By Mike Cross-Barnet
Is poetry dead? When you think about poets, do you imagine pale young men in 19th century England, bemoaning unrequited love and slowly wasting away from consumption?
If that’s what you think, then Maren Wright-Kerr and the other talented youth of Dew More Baltimore are here to set you straight. Wright-Kerr, Baltimore’s Youth Poet Laureate, and her peers recently took top honors among more than 500 competitors in the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Houston, an experience Wright-Kerr describes as “invigorating.”
Dew More, a fiscally sponsored project of Strong City, is doing plenty to keep the art of poetry alive and well in Baltimore. With its in-school programs, workshops, organizing and advocacy, Dew More celebrates youth voice and encourages young people to embrace art as a vehicle for social change – an approach that Dew More’s Artistic Coordinator Victor Rodgers calls “artivism.”
“The idea is that there is an imperative relation between arts and activism,” Rodgers explains. “We use art to point out things that are not the way they should be – and then point to a solution.”
Dew More formed in 2013 after the disbanding of an earlier organization, Poetry for the People, which sponsored the Baltimore City Youth Poetry Team. One of the things Wright-Kerr likes best about the organization is the way it makes poetry accessible to ordinary people.
“I feel like poetry has a stereotype, where people believe it has to be something that cannot be understood, cannot be entertaining, be funny, make you cry,” she says.
In her own poems, she says, “I like tricking people … presenting poetry in a very entertaining way, so I can hook people in, and afterward I change people’s opinions, but in a sneaky way.” As an example, she points to her poem “White Boy Magic,” which is one of the pieces Dew More’s Brave New Voices team performed in Houston.
The last few years have been good for Dew More, which also won first place at the 2016 Brave New Voices festival in Washington, D.C., and has received a lot of positive media coverage, including a write-up in Teen Vogue. But if Dew More is having a “moment,” so is poetry in general, Rodgers believes. He points to the huge popularity of slam poetry in online platforms such as YouTube, or that fact that PBS recently did a special about how youth are leading a poetry renaissance.
“There was a big article a few years ago saying poetry is dead, that poetry is not relevant anymore,” Rodgers recalls. “In the last few years, it’s kind of turned completely around – the NEA is saying that the popularity of poetry has exploded. New and more diverse narratives are being represented in the literary world.”
Wright-Kerr, who is from Baltimore and attends Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson, is the fourth Youth Poet Laureate, an official Baltimore City government position within the Mayor’s Office. As an ambassador for the arts, she attends events, gives regular performances, and meets different kinds of people all over the city. One of the perks of the job: At the end of her term, a book of her poems will be published.
Wright-Kerr’s mother, a poet and songwriter who runs Dew More’s Maya Baraka Writers Institute, introduced her to poetry slams and summer institute writing sessions. At first, Wright-Kerr says, “I was kind of dragged to it, but then I actually got into it and said, ‘I’m pretty good at this.’ I was an actress first – I was into being on stage and doing storytelling.” Over time, Wright-Kerr realized, “I didn’t have to tell someone else’s story – I could tell my own instead.”
As Dew More grows – it added three new positions recently – Strong City’s fiscal sponsorship allows the organization to stay focused on making art and ensuring the voices of Baltimore youth are heard. “One thing we realized was that navigating the nonprofit waters financially is a big challenge,” Rodgers says. “Having a fiscal sponsor to be the ship navigating those financial storms is not just a good thing to have but, I feel, is essential.”
Moving forward, Dew More is looking to find more ways for youth to take the lead in telling their stories and changing their communities. Their newest initiative, launching Friday, Nov. 9, at Impact Hub, is “SaltPepperKetchup,” which Rodgers describes as a youth-led project where young people can share “whatever it is they’re most passionate about” in an open, noncompetitive environment.
“It’s a way for people to share poems from all over Baltimore – all the schools that Dew More’s in – but without the aspect of competition,” Wright-Kerr says. “We can sit, talk, and eat together in a space that feels safe and comfortable for them.”