Celebrating 75 Years

Wayne State University Press

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To Light a Fire

20 Years with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project

Edited by Terry Blackhawk and Peter Markus

Award Winner

Creative Nonfiction, Education, Poetry, Detroit

Made in Michigan Writers Series

Published: August 2015
ISBN: 9780814341179
Pages: 168 Size: 6x9
Published: August 2015
ISBN: 9780814341186

These truthful, celebratory, inspiring essays show us how the writers and teachers of InsideOut have been creating sparks and lighting fires for young people in Detroit for two decades. The pieces, like the kids themselves, have grit, spirit, resilience, the breath of life.

— Edward Hirsch

The InsideOut Literary Arts Project (iO) began in 1995 in five Detroit high schools, with weekly classroom visits by a writer-in-residence, the publication of a literary journal for each school, and the mission of encouraging students to use poetry to "think broadly, create bravely, and share their voices with the wider world." Twenty years later, the program serves some five thousand K–12 students per year, has received national exposure and accolades (including a recent visit to the White House), and has seen numerous student writers recognized for their creativity and performance. In To Light a Fire: 20 Years with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project, founding director Terry Blackhawk and senior writer Peter Markus collect the experiences of writers who have participated in InsideOut over the years to give readers an inside look at the urban classroom and the creative spark of Detroit’s students.

In short and insightful essays, contributors discuss how iO’s creative magic happened during the course of their work in Detroit schools. Poets such as Jamaal May, John Rybicki, Robert Fanning, and francine j. harris describe the many ways that poetry can be used as a tool to reach others, and how poetic work shaped them as teachers in return. Contributors describe nurturing a love of language, guiding excursions into imagination, and helping students find their own voices. They also describe the difficulties of getting through to kids, the challenges of oversized classrooms, and of working with children who seem to have been forgotten. Despite their own frequent angst and personal uncertainties about doing the right thing, they describe the joys and rewards that come from believing in students and supporting the risks that they take as writers.

To Light a Fire captures the story—one poet, poem, and poetic moment at a time—of helping students to discover they can imagine, dream, and speak in a way that will make people listen. Fellow educators, poets, and creative writers will be moved and inspired by this collection.

Terry Blackhawk is the founding director of InsideOut Literary Arts Project and a widely awarded educator as well as a poet. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks and four full-length collections of poetry including Escape Artist, winner of the John Ciardi Prize, and The Light Between (Wayne State University Press, 2012). She was named a Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellow in Literary Arts in 2013.

Peter Markus is the senior writer with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project. He is the author of the novel Bob, or Man on Boat, as well as five other books of fiction, the most recent of which is The Fish and the Not Fish. He was named a Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellow in Literary Arts in 2012.

Contributors Include:
Matthew Olzmann, Norene Cashen, Robert Fanning, Jamaal May, Suzanne Scarfone, John Rybicki, Anna Clark, Nandi Comer, Gloria Nixon-John, Cindy Frenkel, francine j. harris, Kristine Uyeda, Isaac Miller, Kristin Palm, Stacy Parker Le Melle, Alise Alousi, Chace Morris, Anita Schmaltz, Thomas Park, Julia Putnam, Aricka Foreman, Terry Blackhawk, Peter Markus

These truthful, celebratory, inspiring essays show us how the writers and teachers of InsideOut have been creating sparks and lighting fires for young people in Detroit for two decades. The pieces, like the kids themselves, have grit, spirit, resilience, the breath of life.

– Edward Hirsch, president, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation

In her introduction to the anthology To Light a Fire, InsideOut Literary Arts Project founder Terry Blackhawk says, ‘It’s always an honor when students open up their lives for their teachers.’ Blackhawk and her colleagues honor their readers by opening up their Detroit classrooms and telling their stories—stories of creating a safe space for creative expression by students, and stories of how those students inspired the authors’ own poetry. The teaching methods vary, but the passion and compassion of the remarkable artists who have taught with InsideOut come through on every page of this collection, which illuminates a path for other writers who want to engage young people with the written word.

– Amy Swauger, director, Teachers & Writers Collaborative

Educators nationwide are desperate for an antidote to student apathy and disengagement. InsideOut has the solution—give students compelling texts and invite them to respond to compelling tasks. The work described here goes beyond college and career readiness. These teachers are preparing students for life!

