This issue of NASAA's Partners publication is the sixth in a series on state arts agency projects assisted by the National Endowment for the Arts' Challenge America program.
It's hard enough being a teenager, but imagine how your problems are compounded when you're homeless or your home is a jail cell. Or what it would be like to have a heart transplant at an early age, knowing that you're alive because someone else died. A unique project in Utah, coordinated by the state arts council and funded through the National Endowment for the Arts' Challenge America program, is providing a rare insight into the emotional recesses of kids just like this.
Challenge America: Writing towards a Better Life in Utah is an anthology of poems produced by "invisible adolescents" in six different workshop settings over the past year. In each case, the Utah Art Council's literary coordinator Guy Lebeda connected a poet with a distinct group of kids who were woefully underserved by existing art programs. The results far exceeded anyone's expectations and the program is already expanding its reach for the coming year.
The seeds for A Better Life were planted a few years ago, says Lebeda. "Lance Cole asked if the council would fund a chapbook of poems that kids had written with him while he was volunteering at a juvenile detention facility. I knew his work and his reputation as a poet in Salt Lake City, and found funds for printing and some publicity."
Writing poems and reading them aloud gives young people like Kris, 16, a chance to discover their "voice."
As word spread, the project took on a life of its own. Lebeda explains, "Poets approached me with great ideas. They saw the connection between their art and the populations they served in their 'day jobs.' As insiders, they lined up a point person and the institutional approval for moving forward. What they needed was money, the ongoing assistance and the accountability the arts council could provide. Unfortunately, there is little voter or legislative interest in these populations beyond providing housing and other physical needs. When I heard about Challenge America, I knew this was a perfect fit."
Homeless Youth Resource Center
Jag Duffy was no stranger to homeless individuals and families, having volunteered and served on staffs at local clinics and service organizations. Still, he had never combined his life as an improvisational and performance poet with his human service interest until leading a weekly workshop at the Homeless Youth Resource Center last year. The HYRC is a safe place for daytime "runaways and throwaways" to get off the street in a setting away from adults. Duffy met with his group in a corner of a big open room, competing for their attention with computers, TV, and the confusion of people coming and going.
"Getting their trust was key," he explained. "It really helped that I had a prior understanding of their culture. For instance, they all use street names, not legal ones, because they are running from their pasts and don't want to be found. Most of them have little if any formal education."
Despite circumstances that seem daunting, Duffy got his small, intense group to continually express powerful images of their everyday lives. He was careful to introduce only simple poetry rules, and most importantly to avoid imposing his ideas of language on them.
"My perception of all the students is that their writing has a type of authenticity that was a requirement of their circumstances. Unlike many kids of this age, their day-to-day survival dispels holding on to fantasies. Whether writing about their mother being shot, gang violence or getting food from a dumpster, they're telling us exactly who they are."
Many of these kids (with names like Cry, Misfit, Malice and De-Tour) have never been listened to before. Coming from difficult situations, they eventually got entangled in support systems that did little more than help them get by. With Duffy, the kids got a chance to be heard. Even more powerful is the opportunity to reach out in print. "The anthology is very important to them," Duffy says. "It offers a substantial result to the time we spent together, not just an empty promise. It's surprising how valuable something permanent can be in a life of survival and few possessions."
He believes poetry works because they can relate to it as a form of conversation. "This is a group of philosophers. I'm learning the best way to tell the future of a community may be by listening to its invisible voices."
In helping students like J.D. with their poetry, writer Susan Sample has gained new insights that make their way into her own poems.
Youth Transplant Kamp
Transplant recipients are not usually considered your typical at-risk teenagers. Yet teens living with chronic diseases can suffer, too. They miss a lot of school and may lag behind academically or find themselves left out socially. They have to depend on others, not just for rides to the movies, but for surgeries to save their lives. Organ transplant recipients may even have more than the usual adolescent identity issues. Whose heart is really beating in their body?
Four years ago, the National Kidney Foundation of Utah began a one-week Youth Transplant Kamp (YTK). Here, in a completely safe environment, kids who have spent a lifetime feeling different are allowed to enjoy the same summer activities (swimming, crafts, horseback riding, ropes courses) as their peers. Here, when they change their clothes, campers examine scars and create nicknames like "Heart" and "Liver" for each other. Unlike time in the hospital, here they are all well.
Writer Susan Sample has spent the past 19 years at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center as its magazine editor and medical writer. Her passion is poetry and she has taught numerous workshops for grades K-12 at public schools around Salt Lake City. She envisioned a poetry session at YTK as a perfect way to participate in the Utah Arts Council's Challenge America project.
