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Flint poet Semaj Brown awarded an American Academy of Poets grant

Semaj Brown

The American Academy of Poets has chosen Flint’s Poet Laureate, Semaj Brown, as one of twenty-two 2021 Poet Laureate Fellows. Brown will receive $50,000 for her literary work. 

Brown intends to put the award toward the Poetry Pod Project, or P3. The virtual programming series, a project of her own design, aims to support literacy in Flint. 

“We know a healthy community is a literate community , and what better way to support literacy than through poetry?” Brown said. “Because poetry is fun, it’s musical, it’s relevant, it’s historic, it’s all those things wrapped into one.”

The Poetry Pod Project

P3 will consist of four programs that will take place over the course of the year. The first, “Flint Reads Poetry: Poetry Voices of Flint,” is an online gallery where viewers can listen to “ordinary people” from Flint read various poems. 

The first set of poems will come from the Harlem Renaissance, and will be read by members of the Zeta Beta Zeta chapter of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority. Brown was asked to name a 501c3 in the Flint area to serve as her partner throughout her fellowship, and she chose the Zeta Phi Beta chapter. 

“They’re like a little machine. They’re very organized. . . and they’re out in the community all the time, working,” Brown said of the chapter. “Sometimes, they’re doing work at the shelter. Other times, they’re at the soup kitchen. Then they’re cleaning the streets and the parks. Also they have programming with the elderly...So they are used to programming and execution.”

The second program, “Poetry Paint”, will have fifth- and sixth-graders from Freeman Elementary School interact with the Mott-Warsh Collection. Brown will guide the students in writing poetry to the art pieces. 

The third program, “Poetry Pen Pals”, will connect students with a dance troupe Detroit. The children and dancers will write letters to each other in the form of poetry. 

In the final program, “Poetry in the Garden,” Brown will read from her book, Feasts and Fables From the Planted Kingdom: A Story Cookbook, in EJ’s Garden within the Sarvis Park neighborhood. 

Poetry for all

Brown emphasized that from children to grandparents, professionals to laypeople, poetry is for everyone. Her husband is a family physician, and together, the couple has done a lot of work in the community. Most of their experiences have been with whole families, not just children.

“So if we wanted to effect change and we were able to effect change in the health sphere, we didn't just work with the children. We worked with the grandparents and we worked with the parents, the aunties, uncles, cousins. The entire family is involved in change,” Brown said.

Brown frequently encounters adults that say they don’t like poetry, but said that she believes they’re approaching the art form with an outdated perspective.

“Poetry is a manifestation of life in words; words that are configured in a particular type of man in a particular way. So it should resonate. So if you were given poetry in a stale, dead textbook, and you were penalized for not understanding it, and it was dry, and it was just old and it wasn't relevant,” Brown said. 

In many academic settings, she said, poetry has been “cornered off” as something that only highly-educated elites can access and appreciate. Brown wants adults to know that this shouldn’t be the case. 

“So those people who didn't like poetry, you can start liking it again! You can start liking it for the first time. you can enjoy it, have fun in it, celebrate with it,” she said. 

Listen above for Stateside’s full conversation with Semaj Brown, as well as a reading of her poem, “Where am I From?”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Ronia Cabansag.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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