– Carol Jago, longtime English teacher and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English

Terry Blackhawk’s discovery of how art matters can’t help but excite and inspire. Stories she shares of her experimental, ever-evolving InsideOut project remind us how and why a wrong-headed attitude toward the arts can sink a whole nation’s boat. Through the poetry, storytelling, playwriting, and performances that she and other caring, recognized Detroit artists practice and profess, Blackhawk’s high school and other institutional students broke past barriers that border the heart. In Jack London’s enduring short story "To Build a Fire," the narrator says, ‘He worked slowly and carefully, keenly aware of his danger.’ To Light a Fire reignites that very same spark and flame. How much longer can we go on killing off, torturing, or warehousing our pitifully needed long-distance runners? Terry Blackhawk knows. This powerful anthology delivers.

– Al Young, former poet laureate of California

Throughout To Light a Fire, adult and student writers reverberate as interchangeable mentors and mentees with emotional connections, heartfelt expressions, and emotional and provocative messages. Dr. Terry Blackhawk’s vision for InsideOut and City Wide Poets, along with Peter Markus, writers-in-residence, teachers, and administrators, willingly nurture students’ minds, hearts, and souls.

– Toni S. Walters, PhD, professor emerita of reading and language arts, Oakland University

To Light a Fire is an inspiration, a blessing, and a necessity. The various essays included serve as a guide, a success report, and a challenge to those who read it to initiate a project like InsideOut in schools throughout the country that have never offered their students the wonderful opportunity of transforming their experiences, imaginary and real, into literary art. This collection wisely begins with a chronology of events that led to the creation, development, and expansion of the InsideOut Literary Arts Project. But years before she founded this project in 1994, Dr. Terry Blackhawk was already incorporating some of its features by encouraging her students to write and perfect their poems. She also invited professional poets to her classes to share some of their own work and involve her students in discussions of what makes a poem a poem. I am happy for the publication of To Light a Fire and all the helpful information it contains. It is my hope that it will serve as an incentive to expand the program locally and nationally so that thousands of uninvolved students on all grade levels will discover how to bring to the surface the hidden poet in all of us.

– Naomi Long Madgett, poet laureate for the City of Detroit and author of Pilgrim Journey

This luminous book speaks to the transformative power of poetry. Its brilliant, brave writing is poignant, generous, and deeply observant. Essays by talented InsideOut teachers with poems by their students will engage readers interested in literary arts, urban youth, learning communities, teaching and justice, and Detroit’s vitality.

– Susan Opotow, professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate Center, City University of New York

