Flint, MI— Students at Freeman Elementary School are learning about themselves and the world in an unconventional way: ekphrastic poetry.

Ekphrasis is a form of writing that reflects on and narrates a form of visual art. The poet may, in turn, amplify or expand the meaning of that art.

The program is part of Semaj Brown’s mission to bring poetry to Flint residents, an initiative she calls the Poetry Pod Project. Brown is Flint’s first poet laureate selected by the Academy of American Poets in 2021. She received a $50,000 award to develop the project.

“Poetry has not been something that people are studying. It’s not an assessable art form, like dance,” Brown said.

The program at Freeman, dubbed Poetry Paints, is one of four initiatives under the Poetry Pod Project. For it, a group of 20 fifth and sixth graders selected by the principal, attend classes where they write poetic letters about a piece of art.

“My idea was to create poetry as a second language and how do you do that? So, most poets you hear writing about something. They may write about a butterfly. Write about art. Write about their feelings. In this case, we’re not writing about, we’re writing to. That’s where the second language comes in,” Brown said.

Mark Steven Greenfield, “Patron Saint of Middle Passengers,” 2000, Mixed media on paper. Courtesy of Mark Steven Greenfield.

The art pieces were selected in collaboration with the Mott-Warsh Collection, a private collection of fine art created by artists of the African diaspora.

Stephanie James, director and curator of the Mott-Warsh Gallery said she chose art that would complement the school’s curriculum.  

“My gallery assistant and I really, after reviewing some of the curriculum guidelines for Flint Community Schools in the area of social studies. … We looked at some of the themes and we looked for works in our collections that might tie in with some of the themes that are being addressed in the social studies unit for his fifth and sixth graders,” James said.

Before writing their letters, James teaches them the history surrounding the artwork. Brown also instructs students on the elements of poetry.

“We looked at synonyms. Synonyms are the lifeblood of poetry to understand these words that are similar but they have these nuanced meaning. And that’s so important for communication when you’re creating another language. It’s the nuance that’s lacking from our culture now, in terms of how we can communicate with each other and have a civilized place to live,” Brown said.

James said that while she is instructing the students, she’s also learned a great deal from them, too.

“In some cases, (the students make) observations about things that they see in the works of art that I myself may not have picked up on. Just how on point they can be and yet also how creative they can be in terms of interpreting the visual imagery that they see,” James said.

Though the program began in September 2021, there have only been two virtual sessions as the pandemic has slowed progress, Brown said.

In their first class, students examined “Ode to Black IV” by Serge Alain Nitegeka, an abstract painting on wood with black silhouettes of people in the bottom right corner.  

The second session featured the “Patron Saint of Middle Passengers” by Mark Steven Greenfield. In it stands a Black woman with a gold halo around her head, symbolizing her as a holy or spiritual being.

To help the students explore the painting, Brown asked them prompting questions like, “What was her name?” and “What did she move like?”

“One boy said she ‘moved like a human’ and it was so profound because Africans that were captured were dehumanized through the enslavement process,” Brown said. “In his poetry, he was actually restoring her humanity,” Brown said.

There will be six additional sessions in the winter semester and a performance in June where students will read their work aloud.

“Everyone should be exposed to poetry. Everyone. Because it changes the way you think. It changes how you look at the world. It gives you another perspective. It expands you. So, I just think it’s important for our community,” Brown said.

Carmen Nesbitt is a journalist with diverse experience in news reporting and feature writing. She wrote for Hour Detroit and SEEN Magazine before joining the Flint Beat news team as an education and public...