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DC’s 2020 youth poet laureate finds renewed hope in writing, community, and a new presidency

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published February 16, 2021 in The DC Line here.

Marjan Naderi, DC’s youth poet laureate in 2020, had long worried that poetry was dying. After years of expressing herself through poems, winning slam poetry contests, and even publishing her own book, Naderi wondered whether her craft was worth the effort anymore.

“We spent the past four years seeing our speech as something disposable, when it’s anything but that,” Naderi said in an interview with The DC Line. “Is this nation even ready for poems? Especially the last few years, I was like, ‘What am I doing?’”

And then she listened as Amanda Gorman recited her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. The youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, Gorman was chosen as the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017.

“Amanda just really … hit a new wave on the head,” Naderi said. “Welcome poetry! We’re having poetry at the Super Bowl! It really affirmed that the work that I’m doing is worthy.”

Naderi and Gorman are poets who achieved youth laureate recognition through programs created by Urban Word in New York City.

As the District’s youth poet laureate last year, Naderi was scheduled to conduct a performance tour around the city, including speaking engagements at public libraries and multiple Busboys and Poets bookstore cafes. She served on the Kennedy Center’s Youth Advisory Board. 

Chosen annually by the local arts organization Words, Beats & Life Inc., the honoree is a poet, 13 to 19 years of age, who has expressed creativity in language, has served the community through social justice activism and has demonstrated leadership. Amiri Nash, a freshman at Brown University, has been newly named DC’s 2021 youth poet laureate.

Naderi — a six-time Poetry Grand Slam champion and author of the poetry collection Bloodline — was one of six national artists depicted in outdoor video portraits as part of Strathmore Center’s exhibit Monuments: Creative Forces, designed by artist Craig Walsh. Naderi, a 19-year-old University of Virginia student, was excited to be DC’s laureate because it was the culmination of such hard work. Naderi was born in Northern Virginia, so she grew up close to the city. As she started writing in eighth grade, the city and those who live within it became her muse.

Patrick Washington, Words, Beats & Life Inc.’s director of poetry, became acquainted with Naderi while working with her at workshops and seminars for four or five years before she became the organization’s laureate.

“She was lively, she never backed down from a disagreement. She stood her own with adults. I knew she was something special early on,” Washington said. When Words, Beats & Life Inc. looks for a poet laureate, it’s not just looking for a good poet, “but an outstanding human,” he added.

“She was uniquely formed by her experiences as a child of refugees,” Washington said. “That informs the type of person she is, and we like that — we like people who absorb and watch and then respond.”

Naderi was able to participate in some Youth Poet Laureate events early in 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic creeped in, but then venues closed and performances were canceled.

“A majority of my poems are blossomed from being out, seeing human beings carry themselves with nuance and joy and stories,” Naderi said. “I love writing portrait poems, going into various spaces and seeing life happen in its rawest form.”

Without the opportunities to observe people and find inspiration, Naderi said her mental health and creative writing both suffered. She also struggled to create poetry spaces online, but Naderi knew she had to keep expressing her feelings.

“I still kept [up with] my writing because I know that is the only thing that gets me through so much of being alive, so much of every day, where every moment can be a boost of joy or absolute agony or suffering,” Naderi said.

The pandemic limited her access to in-person community service, which she had frequently done in the past. Naderi has focused on education, particularly of Afghan children both in the DMV and in Afghanistan.

When the Black Lives Matter protests began, Naderi felt compelled to help. She organized a social media fundraiser that raised thousands of dollars. She used that money to buy food and health supplies for activists who protested for weeks in the city.

During that time, she said, she saw how contradictory DC is. In some gentrified neighborhoods, houses would be blocked off, with roads closed and people reluctant to join the protesting crowds, Naderi said. She added how disappointed she was to see her community splintered.

But Naderi said she also saw great rejoicing and organizing in the Black Lives Matter protests and during Juneteenth events.

“I saw what community meant at its rawest core, to be a tribe and to ever expand that tribe for love, to be human, becoming human at its forefront,” Naderi said. “I saw DC evolve over a span of a few weeks.”

Sensing such a powerful community both at Black Lives Matter protests and during Gorman’s inauguration performance felt like a new wave of hope, Naderi said.

“It was great to see that she was still flying the flag for spoken word, for poetry and expression,” Washington said of her work during the Black Lives Matter protests.

During the 2016 presidential campaign and Donald Trump’s time in the White House, Naderi said, she and her mother — along with many others in her Afghan community — experienced hate crimes. Naderi recalled a day in 2016 when her headscarf was yanked off her head “by a bigot.”

“As a Muslim, as an advocate, as a writer, as a woman, you lose sense of yourself and how this country holds you. Do they even respect you?” Naderi said.

