By CARROLL L. JOHNSON
Proud parents, flashing cameras, and beaming little faces greeted Poet Laureate Rita Dove Feb. 23 presented the poetry program "Young Voices at the Library of Congress" as part of the Library's spring 1995 literary season.
The reading, presented under the auspices of the Gertrude Clarke Whittall Poetry and Literature Fund, was held in the Mumford Room.
The poets were 19 students in grades four through 10 from various schools throughout Washington. Each student read two poems. For many of the students, this was the first public reading of their work.
Beginning with her first term in 1993-94 as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, Ms. Dove has tried to "spread the good news of poetry to the people of this country through published poems that have already been loved and read for years, decades and even centuries and also those poems yet to be written," as she put it.
The idea for the event came last year when Ms. Dove walked into the Poetry and Literature Office at the Library and discovered a large package propped up against her desk. It was from Laurie Stroblas, the founder of the Poetry on the Metro Project. The package contained six posters featuring poems by District of Columbia students that have been displayed on Metro, the public transit system. Later, when Ms. Dove decided to present the work of young local poets in the Library's literary series, she called upon Ms. Stroblas for assistance.
Ms. Stroblas has been an editor and book marketing manager for the National Academy of Sciences and the book manager for the Urban Institute Press. She has taught creative writing workshops to students from several Washington public elementary and middle schools; served as poet in residence at Children's National Medical Center; and led on-site creative writing workshops in museums. Ms. Stroblas has been an Arts Administration Fellow at the National Endowment for the Arts and served on the jury panel for the 1994 Mayor's Arts Awards.
The Poetry on the Metro Project was begun by Ms. Stroblas with an arts education grant sponsored in part by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, with cooperation from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and the D.C. Public Library System. Her goal was to highlight the creativity of Washington students and to demonstrate the results of arts education and the importance of literacy. Ms. Stroblas enlisted the interest of WMATA, which agreed to display 1,000 posters featuring poems by young writers inside the city's 750 buses.
The series of six different "District Lines" poetry posters feature works by Will Nash Ajayi, Kendra Gray, Damia Mayfield and Rebeccah Watson and others. The posters were displayed for one month, and they will be made available to local libraries and schools for display. Several of these students as well as other young poets participated in the Library of Congress reading.
As part of the project, Ms. Stroblas taught free, six-week poetry writing workshops for young people last spring and summer at the Mount Pleasant Library in Washington. Also at each workshop, Jacqueline Potter, a translator and poet, provided students with an introduction on word selection in writing.
"The project's goal was not to turn every child into a poet but, rather, encourage a child to be expressive by using words and language," said Ms. Stroblas.
"Projects such as these are so vital to the life of our communities," said Ms. Dove, who has received a lot of mail advocating such programs. Literacy is the magic word -- "the open sesame" -- to the world of possibilities, said Ms. Dove. "Discovering literature from the inside out by writing one's own poems or one's own stories is a marvelous way to introduce the concept of aesthetic reception and personal discovery."
The poems' themes reflected worries about the future of the city, the impact of drugs, the "life" of a dollar bill, love, family roles and the definition of peace. Some of the highlights included Dana Wiggins's "Rolling in my BMW." In the poem, the ninth-grader compares each family member to a part of a car. For example, her "sister is like a radio because she talks and sings a lot."
Damia Mayfield started writing poetry after the death of her brother in 1989. Her poem "Mama's Boy" is dedicated to him. The poem begins: "If other kids can wait for what they ask for without asking their mothers for more, more, more./ When a mother can't afford to give her boys things/They may go out selling drugs."
"Dollar Bill" by Kevin Branch is written from the currency's perspective: "Hey you! I can't breathe/This wallet is hot. ...Take me out and head across town to the bank."
Andy Mendoza, a third grader, read a poem entitled "Trouble." The poem described the different situations which meant trouble for Master Mendoza. These included forgetting to take out the trash, forgetting to clean out his hamster cage and hitting his little sister.
Third grader Will Nash Ajayi wrote "The Boogie Down Man's Dream," which tells of a boy who dreams of a man who lives in jazz town. Eventually, the boy started "sleeping wild" because he could hear the jazz music playing in his dreams.
Ana Falikova, an eighth grader who came to live in the United States three years ago, read "The Best City Ever." It described the buildings and streets of her native Moscow, which only a few of her classmates have seen.
Aishah Briscoe has been writing poems and other short stories for two years. She wants to pursue writing in college. Her poem "Forgotten Soul" hints that society has become numb to the slaughter of innocent children: "Her worst nightmare. A person's cold and silent stare..../To be shot, gunned down for no known cause./Her death was such a terrible loss./For no one will ever know because her death is forgotten like the new fallen snow."
"Happy Birthday, Grandma" by Jeffrey Harvey contrasted sharply. It showed how the world can be a little distorted through the eyes of a small child. "Happy birthday, Grandma./It must be real cool to be 300 and don't have to go to school. .../Happy birthday, Grandma./ I'll sing it this year./ I'll stand on your right, because that's your good ear."
Ms. Dove said she hoped such an event could be held annually at the Library. "For those who have bewailed the so-called declining culture in this country, I simply say: 'Have you been listening?' These young people offer proof and hope for our cultural legacy."
Carroll Johnson is a communications specialist in Cultural Affairs.