands rise slowly.  Sometimes they shoot up quickly.

Other times, hands rise up cautiously as the eyes dart around the room.  I love this moment for its honesty, its quiet potential, and the way that question maps out the terrain I have to travel to at the least show each and every school in Howard County that poetry is present, possible and matters. As writer-in-residence for HoCoPoLitSo, I travel to the county high schools to read and talk poetry.

Poet Derrick Weston Brown speaks with students at Atholton High School. (Photo by Paige Feilhauer)

Poet Derrick Weston Brown speaks with students at Atholton High School. (Photo by Paige Feilhauer)

During the reading, I share stories behind the inspiration and origin of some of the poems and then I ask the students if they have any questions about certain poems. Many even request me to read certain poems and then give their own interpretations on them.  We talk about other things as well. Ipod playlists. If Twitter is an appropriate space for poetry. Role-playing games. Favorite books. Dating. Haiku. Race. Gender. The list goes on.

If I have any sort of a complaint, I wish that perhaps my visits could extend past the usual fifty-minute class time. Usually the bell rings and the students make their way to lunch or to another class and I find myself a little melancholy that the connection we’ve built in just a short time is broken. But so much has happened within those small bubbles of time. I’ve witnessed brave students share their own poems when I’ve asked if there are any other poets in the room.

I’ve watched them deliver heartbreakingly honest and earnest poems, shaking paper and all, with the kind of sophistication and insight I truly wished I possessed at their age. I’ve stayed after my allotted time with passionate teachers and their poetry-hungry students who fire questions like pistons at me about form, meter, and content.

I enjoy this job most of all because I realize that Howard County is not as mysterious as I thought, because poetry dwells there, and anywhere poetry lives is home.

Derrick Weston Brown
HoCoPoLitSo writer-in-residence

To support HoCoPoLitSo’s Writer-In-Residence program in Howard County high schools, consider making a donation.

Students and a Writer Ask: Am I Really Here for Poetry?

When I got the news that I was tapped to be the 2012-2013 HoCoPoLitSo writer-in-residence for Howard County back in early August, I was as nervous as I was excited. The nervousness I mention first because with my own schedule that ebbs and flows with the responsibilities of being a working poet and teacher, I wondered if I could fit these visits in, and more importantly, if I could find my way around in the mysterious Howard County.

Honestly, Howard county was only familiar to me for two reasons: the city Columbia and the absolutely awesome vegan restaurant not too far from Columbia called Great Sage.  But beyond the nervousness, my excitement was also sparked by the mystery of the unknown. As my imagination began its snowball’s journey down the hill of infinite possibilities, all sorts of questions were percolating around in my brain . . .

What are Howard County high schools like?

Poet Derrick Weston Brown speaks with students at Atholton High School. (Photo by Paige Feilhauer)

Poet Derrick Weston Brown speaks with students at Atholton High School. (Photo by Paige Feilhauer)

What will they think of my poems?

Will they care?

Will I get lost?

Will they relate to my poems?

How should I present my poems?

Should I just read?

Should I talk and then read, or read and just talk?

I carried all of these questions with me on my first school visit to Oakland Mills High School and I was pleasantly surprised and relieved to find that my first reading would be in the school’s media center.  As I scanned the faces of those students that first day as they filed into the library, quietly chatting to each other while stealing looks at me, I was strangely calmed by the spectrum of  expressions  I saw.

There was curiosity, vague interest, teen-aged skepticism, and of course, the glazed over “Am I really here for poetry?” look. What I realized, after taking in the expressions I saw, was that I had worn each and every look displayed in front of me. I was reminded that I was a high school student once, a student who was immediately skeptical, inquisitive and up-in-arms whenever we were told we had a special guest speaker.

So I bundled up all of my nervousness and excitement, and made myself a promise in the few seconds that remained as Joyce Braga (a HoCoPoLitSo volunteer) introduced me. I wouldn’t read at the students, I wouldn’t lecture the students. To me, poetry is a conversation, a call and response; to rob the person or audience of their right to respond is a crime.  So I opened my first reading that day and every day since then with a question. “Who in this room — be honest — actually likes poetry?”  

