by Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty
photos by Jamii Tata and Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty
Poetry saved my life. I wrote my first poem when I was seven. It was a poem about sorrow. I had experienced so much of it by the time I was in second grade that I needed an outlet. My second-grade teacher provided that outlet for me. She taught me how to love and heal with words. I’ve been utilizing the healing power of poetry ever since.
I’m 41 years old. I grew up in Detroit, a city that has suffered under a literal half-century of propaganda assault. For my entire childhood, and into my early adulthood, I believed nothing good could come from living in Detroit. I believed that the only way to become “successful” or do anything with my life was by getting a “good job” and “getting out” of the city. I believed what I heard about myself, other Black people and about the Black city I was raised in. So I moved up the corporate ladder and left the city.
My stint living outside of Detroit didn’t last very long. I quickly learned from the outside looking in how Detroit was being viewed and discussed. I decided to come back home and be part of the solution. I understood that, as an artist, it was not only my responsibility to contribute to shifting the negative narrative that was plaguing Detroit, but to use the talents God gifted me with to re-spirit community members who had been dehumanized through the five-decade assault on the city. This included the children who were now on the frontlines of that assault.
One of the ways that I serve my community is through teaching art education workshops, and by teaching poetry as an avenue for visionary resistance. I have been honored to teach thousands of youth, elders, (y)elders and community members to realize their creativity through poetry and become visionary contributors to society.
Recently, I teamed up with literacy guru Jamii Tata to co-teach a series of workshops for Riverwise Magazine. One of the most significant was Poetry as Visionary Resistance: Literacy by Any Means Necessary. It was a collaboration between my organization Petty Propolis and Jamii’s organization Know Allegiance Nation. Most of the workshops convened at Jamii’s bookstore KAN Books and one was held at the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership. Each of our workshops was intergenerational, with participants ranging from elementary school students to elder retirees.
I was grateful to team up with Jamii, because of his consistent focus on literacy through his bookstore and literacy programs. The collaboration was seamless.
“The workshops helped contextualize the power of words in the Black radical and revolutionary movements that have shaped the nation. In the classes taught at KAN Books, we shared how the Black Power Movement was uplifted by the Black Arts Movement and writers and writings of the times. In the Poetry as Visionary Resistance: Literacy by Any Means Necessary workshop, we framed that our writing of today builds upon the legacy of resiliency against biased and false negative narratives. The workshops also offered an opportunity to engage adults in literacy development as Know Allegiance Nation primarily focuses on literacy development with youth. We created powerful pieces of creative writing that affirm our existence. It was a great opportunity to partner to achieve greater literacy for all.” – Jamii Tata
Our collaborative workshops taught poetic technique, structures and devices, as well as offering poetic history and performance tips. We provided writing toolkits, custom notebooks and writing supplies. Participants enjoyed vegan food catered by Chef Nezaa of Paradise Natural Foods. Workshop attendees were nurtured in mind, body and spirit.
Each workshop was unique. Workshop sizes ranged from five to twenty participants who ran the gamut of experience— from seasoned veteran poets to those who had never written in the presence of other people. Poets were able to share their work publicly and offer feedback to one another. One participant revealed that the workshops had given her “a space to heal.”
In every workshop, participants created individual poems emphasizing technique. Then we created poems together. The first collective poem came from the February workshop. Each collective poem was written in a way that only allows each poet to read the line in front of theirs. They do not see the full poem until every person has contributed a line, sometimes two. This technique is called the accordion poem. The first poem did not have a theme:
creativity is my soul
it moves me
but when I travel
my journey had no words
no words that could adequately describe it
good, who needs words anyway?
prefer to fly beyond all that
take hold of new light
and rise above the blight
outside of myself in flight
I believe I can fly
transformative wings of sight
my vision of resistance is clear
- Tawana, Blair, Debra Taylor, Deb Hansen, Pilar Cote, Djenaba Ali, Jamii
In our March workshop, our collective poem was themed around the new moon. The rules remained the same. Each poet could only read the line in front of theirs:
new moon, I feel your energy
on my skin and in my soul
the moon in my pocket
keeps me looking skyward
the moon shining so bright and beautiful
the wolves sit in front of the moon with their family
new moon, new energy
we absorb the light and calm
to carry us through the storms
we long for darkness to turn to daylight
birthing our creativity in its fullness
healing as the moon waxes and wanes
purging past hurts
praying for our hope
and solace for our present
- Alexis Draper, Djenaba Ali, Barbara Jones, Makini Kweli, Aaliyah Sanchez-Kweli, Willie Williams
In our April workshop, our youngest participant who was 9 years old, selected the theme dancing for our collaborative poem. Again, participants could only read the line in front of their own when creating.
moving effortlessly with the wind
my body flowing from within
capoeira connects corners of the diaspora
spiritual sensibilities moving energy as we begin
closing my eyes as the rhythm overtakes me
attached to strings unseen, moving my being
movement that moves the soul
like a galaxy swirling in space
dancing is like chicken and fries
African dance and hip hop
fire in the belly
dance like no one’s looking
- Shayla L. Gardnier Tyler, Salima K. Ellis, Larry Gabriel, Shakara Tyler, Jamii, Tawana
Our workshops covered everything from abecedarian, acrostic, alliteration, sonnets, haiku, contrast poems, nocturnes, deep rhyme, internal rhyme quatrain, and much more. However, the collective poems were the poems that the poets were most comfortable sharing at the end of the workshops.
The workshops were three hours long and not every poet was able to stay all three hours, so not all poets are reflected in the group poems, which were created at the end of the workshops. However, we look forward to receiving additional poems as the poets get into the groove of writing in their new notebooks and with their newfound motivation.
The final workshop in the series was May 4, 2018 with a special presentation from Khalid El-Hakim of the Black History 101 Mobile Museum. We look forward to reading the poetry that comes from such a tremendous inspiration.
You can learn more about the literacy work of Riverwise Collective member Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty and Petty Propolis by visiting honeycombthepoet.org, and Jamii Tata and Know Allegiance Nation Books (KAN) by visiting kanbooks.wordpress.com.
The Riverwise Writing Workshops will continue throughout 2018 with the support of the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund grant. The next series will be facilitated by Ebony Williams at Detroit Thinkers Coworking Spaces on July 7 and July 14. Two more dates for this series will be announced soon.
The following Riverwise Writing Workshop will be hosted by Tiarra Overstreet-Amos of Moon Reflections Photography at the Baltimore Gallery on July 15, July 28, August 4 and August 18.
For Riverwise Writing Workshop times and exact locations, or if your community has the capacity to host a Riverwise Writing Workshop, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. or visit www.riverwisedetroit.org.
The Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund was launched in March 2017 as a partnership between the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. The purpose of the Fund is to increase the quality, outcomes and reach of journalism in the region, with an emphasis on engagement, innovation and the equitable recovery of Detroit. For more information, please visit www.cfsem.org.