Flint, MI– “To my beautiful people of Flint, Michigan, I will see you on the poetry podship. Because the podship has landed.”
This was how Semaj Brown, Flint’s first poet laureate, ended her gratitude speech to the Academy of American Poets on June 3, when she received a $50,000 award to bring poetry to Flint residents.
That “podship” is her personal shorthand for her Poetry Pod Project, the programming she plans to continue and build upon, which she likens to a spaceship that has landed in Flint.
Brown was selected nationally among 23 poets to receive a 2021 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowships in recognition of her engagement with the Flint community through poetry. Brown will use the grant to build new educational workshops for the upcoming school year.
Brown describes poetry as her, “second language, spiritual dialect, (and) way of being,” and she is hoping to bring this same passion to more people in Flint.
“We are looking at poetry as a second language, as a means of communication,” Brown said.
The Poetry Pod Project is composed of four initiatives: Flint Reads Poetry, Poetry Paints, Poetry Pen Pals, and Poetry in the Garden.
Flint Reads Poetry allows community members and organizations to videotape themselves reading poems from various eras, such as the Harlem Renaissance and Civil Rights Movement.
Brown’s belief that poetry is a second language is what makes the backbone to her curriculum: “Poetry Letters: Poetry as a 2nd Language!” Poetry Pen Pals is a poem exchange project through which Flint residents will write poetry letters to other participants in the program.
For Poetry Paints, Brown will partner with the Mott Warsh Collection, a private art collection reflecting African American culture, and students at Freeman Elementary School. Students will respond to artworks from the collection with poetry letters.
Poetry in the Garden will be located at EJ’s Garden at Brownell Boulevard and Sunny Street, where Brown will read her book “The Planted Kingdom,” an interactive storybook with vegetarian recipes and vegetarian characters.
“This is all virtual learning, all virtual exploration of poetry,” Brown said. “The galleries will end up being a community space, a space where people can laugh and read and listen to poetry and say, ‘Hey, that’s my aunt! I didn’t know she was on there!’ That’s what I’m hoping for. That’s what’s going to happen.”
Brown said the $50,000 comes as a relief, but also said she would have committed to bringing these programs to the Flint community whether she was funded or not because “being poet laureate is an extension” of her prior community service. Prior to becoming poet laureate Brown has taught workshops in churches and community centers, and participated in health fairs.
Brown has been living in Flint since 2003. After hearing about low literacy levels in third-graders after the water crisis, she felt compelled to use poetry to increase the literacy levels of children with previous workshops such as “Poetry is the Pizza of the World.”
Brown also strongly believes that the people of Flint are ready to engage with poetry after “tumultuous times,” such as the water crisis and now the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People are ready to have something that can either soothe their spirit or express their spirit,” Brown said. “People want it and it’s going to happen online, as well as in person. It’s going to be twofold. We’re limitless. We can do both, and both can play with each other.”
Notable dates for “Poetry Letters: Poetry as a 2nd Language!” include:
- Flint Reads Poetry will begin virtually in the 2nd week of September
- Poetry Paints classes with 5th and 6th graders at Freeman Elementary School are slated to begin in August.
- Poetry in the Garden is a harvest September event.
- Poetry Pen Pals will also engage students in the fall.
To learn more about what Brown has in store, you can visit her personal website here.