To be continued …

Derrick Weston Brown
Writer-in-residence, 2012-2013

To support HoCoPoLitSo’s Writer-In-Residence program in Howard County high schools, consider making a donation.

HoCoPoLitSo: The Known Fertile Ground

Poet, publisher, and HoCoPoLitSo board member Truth Thomas takes a look at the year ahead for the organization and sees the promise of fertile ground.

FertileGround 4

Fertile ground is a wondrous thing. That is one of the first lessons I remember learning as a child growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, along with the fact that my late grandmother could cook anything and make it taste good. Indeed, in the right hands, even a small stretch of land can yield a multitude of edible miracles. In the context of literary activist organizations, the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo) represents a similar patch of fertile ground.

The first grand HoCoPoLitSo New Year harvest is the poetry of Derrick Weston Brown, our 2012-2013 writer-in-residence. Brown holds an MFA in creative writing from American University and is brilliance personified. He is a highly published poet, Cave Canem Fellow, Tony Medina workshop alumnus, and the author of an inspiring collection of coming-of-age poems entitled Wisdom Teeth.  It gives me great joy to announce that he will be visiting every high school in Howard County to captivate our young people with the sunshine of his work.

In addition to the poetry of Derrick Weston Brown, the New Year brings the literary bounty of our 35th Annual Evening of Irish Music and Poetry. This year, the award-winning, internationally acclaimed author Colum McCann will be featured. McCann has published five novels, numerous short stories and a storehouse of articles. His book, Let the Great World Spin, won the National Book Award in 2009. I have always loved Irish Evening, because by virtue of it, I have been blessed to see the profound similarities between African Americans and Irish people. Both groups of folks have come through suffering with unbent backs of beauty. The event will be held at 7:30 p.m., March 1, 2013, at the Smith Theatre, Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts on the campus of Howard Community College.

The literary crop of events that will spring forth from the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society in 2013 is one of great volume, quality and diversity. On March 19, HoCoPoLitSo partners with the Howard County Library—the fairest of them all—to welcome Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edward P. Jones into our midst.

On April 23, HoCoPoLitSo connects with HCC to host the Blackbird Poetry Festival. This year, the festival highlights the sterling poetry and photography of author Rachel Eliza Griffiths—a Cave Canem Fellow, as well as the poetry of author Kendra Kopelke, director of the MFA program at the University of Baltimore. There are many more events planned that I will refrain from mentioning, at this time, because a little suspense makes life worth living. Suffice it to say that one of those events has something to do with the Columbia Festival of the Arts in June, and that the writers invited will stir ovations in every heart. Yes, I think that is enough to say, for now.

Truth Thomas
Poet and board member

 Speak Water, the latest collection of poems by Truth Thomas, is available online from Cherry Castle Publishing. A kindle e-version is available through Amazon.

Two Points of View on The Year’s Writer-In-Residence — Derrick Weston Brown

Guest bloggers Joyce Braga and Sam Rubin share their experiences of this year’s Writer-in-Residence in the Howard County Public School System, Derrick Weston Brown.

His poems have swagger, but the poet
remains introspective

Derrick Weston Brown

Derrick Weston Brown

As the high school liaison for HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-in-residence, I’ve guided many poets around Howard County high schools. After I e-mailed Derrick Weston Brown, this year’s writer-in-residence. I prepared myself for our first meeting, scheduled for Nov. 12 at Oakland Mills High School, by reading his biography and his on-line interviews. I expected the usual poet—a little bit of a performer, a lot of ego and touch of swagger. I looked at the picture of Derrick Weston Brown, and knew I was right. But I was wrong, and in a good way.

I met Derrick at the school front desk. I rattled off instructions: Here’s the packet, here are your poems, sign the book, here’s the room. Oh, and please tell me how you want me to introduce you.  Derrick seemed surprised, almost shy about telling me his accomplishments.