With Detroit’s population hovering just below seven hundred thousand, it is
notable that the city’s largest literary arts organization, InsideOut, which
invites poets into schools throughout the city, has reached more than fifty
thousand students since its inception. The nonprofit celebrates its twentieth anniversary this
year, and founder and executive director Terry Blackhawk—the organization’s fairy
godmother, as she refers to herself—will retire this month, leaving behind a thriving
organization that is committed to nurturing students’ creativity and self-expression through
poetry programs both in and out of the classroom.
The idea for InsideOut was first conceived in the late eighties when Blackhawk, a
schoolteacher and poet, began inviting established poets to visit her English classes in order
to introduce students to the transformative power of poetry. Her work caught the attention of
Robert Shaye, an alumnus of Detroit’s Mumford High School, the founder of New Line
Cinema, and head of his own charitable nonprofit, Four Friends Foundation. At Shaye’s
invitation, Blackhawk successfully submitted a grant proposal to the group for a citywide
endeavor to place writers in schools to teach poetry. By 1995 InsideOut was on its feet, with
its first writers-in-residence teaching poetry one day a week in five Detroit high schools.
InsideOut has since expanded well beyond those first five: With an annual budget of more
than eight hundred thousand dollars, the organization now brings its writers-in-residence
program to twenty-seven schools in the Detroit area. Through this initiative poets teach
weekly workshops for twenty-five weeks, then design and publish an anthology of student
work at the end of each year. In addition to its classroom presence, InsideOut has also
launched a diverse series of innovative projects and collaborations: an afterschool
performance poetry troupe called Citywide Poets; an annual high school writers conference
at Wayne State University; writing centers designed to help students with their college
applications; operas written and performed by third- and fourth-graders; and a multigenre
performance piece based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson. InsideOut is also a founding
member of the Writers in the Schools Alliance, a professional network of more than thirty
literary-arts education programs and individuals across the United States and beyond.
The nonprofit’s mission is to encourage students’ self-expression and confidence through
poetry. Peter Markus, an author who has taught with InsideOut since its inception, has
observed how empowering writing can be for students, especially in a struggling city like
Detroit. "I want [students] to feel that what they have to say matters," Markus says, "that
what they write about the world outside the window—or the world inside their head—is of
value, and that the world can learn something when they put words down on a piece of
InsideOut often has a long-term impact on both the students’ writing skills and their sense of identity. "Our evaluations show that kids who have our program are more confident writers
and more likely to revise their work," Blackhawk says. "They get to know each other better
and have a better sense of self. Their teachers say that attendance goes up on poetry day."
Nandi Comer, a former student of Blackhawk’s, doesn’t think she would be a writer today if it
weren’t for InsideOut. Now a published poet and essayist with an MFA from Indiana
University, Comer teaches InsideOut classes herself. "When I was in high school, everybody
was being funneled into the sciences, engineering, and medicine," Comer says, "and
[Blackhawk] created a space in our classroom for writing and showed us how to express
InsideOut has also received some well-deserved recognition outside Detroit. In 2011 an
InsideOut team placed fourth in the Brave New Voices National Youth Poetry Slam held in
San Francisco; in 2013 Natasha Trethewey, who was then U.S. poet laureate, featured the
program in her PBS series, Where Poetry Lives. And in 2009 InsideOut won the Coming Up
Taller Award (now called the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award), a major
honor for extracurricular programs presented by Michelle Obama.
To mark its twentieth anniversary, the organization is publishing an anthology in August. To
Light a Fire: 20 Years With the InsideOut Literary Arts Project (Wayne State University
Press) features twenty-three essays by InsideOut educators—including Blackhawk, Markus,
and Comer—documenting their experiences in the classroom. Other celebratory events are
being planned, including a public-art display called OutWords, through which Blackhawk
aims to wrap verses around buildings across Detroit and use them for a treasure hunt.
In the meantime, InsideOut is seeking a successor for Blackhawk, who will remain involved
with the organization as a board member and director emerita. After taking some time off to
travel and write, Blackhawk plans on returning to the classroom to teach with InsideOut,
doing what she’s done all along, and demonstrating what makes her so valuable to her city:
empowering students to write their truth. "Your heart feels so full when you’ve had a good
poetry workshop with young people," she says. "It’s a very alive and wonderful thing to be
able to do."

– Jonathan Vatner, Poets and Writers

As impressive as the project it documents, To Light a Fire: 20 Years with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project is part of the outstanding Wayne State University Press 'Made in Michigan Writers Series' and an exceptionally well organized and presented compendium of twenty-two erudite and informative article essays that provide exceptional insight and an occasional inspiration for the reader. Very highly recommended for community and academic library Literary Arts Education reference collections arid supplemental studies curriculums.

