by Paul Abowd
The Citywide Agents are a group of young writers who met through afterschool workshops sponsored by Detroit literary arts organization called InsideOut. By last summer, they were done with high school and looking for ways to connect poetry to youth and social justice groups. They soon formed the Agents. “The idea is we don’t have to leave the city to be poets,” says Ben Alfaro, a 21-year-old writer and Wayne State undergrad who helped launch the group.
With experience in many a writing workshop as students, the Agents quickly undertook facilitator roles. They began holding workshops with writers at the Ruth Ellis Center, a residential safe space for LGBTQ youth. CWA has also workshopped at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Youthville’s Street Poets Society, and the Wayne County Juvenile Detention Facility. The Agents have facilitated workshops at InsideOut’s High School Writers Conference and participated in Remixing the Art of Social Change, a hip hop and social justice conference in Chicago.
Poetry and Justice
“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it from going to sleep.” The heat on this thick June day threatens the Agents with slumber, but the poets stay on top of Salman Rushdie’s tasks for poets, which headline the blog where they post poems.
Some of the Agents have just returned from a clean-up at Cass Park with a fledgling environmental justice youth group. Now they are prepping for a workshop with local Environmental Justice activist and poet William Copeland. The big paper goes up on the wall, and Copeland kicks the session off with “Respiration,” a coughing call to action on air quality in Detroit, and the power of breath as resistance.
Around the table, a few of the Agents digest Copeland’s rich lyrical diet. There’s Ariana Washington and Justin Rogers, two of six Agents representing Detroit in a national slam competition this summer. (help them get there by supporting their Kickstarter campaign). Rogers says, “I’m killing myself and losing sleep all in the name of poetry.”
With Copeland, they are connecting environmental justice and poetry. The conversation turns to the city’s incinerator, outdated pollution controls and all, which spits toxins into the city sky. “Detroit’s asthma rates are 3 to 4 times higher than the rest of the state,” says Copeland. “We don’t have citywide recycling like most cities because the incinerator needs to burn plastic to stay open.”
A dissection of the words “environment” and “justice” winds its way around the table. Environments are the built forms, but also the media, the culture, the mood of a place. And their environments? The sensory associations, the history, the rich texts of culture and experience emerge. Ariana says her environment is “home cookin’” and “creole.” Justin mentions “vacancy” and “unity.” Their next poems are already being written.
Copeland asks: “What about true justice? What would that look like?” Ariana says, “Each voice equally.” “Wrongs into rights,” says Justin, who immediately imposes a reality check. “Can that happen? It can, on occasion.” Rushdie would be proud.
The Agents are keeping their pens busy, using each workshop to write around mainstream narratives of the city. “Everyone else feels entitled to their say about what Detroit is and what its value is,” says Alfaro. “Youth in the city have the real call to define their circumstances.”
Interested in collaborating with InsideOut Literary Arts Project’s Citywide Agents? Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.