When Derrick began rather softly to read, I soon discovered why.  He’s a very introspective individual. He thinks very deeply about life. He lets the students know “life’s a journey” and not always an easy one. He’s been writing since he was a child. Even with a masters’ degree in writing, getting published was a struggle for him.

As Derrick spoke, the students were fascinated, and so was I. He told the students he likes to eavesdrop on people, and I too felt a little voyeuristic in the classroom, listening to his stories. Rather than giving students his biography, Derrick uses poetry to tell his audience about himself.

As he read, I learned more about Derrick. One poem was dedicated to his father, called “Legacy.” Another was about his mother, called “Mother to Son.” And one poem, which was hard for him to read, was called “Forgiveness.” It was about him belittling a schoolmate. He told the class he’s still looking for that girl.  He wants to ask forgiveness.

With each new visit I hope to discover a little bit more about Derrick Weston Brown.  I now know he’s not shy, he just likes to let his poems talk for him.

Joyce Braga
volunteer liaison for
the writer-in-residence program

For Oakland Mills High students,
Brown’s words are supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

As I sat down at the November 12th Derrick Weston Brown presentation at Oakland Mills High School, I truly had no idea what to expect. Shortly after my arrival students started piling in, filling row after row. When Derrick started his presentation, he did not start with a poem or an introduction, rather he started it with a few questions to the class. “Who likes poetry?” he asked first. The audience seemed indifferent. “Who could care less about poetry?” A few went up.

“Who hates poetry?” A few more hands hit the air. “Who likes to write poetry?” A couple of hands rose tentatively.

The questions were a great way to grab the attention of the students, who perhaps did not care about this random writer they had never heard of standing in front of the room.

As the event went on, Derrick read his work, he asked and answered questions and it seemed like he, as well as the students, were having a good time. However, it was not the poetry alone that made the program so enjoyable. Derrick’s interactions with the students seemed so natural and so unplanned that it allowed the flow of the presentation to move artlessly.

One interaction in particular stuck in my mind and I believe will stick in the mind of every audience member at the reading. Derrick asked the students for ten words. After he compiled the list of words, Derrick recited a freestyle improvisation, something he might call an “off the dome” poem. It was an elegant piece, into which he somehow fit “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

Just as in any class, only a select number of students raised their hands to answer and or ask questions, but perhaps a few more hands will go up next time someone asks “Who likes poetry?”

Sam Rubin
HoCoPoLitSo’s intern
Atholton High School

Derrick Weston Brown is HoCoPoLitSo’s 2012/13 Writer-In-Residence

Derrick Weston Brown

HoCoPoLitSo is proud to announce that poet Derrick Weston Brown will become its  21st Writer-in-Residence where he will work with students in each of the  Howard County Public School System’s high schools over the course of the year. The program focuses on exposing students to fine arts via poetry and literature.

“We are excited to have Derrick as our writer/poet in residence for the upcoming year,” said Dr. Tara Hart, HoCoPoLitSo Board’s Co-Chair.  “Derrick is another outstanding writer that will bring a new voice and fresh perspective for the students this year.”

Brown is a published author with his first book of poetry, titled Wisdom Teeth, released April 2011. He is a staff member with Teaching for Change, an organization that provides teachers and parents with the tools to transform schools into centers of justice where students learn to read, write and change the world. 

Brown holds an MFA in creative writing, from American University. He graduated from the Cave Canem Summer workshop for black poets and the VONA summer workshop. His work has appeared in the Warpland, Mythium, Ginsoko, DrumVoices, The Columbia Poetry Review literary journals, and the online journals Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Howard University’s Amistad, LocusPoint, and MiPOesias.

HoCoPoLitSo’s Writer-In-Residence program is part of a long-term partnership with the county’s public school system to enlighten students by exposing them to literary arts. Writers such as Sandra Beasley, Marion Winik, and Dr. Michael S. Glaser have visited each of the county’s high schools and the Homewood Center offering workshops and insights to and for student readers and writers.

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