By Tom Travis
The American Academy of Poets has chosen Flint’s Poet Laureate, Semaj Brown, as one of 2021 Poet Laureate Fellows. Brown was chosen along with 22 other Poets Laureate from across the country. Each of the winners will receive $50,000 for their literary work as well as a project of their choosing with a “civic focus.”
“I thank you all. Also thank you to the Academy of American Poets. To the Dreamers, and the dreamless, to the faithful and the faithless, to those who know, and to those who seek to those who turn things up downside in, and to those who carry tradition in gnarled knuckles…
“Poetry is my 2nd language, spiritual dialect, way of being; it is a cultural life raft for our community – the golden root tip of blood, of bones, and that combustible joy ignited in the spine of fire laughter. Thank you for accepting my offerings, as my service is my practice,” Brown wrote in a thank you note to Flint.
Brown has graced Flint through her passionate talent with the power of words for nearly three years. She became Flint’s first Poet Laureate through proclamation in September 2019 by then-Flint Mayor Karen Weaver.
Celebrating with a “cacophony of sound”
Brown said she found out about the award in a phone call from Jennifer Benka, president of the American Academy of Poets (AAP). Benka told Brown that they have been “watching her and seeing her work” and the AAP had chosen her to be one of the recipients of the 2021 award.
Brown described that phone call by saying at first she was quiet “I couldn’t believe it!” she said.
Then Brown, gasping, said “I just started acting goofy and all of us on the phone were celebrating. There was a cacophony of sound.”
Civic focus for Flint’s Poet Laureate
The Poetry Pod Project (P3) will be the civic focus of Brown’s AAP award.
On her newsletter, Brown describes the project like this: “To understand the structural and systemic, seemingly insurmountable scourge of illiteracy, and yet despite barriers organize and implement sustainable poetry programming throughout the City of Flint is the goal. 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 innovation.”
According to Brown the P3 project consists of four initiatives:
1. Flint Reads Poetry/Poetry Voices of Flint
“Verse enthusiasts, individuals and organizations are invited to videotape themselves reading poems from various eras: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, Transcendentalists, Romantic Poets, and more. These recordings will present as an on-line poetry-gallery. Each season new readers will offer a selection of noted poems. The poetry-gallery will serve as an audio/visual, sensory resource for students, educators, after school programmers, and parents. Mostly, it will be a community space to engage in active listening, laugh, validate, destress, heal, revive, and celebrate the awesomeness of poetry.”
2. Poetry Paints
“Poetry Paints is an inter-genre workshop between the literary art-form, poetry, and paintings, works on paper, and sculpture. The source of these works of art: Flint’s own, Mott Warsh Collection, Director/Curator Stephanie James, art educator, Janice McCoy. Poetry Paints workshops are designed for Freeman Elementary school students, Principal, Mrs. Anna Johnson. Guided by Flint’s poet laureate, students will respond to the art works in the language of poetry, thus composing poetry letters, utilizing poetry as a second language.
3. Poetry Pen Pals
“Poetry as a 2nd Language is Poetry Pen Pals, a poem exchange project – letters written between participants. The Flint community will be invited to participate as Poetry Pen Pals. These poems will be posted on P3’s social media platform and published in the column, Poetry Confessions: Tea Time with the Poet Laureate – Flint Courier News. This method of communication promotes a culture where poems are the currency of language. This virtual happening provides participants with a community space for sharing poetry into the future.”
4. Poetry in the Garden with Brownell Blvd. Coalition, Ladel Lewis, PhD.
“Brownell Blvd Coalition’s Storytime in EJ’s garden. This Ruth Mott and Community Sponsored initiative takes pride in being a highlight of the Sarvis Park Neighborhood. Since its inception, they’ve provided a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables to the community while promoting literacy. Many readers have graced our garden to entertain youth and adults alike,” writes Ladel Lewis.