Planning was key. This was summer camp, after all, and if it wasn't fun the kids would migrate to other activities. The 20 campers of diverse ages and abilities met in the teen lounge above the dining hall. Comfortable couches and air conditioning helped bring them in, but Sample's approach kept them coming back.
I can hear my heart beating as I enter the room,
not knowing if I will ever wake up
or live, as they move me to the OR table.
Then they strap me down.
They put a mask on me.
I smell the gas enter the mask.
I taste the plastic of the mask.
I start to spasm.
When I wake up,
I see my father, knowing
I'm real glad to see him.
--Marcus Brennan, 15, kidney transplant
"The first day," she explains, "I used a very freeform approach and encouraged them to use all their senses and write about whatever." She recalls that most chose the same topics any kid would write about. "But the next day, when the group cheered Marcus on to read his poem about waking up in the hospital bed after surgery and realizing he was still alive, the emotional floodgates opened. The support and camaraderie that developed gave them a new confidence to take risks. They wrote about their health, fears, operations and dreams. I realized my job wasn't to teach revision and fine editing skills. Instead I wanted them to discover one part of their body they hadn't had a chance to use--their voice."
Sample believes that poetry is perfectly suited to this discovery. As a shorter form of narrative, it feels doable, not daunting or overwhelming. Using free verse encouraged the kids to let go and explore. "I tried to present poetry as a writer rather than a teacher," she says. "For me, it was more about what you're trying to say than how."
Pam Grant, a University of Utah pediatric social worker and one of the camp organizers, adds, "Susan's group had kids who had no academic success and their resistance to writing was clear. But as the week went on, her approach helped them develop a confidence and self-esteem that continued to build all year."
In fact, Sample continued to meet informally with many of these writers, and they did a reading in front of 500 people whose loved ones had donated organs. Grant observes, "It meant so much to these kids to be able to take their poetry and make a difference--to stand up and say 'we wouldn't be here if not for these gifts of life.'"
With an office in the hospital, Sample is confronted daily with the tragedy of emergency rooms and family anguish. "But," she points out, "these kids have taught me to look much deeper than that, to feel the emotions of real people from the inside. I've learned a lot about hope and acceptance and second chances, themes that are now emerging in my own poems."
Richard Taylor, spokesman for the National Kidney Foundation of Utah, feels the time the kids spent with Sample was invaluable in helping them catch up. It also provided a peek inside their heads that the medical staff, caregivers and families hadn't gotten before.
"There's a lot of things the government gets criticized for spending money on," he says, "but I can tell you the little bit it took to make Susan available was an incredibly good investment."
Michael Levine is a freelance writer, editor and project director. He lives in Middlesex, Vermont.
Challenge America: Writing towards a Better Life in Utah
Writing towards a Better Life collected the poems produced by "invisible adolescents" in six different workshop settings during 2003. With funds from the National Endowment for the Arts' Challenge America program, the Utah Arts Council supported creative writing workshops in hospitals, homeless shelters, detention centers and alternative education facilities around the Salt Lake Valley for more than 100 young people.
Decker Lake Youth Corrections Facility: Poet Lance Cole ran a series of poetry workshops in this state facility for boys 14-18 years of age who have been convicted of serious crimes. The facility is located in West Valley City, Utah. The boys' poems were collected in a chapbook anthology called Grief Goes on Vacation.
Youth Transplant Kamp: Poet Susan Sample conducted an intensive workshop at the National Kidney Foundation's Youth Transplant Kamp in Salt Lake City, Utah. The University of Utah Hospital was a major partner in this project, which resulted in a book of poems called Miracle-Like.
Salt Lake County Youth Detention: Novelist Michael Gills led a group of writing students from the University of Utah in this writing workshop for girls, ages 13-18, in the Salt Lake County jail. Gills and his students met with the girls for a four-week period and produced an anthology called One Fine Day.
Salt Lake Homeless Youth Resource Center: Poets Jaguar Duffy and Gheeta Smith conducted a 10-week workshop in this facility for homeless youth. Volunteers of America was the host agency. The young poets, boys and girls ages 13-19, produced an anthology called Writing Out Loud.
Valley High School: Poet Sandy Anderson held 10 weekly workshop sessions at this alternative high school in the Jordan school district. The students produced poems that are being collected and edited for an anthology to be printed in the fall of 2003.
Partners is a publication of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, 1029 Vermont Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20005, 202/347-6352, email@example.com.
Editors: Kimber Craine and Jill Hauser Design: Benson Design Photos: Brad Nelson Source:Utah Arts Council
Partners is published in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Arts. The work of NASAA and of state arts agencies is supported and strengthened in many ways through funding and programming partnerships with the Endowment.