Semaj Brown, inaugural Poet Laureate of Flint, Michigan, is the author of Bleeding Fire! Tap the Eternal Spring of Regenerative Light (Broadside Lotus Press/Health Collectors LLC, 2019). In 2021, Brown was awarded the Academy of American Poets Poet Laureate Fellowship for an interdisciplinary, integrated on-line platform, The Poetry Pod Project (P3), which focuses on utilizing poetry to enhance literacy while including art and science. Her pedagogy, coined TiSiWiDi (Think it, Say it, Write/Work it, Do it), integrates music, visual art, performance, and games to enhance the appreciation of poetry through the listening to, reading, and writing of poetry.
Poets.org: Many congratulations on being the first poet laureate of Flint, Michigan! What do you hope for the future of poetry in Flint? What support do you hope future poets laureate in Michigan have?
SB: It is an honor and a charge. The scourge of illiteracy is a fortress supported by deeply entrenched structural and systemic barriers. Despite the tall walls, I am organizing and implementing sustainable poetry programming. To ignite, to foment a culture of poetry, and thus, literacy, is the mission. To impart programming designed to increase reading and writing skills while integrating arts and sciences is the hopeful innovation I have named, The Poetry Pod Project (P3). I believe we are the creative imagination of our futures. I understand thought to be the poetic spark from which all things manifest. Thoughts are architectural, building words into language, constructing societies that define Earth’s social ecosystems. As a poet laureate, writer/educator, a member of my community, as a humble student of the universe, I am charged, and challenged with a generational responsibility—utilize literary arts to illuminate, and clarify, cultivate the marriage between poetry and analysis.
To have the support of poetry institutions, such as the Academy of American Poets, is ideal. Also, I imagine a Michigan state poet laureate could play a vital role in collaborating and coordinating with poets laureate of varying municipalities to maximize and amplify poetry appreciation. Certainly, these efforts would create a more comprehensive statewide poetry culture.
Poets.org: How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together?
SB: The list of engagement is endless as it extends throughout STEAM and STEM genres. Dance, music, and visual art (ekphrastic writing) provide cross- genre opportunities to gather community through live or virtual performance. I have utilized poetry in math, assigning figures of speech enumerative value in literary/literacy games of my civic programming, Poetry Pod Project (P3). Poetry allows the community to coalesce around stigmatized mental health issues in non-threatening formats such as readings, panel discussions, and seminars. Featuring poetry of a particular focus such as social justice, environmental injustice, or women’s equity, creates more than an active conversation. It can be viewed as a call to action. Poetry tournaments and contests ignite the interest of schools, and thus, parents. Workshops are a popular favorite, and the list goes on. I recently directed and co-hosted in collaboration with my community partners, Zeta Foundation-Flint, a virtual poetry gallery featuring poems from the Harlem Renaissance read by non-poet members of Zeta Beta Zeta chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc. Schools, after school programs, religious institutions, and the community at large all have access to the readings and historical commentary. I also issued a call for poems to be published in my column: “Tea Time with the Poet Laureate” in the Flint Courier News as a rallying cry to celebrate transformation during our nation’s pandemic time of grave difficulty.
Poets.org: Has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing in any way?
SB: This is a great question. Perhaps my intentionality has heightened.
Poets.org: What part of your project are you most excited about?
SB: I am a poet educator who builds interdisciplinary curriculum utilizing poetry to teach biology and other seemingly disparate disciplines. The advent of the Academy of American Poets Poets Laureate Award shines a spotlight on these cross-genre innovations.I am very excited about this! In 2021, the knowledge industry is waking up and seeing the value in teaching across curriculum. Longitudinal studies indicate activities such as writing and piano playing increase development of neurological pathways. Given the findings, poetry reading/writing should be implemented across content areas.
Poetry advances the quality of life of citizenry when organized as a precious power tool. There is poetry in a painting and in the curl of sculpture. Song is poetry. Dance is poetry and then, there is the math of poetry: PL=1(SB) to the power of FLINT.