My hope is that people’s lives will be changed and the poetry will add to their lives, Brown says
“My hope is that people will have access to poetry and that it changes their lives and it adds to their lives,” Brown said.
She clarified this project is for “people” not just for children. Brown said children are people and people are children, adding, “I haven’t ever met a grown person who wasn’t a child.
“A lot of things that we’re taught are just false. The first step is to recognize everything you’ve been taught about poetry is probably wrong. Poetry is the essence of your being, but expressed in words,” she explained.
Brown recalled some things she hears from audience members of her poetry readings: “A lot of people say, ‘I hate poetry but I like your poetry. Are you sure it’s poetry, what you do, Semaj?” She responds, I’m really sure.
“Your poems aren’t like any poems I’ve ever heard,” some of Brown’s audience members say. “That’s because of the barriers that have been constructed when you don’t hear poetry that speaks to you,” she replies.
“My mother did this to me” – Brown
Brown recalled as a small child that often her mother and sister, nine years her elder, would read to each other at night. Brown said that her mother, a classically trained pianist and scholar, would always ask her and her sister after reading, “What does that mean?” If Brown said, “I don’t know” her mother would challenge her by saying, “Well, let’s find out.”
Brown said the “finding out” would become like an adventure.
“We would go to the dictionary, we would draw it out,” she recalls, and then her mother would say “Now read it again now that we have this better understanding about it.
“So she really drew me into this and she encouraged me,” Brown said.
“Poetry is a way for people to connect with what’s inside of them.” Brown remembers going to Strafford, Ontario as a young person to study Shakespeare during the summer. “Like the dialect of English that is used in Shakespeare plays poetry too is a dialect,” Brown explained. “It’s my second dialect,” says Brown.
Local sorority receives $10,000 to assist Poet Laureate
The AAP asked each of the Poet Laureates to name a non-profit in their respective communities that could assist them in reaching the project’s objectives during the fellowship year. Brown chose Zeta Beta Zeta (ZBZ) Flint Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority.
“ZBZ Chapter was already a partner to the Poet Laureate Poetry Pod Project (P3). I went to the chapter, of which I am a member, and presented P3 about a month after my appointment [as Flint’s Poet Laureate],” Brown described in a follow-up email.
ZBZ Chapter will assist with administrative duties, marketing, organizing events such as online Zoom and Facebook live events, readings, shopping for supplies, etc. In turn for their in-kind services the Zeta Foundation of Flint, Michigan, not the chapter, is awarded $10,000 from the AAP.
Semaj and husband, Dr. James Brown work and perform together
Author of the 2019 book Bleeding Fire: Tap the Eternal Spring of Regenerative Light, Brown has brought literacy through hard-hitting poems of empowerment. In her 2012 book, Feasts and Fables from the Planted Kingdom, she combines whimsical original tales and advice on cooking, science and nutrition which began as supports to the family medical practice of her husband, Dr. James Brown.
With Dr. Brown, she has led more than 70 workshops on diet and nutrition in Genesee County. In 2018 she began teaching and consulting for the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Flint.
Brown graduated from Wayne State University with a degree in biology and taught science in the Detroit Public Schools, creating innovative science education curricula statewide and nationally.
“Science is my work; art is my work — I really don’t see the difference,” she said in a September 2019 EVM article about her appointment and asked to reflect on her omnivorous background and body of material. “It is all one–it’s all connected in my world.”
Brown’s husband also is a musician and composer, often joining her in her performances. At the Flint Public Library he accompanied her on bongo drums and played an “arborlune” — a stringed instrument he literally made from backyard branches.
Brown has performed widely in Flint and Detroit, including at the launch of Bleeding Fire at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. She was part of the 2017 “Women of a New Tribe” exhibit at the Flint Institute of Arts and created a poem inspired by the show called “Mother Ocean.” This biographical information is from a November 2019 article by EVM Consulting Editor, Jan Worth-Nelson.
EVM Managing Editor Tom Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.