Gorman’s performance and the ensuing excitement and conversation left Naderi feeling proud again to be involved in the poetry community. She said she was encouraged that Biden chose a poet to usher in a new era of “healing.”

“The poems we write will change nations, so long as we are given the platform,” Naderi said. “These youth poets are the future. We are writing history. We are writing and creating and moving a part of the force. We are the force itself. We come and we bless.”

Children’s Book Under Our Roof uplifts LGBTQ families

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published January 8, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

Indiana-based author Rebecca Stanton wants children to know that love is love.

Stanton self-published her first illustrated children’s poetry book, Under Our Roof, in September 2019. She said she’d always wanted to write a children’s book, but she never thought that it would be so personal.

When Stanton’s oldest daughter was planning her birthday party and a sleepover, another parent refused to let their child sleep over because of Stanton’s same-sex marriage. Stanton saw her daughter endure hurt and confusion, and she said she had to “step up as a parent” to do something to heal that pain and counter that discrimination.

Colorful, two-dimensional illustrations by Kristy Gaunt, a Florida elementary school art teacher, depict happy moments between two mothers and their two children. The family flies a kite, plays a board game, catches fireflies and holds each other when they cry.

“Everything you see in this book, you see any other family doing,” Stanton says.

Stanton said the images were inspired by her own favorite memories with her three children and wife. When Gaunt would share sketches with Stanton, she always showed them to her children for their approval. When writing, Stanton asked her kids to help her come up with rhymes for the book.

“I wanted them to see themselves in this book,” Stanton says. That’s the reason she decided to self-publish, even though it was difficult and expensive. Self-publishing kept her writing and editing process “personal” and “authentic.”

Without a publisher, Stanton has been primarily promoting her book through social media and in freelance articles with Gay Parent Magazine, but she’s struggled making a profit on her book.

Despite this, she’s been reminded how important books like these are for representation of the LGBTQ community. Stanton said she was worried how her local community would react to her book, since she tends to lead a private life. She said she also knows that some people believe that children are too young to talk about LGBTQ topics.

In her small town, she doesn’t know many other LGBTQ people. While her two-year-old daughter is comfortably expressive about having two moms, teachers and other adults don’t know how to address same-sex families.

“They kind of stumble,” explains Stanton. “I struggle finding words for it, but they just need to know it’s okay to talk about it. … [The book is] not about sex, it’s just about family.”

One powerful quote in the book is, “Love is what you do and not what you say.” It accompanies an illustration of the family huddled inside having a picnic on a rainy day.

“We teach the kids, no matter what we do, we make sure we’re here, present,” Stanton says. “They know we mean it. Instead of saying it, just show it.”

Pride and Less Prejudice Brings LGBTQ Representation to Young Students

By Clare Mulroy

This article was first published October 5, 2020 in Tagg Magazine here.

When Lisa Forman began to reflect on the lack of LGBTQ representation her queer daughter Rebecca had growing up, she asked herself a question: “What can I do to make a difference?”

It was that question that pushed her to create Pride and Less Prejudice (PLP) — a non-profit organization that raises money to donate books featuring LGBTQ characters to preschool through third grade classrooms. Since its creation in November 2019, PLP has received requests from 36 states.

A music therapist and a preschool teacher from Massachusetts, Forman understands the impact that early education has on children and the way they see the world. After her daughter came out as queer, Forman noticed she was drawn to LGBTQ storylines on TV.

“That seemed to make a huge difference for her, when she saw those people represented,” she explains. “It must be true for so many other kids out there — what a big hole it was in her childhood.”

In its origin, Forman gathered 14 books with LGBTQ representation to donate to classrooms with young children. She first reached out to friends that were teachers and her daughter utilized her connections from internships and Smith College. According to Forman, the books are “age appropriate” for preschool through third grade audiences.

“This is when they’re learning to discriminate, and we need to teach acceptance and inclusion and community,” she says. “From that very young age we need to normalize it.”

What “age appropriate” looks like is a variety of stories about acceptance and understanding, Forman says. There are books where LGBTQ issues are not the central storyline, like “A Plan for Pops,” a book about a child’s adventures with their two grandfathers. There are also history books like “Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution” which illustrates the story of the Stonewall Inn Riots and the start of the LGBTQ rights movement.

When PLP reached a point where they were getting more requests than they had donation money, the team launched a celebrity campaign to boost awareness.

The campaign, #ReadOutProud featured 13 celebrities from Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon to Hairspray actress Nikki Blonsky.

“If I would’ve had books with LGBTQ characters or themes in classrooms while I was growing up, I think maybe I would’ve felt a little bit at home maybe a little sooner,” Blonsky says in the video.