– Margaret Lane, The Midwest Book Review

From my perch here in Retirement Land, the news looks pretty good for InsideOut Literary Arts Project (iO), the 'baby' I founded in 1995.
This week I couldn't have been prouder to discover not one, but FOUR iO grantees among the winners in the latest round of Detroit Knight
Arts Challenge grants: iO itself, for the THIRD year in a row, winning funds to support our Citywide Poets work; Acting Director Alise Alousi
with her SECOND individual grant spreading love and awareness of Iraqi literary culture; and writers Chace Morris and Deonte Osayande,
all "hailing," as Ben Alfaro pointed out, "from inside the four walls of InsideOut."
At the Knight Awards, 11/9/15: Clockwise from bottom, Deonte, Chace, Ben, Alise.
And, since poetry is at the heart of the mission and history of iO, our own little creative incubator, Score One for poetry matters.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau helps us to Score Two. This avid, handsome bus rider has created gender balance in his cabinet,
put the causes of Native peoples front and center, and, not least, advocated for poetry. In a note, written after he participated in a centenary
reading in Montreal in 2012, he looks forward to talking about "how we need poets to change the world," echoing the great romantic poet
Percy Bysse Shelley and making my heart -- to echo another great 19th Century romantic, William Wordsworth --"leap up." So fast forward a few centuries. Although I am retired from iO, my heart continues to beat strongly from the sidelines. To those who would
dismiss iO's work as 'just doing poetry,' I refer to "Curiously Strong," my final blog as iO's ED, which describes iO's profound effects. I was
especially proud to report findings from one of our alumnae, Deecha Draw, who took it upon herself to assess iO's impact as her capstone
project for a master's degree in public policy. So Score Three, for life changing impacts on the students we serve.
I am also proud to point to the release this past August of To Light a Fire, an anthology I co-edited with iO's Peter Markus, published so
gorgeously by our friends at Wayne State University Press. Twenty-three iO teaching poets describe their journeys bringing poetry into the
lives and classrooms of the over 60,000 Detroit students that iO has reached over the years. Among the many fine reviews of this book by
poets and educators such as Al Young and Ed Hirsch, I offer this from Carol Jago, past president of the National Council of Teachers of
Educators nationwide are desperate for an antidote to student apathy and disengagement. InsideOut has the solution. ... The work
described here goes beyond college and career readiness. These teachers are preparing students for life!
So Score # Four for the impact of poetry on schools and communities.
Over the past 20 years, iO's roots have grown deeper and stronger in Detroit classrooms. We have, as I like to say, survived a variety of
regime changes. Regardless of intrigues and malfeasances at the top, principals and classroom teachers understand and support the ways
that iO writers help children discover their voices and bring out, day after day, beautiful poems like this one.
You Have to Love It
I ask them to play with
the poem until you're
out of breath.
Or press it against your heart
for all eternity.
I say rock it to sleep in
the rocking chair that
squeaks when you sit down,
or take the poem for a walk
in the new stroller you bought a week ago.
A poem isn't something you can leave
on the doorstep of an orphanage.
A poem is the best thing that's
supposed to happen to you.
You have to love it.
De'Jianna M.
Marcus Garvey Academy
I'm starting to lose count here, but with poems like this we can surely score one for capital B Beauty -- Beauty as a supremely valuable social good -- and I'm glad that Wayne State University Libraries agree. Earlier this week they asked for updates to their list of titles of iO school
literary magazines now accessioned in their collection. (For those who may not know, InsideOut creates a beautiful literary magazine for
each school served, 28 separate journals in 2015.) The titles, which are decided upon by the students, read like poems and capture the spirit
and joy of Detroit's young people - something iO has been bringing to the world for the past 20 years.
My heart lifts up, again, just reading these titles: A Bunche of Bees in the Sunflowers, As I Wonder, Be Anything, Bigger Than Me, from
Bunche, Northwestern, Fitzgerald and Schulze schools respectively. Many of the schools on this list have closed or been razed or otherwise
disappeared into the maw of Detroit's educational devastation, but these poems, this cultural treasure, live on.
In "How InsideOut Can Save the World," the keynote poem he presented at the launch of To Light a Fire at the Scarab Club on September 3,
2015, Kresge Eminent Artist and iO Founding Board member Bill Harris schools the latest wave of 'in-migrants' to Detroit and honors this
treasure. Here is an excerpt from his epic poem, which can be found in its entirety on the iO website.
...That defiant hope,
the refusal to quit, that Detroit Snob spirit,
that Desiree talks about,
making a way out of no way
Spirit of Detroit
that is the real attraction
of the latest wave of in-migrants.
& if any of them, the gentry, the merchants,
artists, self appointed saviors,
the speculators,
carpet baggers,
seekers of low rents, the
sociologists, shysters, spectators,
returning former Detroiters,
want to know about Detroit,
& the essence of that spirit
& how it has survived the onslaught
of emotional, psychological, economic
& racial tsunami
& still retained its soul
all they have to do,
all they have to do
is read any one of the
InsideOut anthologies...
It's an exciting time in Detroit right now, with groups like Kresge Arts in Detroit (disclosure: I was a 2013 KAID Literary Fellow) and the
Knight Foundation enriching the cultural climate and supporting the newbies as well as those of us who have been creating cultural
treasures for a long time.
It's an especially exciting time for iO as we conclude our part in the Give Detroit Challenge, coming in (at this writing) a strong second.
Special props to rapper Danny Brown, who has helped to raise more than $10,000 for iO. Brown himself a DPS graduate, gets what it means
to survive a racial tsunami, retain one's soul and ultimately do a bit of good in return.

– Terry Blackhawk, The Huffington Post

  • 2015 Foreword Reviews INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards - Result: Finalist in the Writing category