And then there is the work itself. It is not spoken-word, though it might share some of the same roots. Nor is it a rote imitation of contemporary poetry. Instead, it is something new in the canon: the intersection of poetry’s two disparate worlds.
The richest of the student writing at Hart takes the voices and stories of the writers and the conventions of their teachers and makes something that is bigger than either. It seizes age-old literary devices and shouts through them. It tells harrowing stories with language that is glitteringly surreal (“My real name is midnight”) and bluntly of this world (“We know things, being young / you not gonna understand.”). A poem like “Get Your Elbow Off the Table,” by middle-schooler Davon Ford, has the immediacy and clout of raw speech but a deft command of that speech as poetry. (It begins, “I was raised by get your elbow / off the table, don’t never say you’re / not able, get dat money real faithful / type of family.”) Writing club students routinely sweep citywide print-poetry competitions: This year, 10 of the 40 winners of the Parkmont Poetry Contest were from Hart or Ballou. As much as the kids need poetry, it seems, so does poetry need the kids at Hart.
There was a knot of students waiting by the locked door of the writing club room by the time Schwalb and King arrived at 3 p.m. When everyone was settled, King assigned readers for the day’s poem, an ode to urban summers called “The Block Hydrant,” by Bryan C. Murray. “From this shopping cart, I sell icicles: / to overheated jungle-gymers / who don’t know “please” / just Gimme a ice …”
The readers delivered the stanzas at a clip. A boy named Rashad Rosenboro made a show of ignoring them, putting on a pair of headphones and fiddling with an electronic device. By the time King assigned the afternoon’s work, a poem on “dealing with the heat,” Rashad had entered into a silent, almost invisible battle with another boy, Joshua Dunsmore, who was sitting next to him.
Schwalb read a poem by one of the students, Aaron Williams, about going for a swim, titled “The Burning.” “The heat has mugged my joy,” it concluded. “I feel lightheaded, navigate / to the promised land. / Now I am set adrift.” Aaron covered his face with his backpack while she read.
Schwalb exclaimed when she had finished. “Aaron, it’s like coming in first in the thousand meter!”
“I run the sixteen-hundred,” Aaron said.