Noah’s Arc actor Darryl Stephens also contributed to the campaign. “Seeing characters whose experiences reflect our own affirms that our feelings are valid, and that we too, deserve to be loved,” Stephens explains.

The organization is hosting a professional development workshop with music educator Mia Ibrahim on October 12. “Combating Prejudice Perpetuated by Normativity: Creating an Inclusive Classroom Environment” will facilitate conversations around intersectionality and the perception of “normal.”

Forman and her team are determined to reach their goal of $10,000 and continue to donate books to classrooms across the country. More than that, they are confident in their ability to create a sustainable donation stream to pursue their mission of inclusivity in young classrooms.

“If I can’t change the minds of some people whose minds are already very set, let’s start with the new generation and see if we can start it out right,” says Forman.

Jerome Paige Wants DC’s Cultural Plan to Include You

It’s not uncommon to think of change in the city as bad.  One of D.C.’s leading planners, Jerome Paige, thinks otherwise.

“The premise now is that Chocolate City is disappearing, and that has to do with a sense of being left out, and pride in local identity. But the 1980’s were a period of black suburbanization for DC, just as the 60’s and 70’s were a period of white suburbanization,” Paige said. “That’s why people started calling Montgomery County, Maryland DC’s ‘Ward 9’. The way I think about it is we don’t need to try to be Chocolate City, but Cosmopolitan DC… Urban out-migration and In-migration hasn’t stopped. We need a language that helps get us to where we need to go – stabilized neighborhoods and help for people who want to stay, to stay,” whether it’s Shaw or Chevy Chase.

Jerome Paige

Paige is the consultant, hired by Humanities DC and the DC Office of Historic Preservation, working to develop the new DC Living Heritage Network (DCLHN.) The DCLHN is a coalition of organizations that work on heritage, culture, and local history and they include the Historical Society of Washington, DC, the DC Preservation League,ONE DC, Black Broadway on U, Howard University, and the Anacostia Community Museum, among many others.

The concept for the DCLHN was developed by Humanities DC in response to legislation by Councilmember David Grosso mandating development of a new cultural plan. The original legislation for the cultural plan called for an Arts plan, and the DCLHN was organized to ensure that the process include the Humanities. Humanities DC is a grant-making organization that supports Humanities and Heritage programming.

DC’s cultural planning process has just started, and the Office of Planning is launching a series of public forums to receive stakeholder input.

“If you’re really going to talk about culture you have to include humanities, heritage and preservation; you can’t just talk about arts… when we talk about culture, we tend to talk about it in terms of the arts. That has to stop. What the DC Living Heritage Network has been doing [is saying], ‘let’s begin to reframe our language’,” Paige said.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Paige worked on the DC History and Public Policy Project, through which he performed research and analyzed the effects of neighborhood change and gentrification. The city was changing significantly even in the 1980s, Paige says, and in some ways the DC Living Heritage Network aims to address similar issues.

Paige’s enthusiasm for data and history is contagious and he speaks about economics and city planning with the gusto of a college professor — which he in fact is. Paige has been an instructor and administrator at the University of the District of Columbia, the University of Baltimore, and the National Defense University.

Paige grew up in a politically engaged family in Philadelphia, and while he says there was no one moment of civic activation Paige’s father ran a series of small businesses and he reported seeing first-hand the importance of engagement at the neighborhood level. Paige came to DC in 1965 as a freshman at Howard University and has been a resident since then. He and his wife raised a daughter in the city.

The DCLHN addresses a tendency to frame the Creative Economy around the arts, with an over-emphasis on supports for design, culinary, visual and performing arts at the expense of other facets of local culture.

“What’s getting left out is… the storytelling, the civic discussions, the neighborhood histories, the preservation of neighborhood stories, family histories, genealogies; the ways in which people are using conversation and culture at the local level to help people understand themselves, their families and what’s going on,” Paige said.

“The ways we produce, distribute and consume culture drives lots of the new economic activity in our cities and… the major benefit of the network is to collaborate and share resources.”

recent-monthly-dclhn-meeting

Jerome Paige and attendees at one of the DC Living Heritage Network’s monthly meetings.

The Network has already won its first battle: the RFP for the Cultural Plan noted that the plan is to include not only the Arts but also Humanities.

Paige encourages residents and organizations interested in seeing increased support for Humanities and Heritage projects through the Cultural Plan to participate in upcoming Living Heritage Network meetings, which occur monthly. To participate, Paige suggests emailing Louis Hicks, Grants and Special Projects Manager at Humanities DC, at LHicks <at> wdchumanities.org.

