POETRY- MAY 8, 2002

Poet and educator Terry Blackhawk shares her power, knowledge



Terry Blackhawk has long understood the power of poetry.

She wrote her first poem (the first one she remembers, anyway) at age 9, rhyming “faces” and “grimaces.” She received her bachelor’s in literature in 1968; 30 years later came her doctorate in language arts education. In between she taught English and creative writing in Detroit public schools for 28 years, received numerous awards for her poetry, and put together a full-length collection of poems titled “Body & Field” and a chapbook titled “Trio: Voices from the Myths.”

Impressive. But perhaps more impressive is the literary arts project she founded called InsideOut — the very reason I wanted to have a dialogue with her.

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting titled “Picture This,” one of 13 visioning sessions to gather input from citizens across Michigan on ways arts and culture enhance the quality of life in communities and regions. In attendance were a few officials from the local theater community, museum curators and information officers, a library representative, an economic development official, chamber of commerce representatives, small-business owners and an arts and entertainment editor.

We brainstormed. We had to get big ideas down to four or five words. I could have used a poet to help me.

One of my favorite topics was how art and culture are integral to learning. (For the full report, go to www.tmrfacilitators.com, and click on the MCAD Visioning Project logo on the left.) I kept mentioning artists in the schools, not only as teachers, but artists in residence – poets, painters, musicians. I was thinking about a poet in the Detroit area who had started something in the schools, but I couldn’t remember the exact details or the poet’s name.

Then I realized Blackhawk was coming to Lansing for a reading of her work and works of her father, Ben Bohnhorst. Then I realized she was THE poet, the one I was thinking about at the meeting.

I e-mailed a local poet some thoughts about the meeting and the need for more artists in residence at schools. I also mentioned Blackhawk’s visit and that I wanted to interview her. My friend replied, “Yes! We should bow down and beg her secrets.” So I did.

Here is what Blackhawk said, via e-mail, about why poetry matters and about her project, InsideOut:

Power of poetry

Terry Blackhawk will be a part of the Old Town Poetry Series event at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 8, at the Creole Gallery, 1218 Turner St.
Also featured will be poetry by Ben Bohnhorst (Blackhawk’s father), read by Marie Bohnhorst and Bob Rentschler.
For more info on Blackhawk, go to www.poets.org, click on Find a Poet, and enter her name.
An open mike will follow the readings at 8:30 p.m.
Admission is $2.

“Poetry matters ... to refresh the language, to reclaim it from ad-men and the language of the market place. It reaches kids directly, brings emotion into the classroom, touches the inner lives of kids. (An e e cummings poem begins ‘since feeling is first …’ Those words have always stayed with me and I read them in high school!)

“I think more teachers are discovering the power of poetry to reach students. For a long time, it was something teachers shied away from.

“Before InsideOut I had become a creative writing teacher in a Detroit high school and had begun writing myself (a real midlife discovery) and bringing writers into the school thanks to odd little grants I’d get. A number of writers came through that way.

“Then I began putting out a professionally done magazine of kids’ writing and art. I’d been doing this for several years, in a couple of schools, when I was approached by a funder who encouraged me to write a proposal to his foundation.
“I ran InsideOut from my classroom (we started in five high schools) for a couple of years. Thanks to an NEA mentoring program I was fortunate to hook up with, InsideOut received tremendous organizational guidance. This was through Writers in the Schools, Houston’s writers in the schools program. I put a lot of the ideas I’d had as a teacher to use. I also had good input from teacher friends in Detroit and through the Michigan Youth Arts Festival where I led the poetry workshops for about 10 years. We’re now in 23 schools, grades three through 12, with about half of those high schools.

“So it’s part invented (kind of an organic outgrowth of things I tried while I was still a classroom teacher) and part modeled after other programs. Teachers and Writers Collaborative in NYC and Writers in the Schools in Houston are pioneers in this work. We find our writers through word of mouth, recommendations from our board and other friends. U of M’s MFA program and Wayne State’s writing program have helped us find people, as has the Creative Writers in Schools program through ArtServe Michigan.

“I began writing as a little girl. My parents gave me a couple of poetry books early on. ‘Silver Pennies’ was my favorite. The first poem I remember writing was when I was 9, in fifth grade, for an assignment. The teacher didn’t believe it was my original work, probably because I rhymed ‘faces’ and ‘grimaces.’ It was about Halloween. A couple of years ago I ran across a letter my dad had written to a lifelong friend, probably around the same time as that poem. I was featured in it this way: ‘Terry has been writing some verses. Not bad.’”

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