“Citywide Poets brought me to the realization that everybody is individual and important.”
Aja performing her original work at InsideOut’s Detroit Youth Poetry Grand Slam. (2019)
Before I started Citywide Poets, I wasn’t doing poetry in secret, but I did feel like an underground artist. It started off as a class assignment back in sixth grade and spiraled from there. From then on if I was upset with my granny or with my mom, I’d put it all on paper and then keep on pushing. Or if I had a crush on this dude and I didn’t know how to tell him, I’d write it in a poem but then I’d keep it from him forever because he don’t need to know, and it spiraled from there.
After I got into high school–I’m not going to say I was bored of my classes, but if I’m not necessarily engaged automatically, I lose interest in classes very quickly–while the teacher was teaching something, I’d just be in the back writing poems. And the teacher would ask, “What do you think about this?” and I’d be half listening to the class but also really into the poem, so it would take me a second to click back in to answer the question and then click back out.
I used poetry as an escape from something–whether it’s an escape from what I’m feeling or an escape from where I am. I was also very secretive about it because yes, I write, and no I’m not terrible, but I don’t think I’m a poet.
I joined Citywide Poets my junior year after hearing about it from other poets and artists on Instagram. I say that I “grew up in Citywide Poets” even though I was already 16 or 17 because I grew a lot in the program. Once I started Citywide Poets, I started to meet more artistic people and that changed my perspective of the world. As I’m growing up, as I’m trying to figure out who I am and figure out what the world looks like to me. I’m getting to meet all of these artistic people with all of these different perspectives who also have similar personality traits to me, and it makes me feel less alone. Citywide Poets brought me to the realization that everybody is individual and important. I’m more open to interacting with different types of people because even though we’re all creative, we’re all different types of creatives.
School was a stable place, but Citywide Poets was a safe space. Even if I didn’t know what was happening each day, or we didn’t know who was coming in, or even if we didn’t know what type of day it was going to be, I’d know that I’d be comfortable here. I know that I will be heard here; I will be seen here; I will be respected here. In the classroom I could probably go the whole hour not saying anything, and my teacher would probably forget that I’m there. Citywide Poets showed me the distinctions between a facilitator and a teacher. I respect both professions because both are hard, but I do have a little more respect for facilitators because they take the extra step to make sure everyone feels seen and heard.
One Citywide Poets workshop that stands out was a “statue” improv exercise where we got in a big circle with two people in the middle and you have to go add to the statue and then after you go someone else will lead, and so on. It felt different from a lot of workshop or class experiences or activities, and I thought “I think I like this,” and I’ve been stuck there ever since.
The poems of mine I tend to like the most are the ones that are indirectly about me. I can never directly write about myself in my poems. I have to hide behind a metaphor or a cute image. The image is me–I know it’s me–but I can’t address it as me just yet. The poems that have a lot of nature imagery that I love to work with are my favorites. I think that’s why the series of weeds is probably my favorite because you can’t help but see the nature–you can’t help but see the grass as you’re reading it.
Aja hosting a Scratch the Page Visiting Writer Series event as a member of the Youth Advisory Board. (2018)
I appreciate the program wholeheartedly. Ever since I’ve been in Citywide Poets I’ve been learning something new, not only about myself but about the world, about the workplace. I can see myself going into film now because of all of the work I’ve done with the camera as part of the Youth Advisory Board (YAB). I already was interested in film, but being able to work with the camera a lot more by recording a performance and editing it and uploading it to Youtube, it’s added to my repertoire of things I can do in film. Hosting events, hosting workshops, hosting meetings with the YAB–all of that has added to my resume. Some people don’t get that experience for years, and I got all of that in a span of months. I really do appreciate that it brought more to me than just going to the workshops would have, but it also made me realize what type of work I really want to do. I don’t know if I want to go into nonprofit work, but I can see myself in a nonprofit that does something similar to what InsideOut does.
I definitely want to go into a creative profession simply because I can’t feel like 100 percent myself unless I’m doing something creatively. Once I unlock that box, there’s no closing it. Even when I’m not writing, I’m still doing something creatively–whether I’m cooking, I’m baking, I’m taking pictures, I’m writing scripts. Even if I’m just having a regular conversation with somebody, the whole conversation is built up in metaphors. There’s no going back. Once it’s unlocked it’s there.
Aja’s mom Janice describes the transformation she witnessed when her daughter joined Citywide Poets firsthand:
Before InsideOut, Aja was a shy and antisocial person. The progression of her awesomeness would have been delayed if it wasn’t for Inside Out. She has found her voice. Ever since joining Citywide Poets she has been able to express herself effectively and artistically. Aja has found her spark and will set the world ablaze. With this newly found passion she tries to motivate everyone around her to be their truest self in all aspects. I would like to thank InsideOut for everything that they’ve done to inspire my daughter. — Janice Jeffries