Archive for May, 2012


Full disclosure: I’m the senior program director for the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop. We’re always bragging about our students. They’re always doing amazing things. Here’s another post about what they’ve accomplished.

(PHOTO: DC Creative Writing Workshop) TyJuan Hogan (right) is hard at work on the after-school writing exercise. This year was a big one for the 7th grader who read before the mayor and had his poem recorded on NPR. He also won awards in three youth poetry contests.

TyJuan Hogan threw off the gloves when he stepped to the mic last Saturday. Earlier, while the other finalists read their poems aloud, the 7th grader went over his lines with the focus and determination of a shadow boxer going through fight routines, snapping his jabs and slamming his right hooks at the air.

In Hogan’s case, he punched with his words. “Paint first a house with graffiti./ The words will tell/ the city I lived in when I was first born,” he recited on May 5. Hogan’s lines from his poem “To Paint The Portrait of Home” tagged a roomful of fellow young poets and their parents at the 30th Parkmont Poetry Festival. He concluded: “This is home./… You will know it’s good if/ the rain doesn’t devour/ the color.”

The 7th grader was among the 13 writing club members who won the Parkmont. This unprecedented feat marked what the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop, an in-class and after-school program based at Charles Hart Middle School in Southeast, calls its “best year ever for awards.” In sum, Workshop participants won nearly one-third of the Parkmont prizes this year. Not only did Hart students dominate the Parkmont, they also left their mark at the 3rd Annual “Finding Gabriela” D.C. Poetry Contest Award, the Kids Post Poetry Contest, and the Larry Neal Writers’ Awards.

The Workshop’s Executive Director Nancy Schwalb was as ecstatic as she was two years ago, when Hart accomplished the same task of turning out more winners than any other school at the Parkmont Poetry Festival. “Year after year, our students win a disproportionate share of writing awards,” Schwalb said then. “It’s an amazing literary feat, especially considering the challenges that our students face in everyday life.”

For 12 years, the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop has used arts education to transform the lives of kids living in D.C.’s Congress Heights neighborhood, an often forgotten part of the city. According to recent data from the Social Justice Center at Georgetown University, Ward 8, which encompasses Congress Heights, has huge educational hurdles.

(PHOTO: D.C. Creative Writing Workshop) Kayla, Tatiana, Ty’shea love their new books!

For starters, among 16-19 year-olds, the high school dropout rate was 16 percent, “substantially higher than the district average of 10.1 percent.” The center also found that “one third (34 percent) of Ward 8′s population over 25 did not have a high school diploma, which was about average for the District.” Additionally, 7 percent of residents don’t even have a 9th grade education, and the Median Annual Income is $32,348, according to recent statistics.

Since its start in 2000, the Workshop has expanded from its base of operation at Hart Middle School to two neighboring schools—Simon Elementary and Ballou Senior High—to accommodate increased demand attributed to the Workshop’s proof that arts education effectively helps youths overcome the educational hurdles.

Last month, TyJuan Hogan and Nia Adams shined despite the cold and rain at the 3rd Annual “Finding Gabriela” D.C. Poetry Contest award ceremony. The annual contest sponsors include the In Series, the Embassy of Chile, the Embassy of El Salvador, the Humanities Council of WDC, Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and the Gabriela Mistral Foundation. Adams received the award for first place in the age group category for 12 to 15 year-olds. Hogan won first place overall.

(PHOTO D.C. Creative Writing Workshop) Writing club members had a blast at the Arena Stage.

Demarco Tucker was the lone Hart student who won the Kids Post Poetry Contest, sponsored by the Washington Post. “The skin on my body covers up my bones/… The grass on the ground covers up the dirt,” the 6th grader was quoted from his poem “Thin Ice.”

“The words people use cover up empty things/ people are scared to think/ The gift you buy is covering up the things you’ve done/ The moon covers up the stars.”

