Sacred Woman: The Generations Continue

It's the Saturday before Mother's Day, 2014, and I am listening for happily the third or fourth time to iO's Arzelia Williams interview and poem "Sacred Mother" on WDET, Detroit's NPR affiliate, and I'm thinking about the interconnected web, the village, indeed the entire ecosystem that came together around this student and her poem. You can read Arzelia's poem and hear her interview here.

Here's Arzelia just 48 hours before, at the Detroit School of Arts high school where she is a junior, posing next to one of over a dozen classic cars on display at the school for Thursday's multi-arts extravaganza "Shakespeare on Wheels," the brainchild of DPS art teacher extraordinaire John Wood.

Photo credit: Terry Blackhawk

Perhaps Arzelia's smile here is a bit broader than usual since she had just been surprised by presentation of an award by Mono D'Angelo of the Poetry Society of Michigan. He had entered "Sacred Woman" in a national competition sponsored by the Poetry Society of America, where it took a top award, a first, Mono was proud to point out, for a student from Michigan.

"Shakespeare on Wheels" featured original music composed for the event, which was performed live by DSA's outstanding choir, car-themed poetry readings by iO poets Justin Rogers with a poem about his grandfather's Cadillac, and special guests, 7th graders Quintin Pope, Pharez Montgomery, and Eddie Stewart from Marcus Garvey Academy performing "Dream Car," and three Shakespearean themed videos produced by students in Mr. Wood's animation classes. My personal favorite -- the spooky, tingly "Double Double," based on the witches' song from Macbeth -- was one of three DSA entries to take top awards in the DAFT (Digital Arts Film Teachers) statewide high school student film festival in April.

So how did millions of dollars worth of vintage autos end up on display at a Detroit public high school, staged no less by the same N.Y.C. professionals that bring us the Detroit Auto Show every year? I call that Mr. Wood's personal witchcraft. His wife, soprano Carol Ambrogio Wood, soloed with the choir. Her father, an antique car collector, volunteered his own car and enlisted others. A DSA event at the Piquette plant brought in the tech support. For over a year, John and DSA students, in collaboration with the University of Michigan's Vicki Haviland, have studied and performed Shakespeare's works, collaborated with educators from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, and -- thanks to Mr. Wood's unparalleled skills as a teacher of film and animation -- created prize-winning videos. There was not a student at the school who was not included in some way in this project.

I still marvel at this ecosystem. Against the backdrop of the dismal EAA and so much other disaster parading as education reform, the delicacy and strength of these relationships and the accomplishments of the students make me proud, proud to be an educator who came by the term honestly, and proud of our public schools. I'm also proud that iO has had a strong role to play in Arzelia's success. She has been a dedicated member of Citywide Poets for the last two years, meeting on Wednesdays after school at our Detroit Public Library site under the leadership of Ben Alfaro. Arzelia is super hardworking and reliable. She meets at the main library instead of at her school, where iOs CWP site is supported by the Detroit Public Schools Foundation, because of her work schedule. She maintains an enviable GPA, holds down a part time job, and puts in long hours preparing for CWP performances.

Here's another photo of her, this time performing for the Community Unitarian Universalists of Brighton the first Sunday in March kicking off a month-long observation of the Freedom Riders, by sharing "A Poem is not a Jukebox," which she and teammates Kennedie King and Terrell Morrow, created iO's as 2014 MLK poem, first performed January 15 at Orchestra Hall for Wayne State University's Annual Tribute Luncheon.

Photo credit: Terry Blackhawk

iO was not Arzelia's first poetry teacher. She came to poetry when she was three, surrounded by the love of hard working single women -- "sacred" mothers all. Her mother and grandmother worked, leaving Arzelia in the care of her great grandmother, "Momma" of the poem, who read poems to her and encouraged her to write and draw. Arzelia's family is the bedrock behind her, and I loved hearing her on WDET, reflecting on their traditions, their creativity and their joy in one another. As she said, the generations of poetry continue.

Families like hers are the bedrock of Detroit as well, and they give the lie again and again to urban stereotypes too tedious to mention. I'm grateful to WDET for lifting up the youth of Detroit this way so that bigots will see, in the words of Langston Hughes, "how beautiful (they are)/and be ashamed." Every voice lifted up lights one more candle of understanding against the darkness. I never want Arzelia to suffer the indignities so clearly spelled out here in "Citizen" by African American poet Claudia Rankine, but if she does, I want her to speak her truth with equal eloquence.