Poets.org: What obstacles, if any, did you experience when starting your project?
SB: Poetry Paints, part of the Poetry Pod Project (P3), is an ekphrastic writing project slated for the virtual sphere, coordinated with Freeman Elementary school and the Mott Warsh Collection, Curator/Director Stephanie James. As you are aware, schools have been terribly impacted by COVID-19. The principal, Mrs. Johnson, a true visionary, deciphered the best way to accommodate this new poetry programming in the midst of such challenging pandemic times. There were slight delays. Once logistics were worked out, a wonderful first session of ekphrastic writing with the fifth and sixth grade pod ensued.
Poets.org: Your project’s emphasis on “poetry as a second language” recalls Audre Lorde’s quote “Poetry [...] lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” What kind of second language do you hope to foster with your projects?
SB: The process of poetry creation is not unlike the advanced art of dance or rendering fine visual art or any other discipline requiring gifted precision. Reaching for the essence of the core, distilled understanding found in the figurative verse is similar to capturing verve in musical composition or condensing meaning to a kernel in mathematical common denominators. The “second language as poetry” is about process, thinking and doing, the thoughtful application of being. I want my students, and thus, community, to begin to think, and communicate inside of the perimeters of poetry.
For example: If one’s primary art form or sport is archery, allow poetry to be the muse of the arrow, piercing the center where meaning is extant. “Poetry as a second language” focuses intention to enhance the primary art/sport form. Language denotes how we think and feel, and our consequent actions. With poetry as a second language our thoughts become more vivid and discerning, perhaps less reactionary. Metaphor can be utilized as a broader way of seeing and assessing our environment. The second language allows for an additional way to view our social structure. Though poetry may proceed with burst of inspiration, it is seldom rushed. It has the ability to morph via many edits leaving little room for the notion of absolute thinking. Poetry is filled with technique and pondering. Poetry, by its very making, affords us permission to pause. The pause, the silence, the hiatus is the second language.
Poets.org: What are these projects laying the foundation for?
SB: In this time of emotional and physical ache, pandemic grief, and racial upheaval, in this moment of cultural plate tectonics, shifting paradigms into the insecure glint of promise—these poetry projects pour over our community laying a foundation for a new and better way of being. After all, poetry is amplifier, earbuds to the heart. It is also microscope, magnifying the hidden, and the hazardous. Poetry ensures the electromagnetic pull, draws out, drags from us—our muffled best and muzzled worst.
These poetry projects lay the foundation toward enlightenment. We need our words to be art: lyrical Earthly lullabies, painting, sculpting, fabric-working new threads of freedom. We need our words to be science: analyzing, dissecting, deconstructing obsolete paradigms of injustice. We need poetry to arrest the current of cruel gravity. Poems must rise like a tsunami from the ocean of lost dreams—to elevate our evolving humanity—onward.
Poets.org: Flint Reads Poetry | Poetry Voices of Flint invites readers to better get to know poets from the Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, Transcendentalists, Romantic Poets, and other movements. Are there any specific poets from those movements you are personally turning to, whose work most greatly benefits this project? Is there a poem on Poets.org that inspires you and your work in the Flint community?
SB: After the murder of George Floyd, I visited poets.org often to absorb a dose of poetry. I wept while reading Claude Mckay’s “If We Must Die.” The poem affirmed my excruciating pain, and by doing so, lessened it.
“The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop reminded me of the beautiful Black men in my family—professionals marred with survival markers. Like the fish in the poem, fishing hooks are visible, forever embedded. The fisher-person in the poem seems to evolve a semblance of empathy and lets the struggling-to-breathe fish go. Is the action a whim or was this the turning point of consciousness? I wonder similarly about our society. Mostly, I am torn between deep gratitude and fury. To be a human walking, and to be hunted as if a fish swimming, will have one drawing such unthinkable parallels.
With every read, “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda transitioned me into peace. I shared the poem numerous times from Poets.org to my social media platforms. People were greatly assisted.