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An Interview with Mari Beltran from Street Poets Inc.
by Nova B. Rutherford

 

N. B. R: In your opinion, what makes a poet, a poet?

M. B: I donít think thereís much that makes anyone NOT a poet. When we go into a high school to start a new workshop, I always ask the students that are poets to raise their hands. At most, 4 or 5 will raise their hands, and the rest just sit there. Then I ask them who has ever written a poem in their life, or a letter to a friend, or a journal entry, or a song, or even just a thought down on paper, and they ALL raise their hands. And I say, ďSo, youíre all poets.Ē

Part of what we do as an organization is use poetry and the creative process as a way of digging deeper into our own wounds and experiences so that we can find value in those experiences.

Everyone we meet and work with is a poet, itís just a process of getting them to recognize that and put their thoughts and lives into words and onto paper. Itís a funny thing, because we often work with young guys who are aspiring rappers and MCís. Just the other day at an open-mic event, one guy got up and said to everyone: ďIím not a poet, but Iím a rapper.Ē And I thought, well, that makes you a poet.

Some people see a real distinction between the two, but I donít. If you write, you write. A quote I love says: ďHe who draws noble delights from sentiments of poetry is a true poet, though he has never written a line in all his life.Ē (George Sand). I believe that quote to be so true. We all know what it is to feel something that pinches deep in your gut, like when you love a song so much you play it on repeat for days, or find a book you love to the point that the spine of the book breaks from so much use.

I think the essence of that feeling is what makes a poet, a poet. When that feeling causes you to put pen to paper (or brush to canvas, eye to camera, body to song), even better.

N. B. R: When did you know that poetry was YOUR outlet? How often do you write?

M. B: Iíve kept a journal since I was about 12 or 13, so in that sense writing has always been an outlet for me. I started writing poetry later on in high school, and didnít really get into it until college and until I started coming around Street Poets, Inc. and listening to other peopleís poetry. I write as often as I can, probably several times a week if not daily.

N. B. R: Who are the Street Poets demographically? Is this the new face of poetry?

M. B: Street Poets, Inc. is a non-profit organization that works primarily in high schools and juvenile detention centers. That makes our demographics students and other youth around the ages of 13-25, and Street Poets in particular generally works with more males than female, although recently this demographic has been changing and weíve been getting more girls. Because we work with students from inner city public schools and juvenile detention centers, we work mostly with ďat-riskĒ youth, or youth walking a life sometimes dangerously on the edge of gang-life, drug addictions, violence, and other harsh realities.

The poetry that comes out of our workshops is life-changing poetry that is written by students all in a different place of dealing with and healing their own lives and wounds.

Street Poets uses poetry writing as a way to connect personal wounds to deeper cultural wounds, and then to work through these wounds to personal and then cultural transformation. So in many ways it goes far beyond poetry, and into community building and friendships.

So yes, yes, yes, this is the new face of poetry. Itís also bringing back the not-so-new face of activism through poetry and art; our youth are using their poetry and words to create dialogue around issues that relate to their own lives, like racism, violence, drugs, education, family, and love.

N. B. R: What methods do you use to educate participants on the fundamentals of poetry?

M. B: We want our students to want to write, to feel eager to participate and share their stories, and to always feel engaged. The pressure is less on rhyme scheme and meters, and more on self-reflection and healing. In our workshops, we share poetry, usually as an invocation. In this way, we introduce the students to a variety of writers and writing styles, and anything goes Ė from Langston to Hafiz to a friendís neighbor.

One thing we always encourage in writing is a basic rule that always goes: Show, donít tell. Simply put, if something is red, what kind of red? Blood red? Rusty red? And we love metaphors.

N. B. R: How has poetry changed the lives of those involved with Street Poets?

M. B: The youth that become involved with Street Poets find ways to become more involved with themselves. Because the writing we do is so focused on personal experience and storytelling, our youth find their own voice every time they write and share a poem.

I think of it as a way of validating the experiences that we all go through. You can write about anything, and then when you share it, it becomes real for the rest of us. Youíve been a witness to your own life and to these experiences, and now you are documenting them, maybe for you, maybe for me or someone else, but now that itís been put down on paper we can talk about it. A lot of our youth share stories that are hard to share, and that deal with difficult issues, like abuse or abandonment. So the writing becomes more than just sharing a story, but learning how to confront the feelings that come up around those stories, and how to create a community that supports one another and recognizes some part of ourselves in the other.

The youth that come through Street Poets find a huge support system in place. What we do as an organization is hold space, which is maybe an ambiguous concept, but really something that feels necessary in our society where people tend to grow up without ever learning what it means or how to hold space. By that, I mean we are a place that accepts the students that walk through our doors, messy, bloody wounds and all.

N. B. R: Can you share an experience?

M. B: The experiences are countless. Two years ago, Street Poets was invited to take part in a youth program up in Seattle. We were able to bring two youth with us to Seattle for a week, trip paid in full. It was the first time that both had traveled outside of California, and it opened up doors for both, who have gone on to become co-facilitators with us when we go into high schools and camps.

N. B. R: What can your fellow poets do to support this movement?

M. B: Street Poets is a non-profit organization, so we benefit from all the support we can get in the work we do. The best support we get comes from the community and at all levels. We hope that people will want to be in touch with us so they can know about our community open-mics and other events and workshops, and take part in them. Fellow poets are always welcome to come in and share their poetry and meet the youth we work with.

Add your voice to the mix. Thatís always the best support you can give yourself and your community. Whatever you live through, write about it, read about it, talk about it, and keep creating circles where people can come together and be. Like Salman Rushdie says, ďA poetís work is to name the un-nameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.Ē

N. B. R: If there is a particular piece you want to share, please feel free to
include it.


M. B:
I wrestle with the air as my wings push forward,
Resisting gravity.
Every part of me disagrees with a free fall,
I was called here to take flight,
To pull the sun out into a moonless night so that
You could watch me weave my way through clouds,
Sewing up the tears in the sky.
Once white,
My wings burned black from the sorrow
Of watching their hearts turn cold.
Iím a reflection of all those lost souls that
Disconnected from spirit.
I can hear it calling them to come back.
Each death is a new chance to retell their stories
And find glory in everything.
A radiant beauty glows at the inner core of your being
And Iím drawn to it,
Committed to your pilgrimage and bringing you home.
The place that birthed your dreams
Can tighten the seams where your scars are cracking,
Loosened from the wear and tear of being
Pulled downstream when you didnít expect it.
Iím discovering you in a new way,
Shape-shifting you back to your bare bones so you can see
That youíve outgrown your vanity.
Your shadow self can be free once you let the truth
Crawl out, naked and on its knees.
Iím protecting prophecies thrown at me in the strong wind,
You wonít crumple when I take flight again.
Like me, you can transcend your experience on earth,
Climb back into the dark womb of the universe and feel it
Pulsate as it waits to give birth to the bright raven.
Everything sacred is wrapped in my feathers,
Your memories are buried in my wings,
And I carry them, further than thought,
Getting lost in the songs that I sing.

 


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