“Culture is more than a series of institutions. And for us, we feel that for the cultural plan to be successful it needs to provide support for everyday aspects of life. We are promoting neighborhood-based humanities and heritage and preservation ‘by-and-for-locals’. We’re trying to stimulate conversation and make sense out of all the physical, social, economic, and demographic changes unfolding,” Paige said.

This article was originally posted on Urban Scrawl.

DC Poets Write Love Poems for Inanimate Objects

It can be hard to find love, but most of us still try. One group of DC poets is going another route entirely, focusing on inanimate objects as love interests.

It’s an unusual approach, but not without precedent in the poetry world. John Keats lovingly contemplated a Grecian Urn. William Carlos Williams considered a red wheelbarrow. Emily Dickinson praised the aesthetics of a balloon. These object become metaphors for individuals, relationships, and parts of the self. The newly published Unrequited: An Anthology of Love Poems about Inanimate Objects dives head first into the legacy of object poems. It’s both a clever play on and light rebuffing of standard poetic conventions.

Unrequited is the result of an open submission contest organized by editor Kelly Ann Jacobson, a local author, poet, and educator. Self-published by Jacobson last month, the anthology will be celebrated at a launch party featuring several of the book’s authors at Upshur Street Books this Friday, June 17th..

All of the poems selected for the book were additionally evaluated by celebrated local poet Sandra Beasley who selected a ‘winner’ and ‘runner up’. “That Last Summer” by Lucia Cherciu was selected the winner and “Lesser Vegetables” by Sass Brown was selected the runner up. Those poems —highlighted in that way as the best of the bunch—leave something to be desired, in part because of their solemn tone and similarity in form. Both poems consist of a series of unrhymed couplets. They are thematically distinct: Cherciu’s poem is a tightly crafted reflection on personal loss while Brown takes a more omniscient perspective on a county fair. Cherciu’s “That Last Summer” has a sophisticated depth to its storytelling but is neither the most memorable or compelling of the anthology.

Several poems taking a confessional lens stood out, not unlike Cherciu’s winning piece. These poems are not so much odes as exhibits exploring how objects intersect with our most intimate moments. The cover of the recently published "Unrequited: An Anthology of Love Poems about Inanimate Objects"Sharon Lask Munson’s poem “Wash, Dry, Put Away” elegantly captures the fractured memory sparked by an object forgotten: “shred of shadows/ a wink, a flicker/ laughter.”

The anthology is organized using categories of objects. Some object categories –  like Nature – seem like obvious choices, but others – like Backyard Furniture – are more mysterious.

The most unexpected objects in the more mysterious categories are among the most memorable poems. Amy McLennan’s rhythmic, casual language in “A Large Jar of Kosher Dill Pickles Left on My Front Porch” is endearing and funny: “And by large I mean more,/ I’m talking hippopotamic/ whopping, mammoth/ freakin’ flat out huge.”

The anthology’s flexibility with the central prompt (Love poems for inanimate objects) is worth scrutinizing. Certainly “Nature” and “Cities” are inanimate, but can we rightly call them objects? There is something to be said for the freshness that comes with a loose interpretation of limitations but too much slack with a prompt makes one wonder what a tighter net would have fished.

The poetic diversity in Unrequited makes it a lively departure from similar books by a single author. Ed Perlman’s poem “Coin Silver” is a rewarding study for readers willing to engage with its woven rhyme scheme and typography. The dense minimalism of A.J. Huffman’s cheeky “Ode to McDonald’s French Fries” contrasts with the haiku-like simplicity of Jacquelyn Bengfort’s “Fire Triangle:” “Because the lightning loved the tree./ Because the tree loved the house.”

And then there are the singularly peculiar pieces which outright refuse to align with the rest, like the fun, groovy rock lyrics of Charles Leggett’s “Poly-Esther Blues:” “Well she’s kinda ol’ fashioned/  But she’s great for party-crashin’  Polly-Esther/ (Watch her dance now!)”

Once a reader journeys through the anthology’s first twelve categories, she comes to a final poem in a category of its own. “The Earthbound Hymn” by Bethanie Humphreys is a smart and loving ending to the anthology. “Earthbound Hymn” devotes one stanza to each of the letters of the alphabet, simultaneously giving tribute to the objects described and the elements – the letters — which comprise the proceeding works and all poetry ever written. “Earthbound Hymn” provides a forthright sense of thematic closure for this engaging, speckled collection.

Though the sophistication and success of the poems vary, Unrequited is a charming entry-point for the casual poetry reader and would make a suggestive gift for the unrequited love interest in your own life.

The book launch party this Friday June 18 at Upshur Street Books, details here, is an opportunity to hear several DC residents read and to have your own copy of Unrequited signed by the anthology’s editor.

This article was originally posted on UrbanScrawlDC.com