The night before the poetry festival, it was clear skies for the Hart stars at the Larry Neal Writers’ Awards. Sponsored by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the honor recognizes the best writing by D.C. adults, youth, and teens in a handful of categories. Winners receive cash prizes at a formal ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

This year, D.C. Creative Writing Workshop students swept the Youth Poetry category: TyJuan Hogan placed first, Muhammad Ali got second, and LaShanda Jones was third. The Workshop’s Program Manager, Abbey Chung, won first place in the Adult category for fiction.

That momentum continued at this year’s Parkmont Poetry Contest, which is a citywide competition that designates 20 winners in the lower school division (6th through 8th grades) and 20 in the upper school division (9th through 12th grades). The Parkmont attracts contestants from some of the city’s most élite schools, this year including The Kirov Academy of Ballet, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School, Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and the British School of Washington.

But those élite names didn’t stop Shaniyah Lesane from taking the mic. “When I’m loud I get wild/ like a wildfire going everywhere,” the 6th grader recited from her poem “My Loudness.” Nor did it deter Demarco Green, whose “Symbols of Personality” summed up the pride of the Workshop students. The 8th grader recited, “I’m a lyrical genius, got lyrics for days.”

These are all 13 of the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop’s Parkmont Poetry Contest winners:
From Hart Middle School: Alpha Conteh, Zena Craig, Kuela’H Simms, Demarco Green, Asia Chaney, Mitchel Tolar, Hailey Lewis, Daisha Wilson, Shaniyah Lesane, Ladeisha Meriweather, TyJuan Hogan, and Donte Harris.
From McKinley High School:
Zinquarn Wright

Want to stay updated on what’s happening at the DC Creative Writing Workshop? Visit their Facebook page here.

Randall Horton’s *Roxbury*

Cleveland Heights, OH: Kattywompus Press, 2012. 33 pages. $12.00.

(ARTWORK: Randall Horton and Kattywompus Press)

It was a Sunday evening nearly a decade ago when I first met Randall Horton. We were downstairs in the Teaism Penn Quarter Restaurant at 8th and D streets NW in Washington, DC. That night in 2003, I waited to read on the open mic that followed the slam, in which Randall competed for a spot on what was then the DC/Baltimore team (which later split).

When his turn came up, Randall wowed us all with his poem “Little Shorty,” a tale of a boy the streets swallowed and spit back. “Get the cream, Little Shorty! Get the cream!” he said during his moving performance that night. I had to approach him afterwards and let him know I enjoyed his piece.

Get the cream, Little Shorty! Get the cream! Those words echoed in my head that night. I said them jokingly when I ran into Randall at the city’s venues over the ensuing years when we became friends and Randall’s frustrations grew each time he didn’t make the slam team.

I hadn’t thought of his poem “Little Shorty” as possibly being autobiographic until the release of his chapbook Roxbury (Kattywompus Press, 2012), an excerpt from his yet-to-be-published memoir Father, Forgive Me. I bought and had him sign my copy when he was in town last month.

Randall Horton’s story of incarceration blew me away, especially the part about his father loving him enough to cry before the courtroom during Randall’s sentence modification hearing. Despite his son stealing from him and repeatedly breaking his family’s heart, Mr. Horton loved Randall enough to plead for his freedom before one of the toughest judges in the justice system.

Roxbury, which gets its name from the prison that housed Randall for five years, reveals the man he once was. “There are folks already in my housing unit who can vouch for my street credibility,” Randall writes, “that I am a legendary dude who hustled and played as fair as one could in the cutthroat game of hustling.” I would’ve avoided this person at all cost.

That cutthroat hustle found Randall as an undergraduate student at Howard University during the early 80s. Not even his two-parent household could deter him from going after the hustle. Despite a loving and supportive family, Randall dropped out of school to smuggle cocaine from the Bahamas to Washington, DC.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Dr. Randall Horton, a poet and assistant professor, is a recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize and a Cave Canem fellow.

But this isn’t a glory story of drugs, women, and fast cars. In fact, it’s the opposite. Roxbury’s a fast-paced cautionary tale that immediately whisks the reader away:

If I had known what I know now, I would not have
pulled into the next office complex. I would not have driven up
the concrete ramp and parked on the second floor, but fate is an
uncalculated science, and so I did. My girlfriend and I would not
have exited the light blue van and taken the back stairwell that lets
out into the second floor carpeted hallway, nor would we have
discussed the quick score for ten grand we were about to make,
but we did….within five minutes of picking the
door lock we knew time had been wasted. Going in and out of
each cubicle of the accounting firm revealed cheap technology
with no resale value. We didn’t find the high-tech state of the art
laptops we needed to score big. So we retraced our once eager
steps back down the carpeted hall to the stairwell, down the stairs
to the garage, and back to the van. When I opened the door to the
van, glanced out the corner of my left eye and saw a flood of
plain-clothes police officers rushing towards us with guns in the air
yelling Freeze muthafuckas freeze. Before muthafuckas echoed off the
garage walls—I was gone.

The chase lasted a short while before the officer caught Randall. Upon entering Roxbury Correctional Institution (RCI) in Hagerstown, Maryland, Randall introduces the reader to some interesting characters, who he has to align himself with if he’s going to survive. Among them is Randall’s first cellmate Deboe, who’s from DC and was six years into a 60-year sentence for murder.

Randall does a great job of showing how guys feel each other out with small talk. In this case, he and Deboe each try to see if the other guy earned his street cred. Here’s how it plays out:

I can tell Deboe is suspicious of me…I am suspicious of him as
well. After menial small talk, the conversation begins with how
dudes sold fake televisions in the box to unsuspecting victims over
by the Shrimp Boat on Minnesota Avenue. Deboe mentions The
Black Hole and Celebrity Hall hosting all the live go-go parties
back in the day… We both reminisce the heyday of
Portland Avenue and the Jamaican wars during the late 80s. This
barrage of questions and answers continue until I am determined
to be legitimate.

One legit thing about Roxbury is Randall’s story of redemption, which didn’t stop at the courtroom. That night I met Randall in 2003, he was a student at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), wrapping up his undergraduate studies. From there, he went on to earn an MFA in Poetry from Chicago State University and a PhD in Creative Writing from The State University of New York (SUNY) Albany.

He’s the author of two books of poetry, The Definition of Place and The Lingua Franca of Ninth Street, both from Main Street Rag. He’s won awards for his work and is now assistant professor of English at the University of New Haven. He’s come a long way from Roxbury and what poet and memoirist Reginald Dwayne Betts called “the hard roads that damn near broke him…”

What I like about Roxbury is that it’s poetic. I’ve never heard anyone make go-go music the means to restoring sanity while also acknowledging that it’s the off-spring of work songs—that is, until Randall Horton. Check it:

Night is a deafening silence filling every inch of the
housing unit with opaqueness. Every stir amplified by the isolation
of a closed cell door. The beat-thump begins simple enough. It is
an intense percussive, drawing on West African influences, called
go-go, the indigenous music of the District of Columbia. Two
doors down in Cell 19, Sebastian got the go-go fever induced by
mail call after shift change. Five years into an eight-year bid, his
girlfriend, who stays in Clifton Terrace, informed him she will no
longer vigil the memory of his street heroics. His image has faded
from the landscape and so would she. There is no question the
right fist is balled, driving the cadence like a conductor calling out
to a crew of Gandy Dancers laying eight foot railroad track: Get a
grip in ya hand, whoa na, work wit it chillin, whoa na.
The left hand, palm
open, balances the driving narrative of gut-bucketed pain, much
like a mauling driving six-inch spikes into the crossties: Let it swang
on down, whoa na.

To order Roxbury from publisher’s site, click here.

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