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The Poetry of Detroit

I have written many words over the past year. Today, I will be (largely) silent.

Instead, I bring you the poetry of two Detroiters: Myriha Burton and William T. Langford, the winners of the 2010 Detroit Jazz Fest Poetry Slam. I offered to host their words on the blog, and I'd like to live up to that promise.

These two extraordinary poets are to be celebrated. Read their words aloud if you would – an old professor taught me that trick…Poetry isn't for the eyes. It is for the ears.

Background: The Jazz Fest presented the “Rhythm, Roots & Rhyme” event with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and InsideOut Literary Arts Project. The competition had youth and adult sessions. This was the first such event, and it wasn't easy to win.

Both poets are alumni of InsideOut's Citywide Poets — Burton in 2010 and Langford in 2007.

InsideOut Literary Arts Project places professional writers in Detroit classrooms to expose youth to the literary arts, publish their work and improve school performance. As an InsideOut student at Cass Technical High School, Will Langford edited his school's literary journal. He also joined InsideOut's Citywide Poets, an after-school club of Detroit teens who work on the craft of writing with adult poetry mentors and perform their work in many community venues. Through CWP, Langford represented Detroit in the Brave New Voices National Youth Poetry Slam and took state and national awards for his poetry.

Will attributes much of his development as a poet to IO. “InsideOut is a story that doesn't get told. You get exposure to poetic form. That's important for young poets. You're taught a reverence for classics while being encouraged to embrace contemporary art. I give it a lot of credit for helping me to become a whole artist.”

More on Mr. Langford: Born and bred in Detroit City, William T. Langford first fell in love with the poetry of Langston Hughes and Cluade McKay. His love for SLAM poetry came soon after. Once the high school years at Detroit's Cash Tech were over, William headed to Michigan State University, where he discovered a lack of a program tailored specifically to SLAM poetry. Hence, the founding of the MSU Slam Poetry Team. Langford is currently a senior-level English major, with specializations in communication and sociology. He will attend graduate school in the fall in a literary studies program. He is looking to Yale, Princeton, and Columbia, among others for his graduate studies.

More on Ms. Burton: Bred on the east side of Detroit, Burton's elementary and high school education was through the Detroit Public School system and her middle school years were spent at a charter school. During Myriha's 10th grade year, the best thing possible happened to her; she joined an after school, community service based program called Teen H.Y.P.E. At Teen H.Y.P.E, Myriha wrote her first of many poems for a play in one of their projects. During that same year, Myriha hit the youth poetry scene with a bang. She landed a spot on the 2008 Detroit Youth Slam Team to represent her city at the national youth poetry slam better known as Brave New Voices.

Myriha went on to join Citywide Poets to help her hone her creativity. She was given the opportunity to work with award winning writers from all over. She credits both organizations for the development of the person she is today. Citywide helped with the technical and business part of her growth and Teen H.Y.P.E has been the family outside of her home that many kids from the inner city need to stay out of trouble.

During Burton's senior year of high school, she sought out to be a member of the most recognized urban arts collective at the University of Wisconsin-Madison called First Wave. This collective offers a full-tuition scholarship for all four years and it's based around building an artistic community on campus. It was perfect for what Myriha wanted to do, which was pursue arts, and her financial situation, which was rough. Though it's still tough financially and being 430 miles from everything she's ever known to call home, she's happy for her decision to attend school out of state (even if it's Wisconsin).


Poets and Men

William T. Langford IV

There are two types of people

Poets and men

Those who realize that the

Revolution will not be televised

And those who think they're watching it unfold

Like they folded it up in our city for ABC*

Who can't see that on February 6th (200)

Our homeless population

Scattered like roaches when the lights came on

From the rug we swept them under

Thinking that for one night they might forget

That it's cold outside in The D'

The only city with as many churches as liquor stores

As many priests as whores

As many beauty supplies per block

Promising afro-sheen* dreams

And synthetic locks

As there are pregnant teens on my block

There are poets and there are men

Those that watch “Action News

And those that say, “That's the news!”

Reading prophesy from graffiti

Tattooed on brick walls

Political poets, gone religious asking

“Where's my God went?”

Def Poets* and men, deaf to the sound

Of crack vials crushing beneath gym shoes

Bland to the taste of the sugar-coated-

What poets know is agent orange


Society perpetuating

Future crack fiend hoop dreams

There are poets and there are men

Those who watched “Hustle and Flow

And thought they knew something bout pimpin.

And those that added hustle to their flow

Poets, pimping the pen

Purging this placid plane

For the perfect verse

Those that blame this acid rain on barometric pressure

And those that know

This rain is

Sweat from the backs of

Blood from the knuckles of

The unconsciously conscious

Knowing that

The world is cold

And grow old

On stories told of yesteryear

There are poets… and there are men

Those that see broken souls

Beggin' for a quarter more in the Cass Corridor

And those that see limbs and torsos and feet

That used-to pop-and-lock to a 70's hip-hop beat

Those that look up to the

Give me the people and free my soul….I love rock and roll

Rock stars

And those that know

Here, the dope boys are the rock stars.

There are the socially adept & the socially inept

The sympathetic, the apathetic and

The past pathetic

That steal souls with contracts and dotted lines

Contract our flow (constrict our voice) restrict our verse

Till we really are DEAF poets

Till we rock poems and metaphors at the top

Of our lungs

That can't be heard

That all serve the same purpose

To differentiate between these lives

And end with these lines:

There are poets,

And there are men



Myriha Burton

Every morning I walk my

Nephew to school.

I stay two steps behind him

Because nobody else seems

To have his back.

I've heard kids on the

Playground tease him about

Having his auntie fight

His battles,

But since teething rings

And baby rattles,

I'm all he's had.

Friendly fire-

No smiling bullets,

Is what got a hold

Of my brother,

His dad.

His mother  works  16 hours,

Sleeps 8,

But needs 24 hour rehab

Because every since that

Incident that took my

Nephew's pops

She can't sleep at night.

So she pops O.C's and Vike's

Hoping that it'll help her


That the same country

Her husband left to fight for

Left three shells by his slain body.

My nephew's name is Robe'

And I'm the most influential

Figure in his life.

Every morning I wake up

Baring the responsibility

To teach him wrong

From right.

Because the last thing I want

Is for my nephew to become a number.

Like the 1/7 people in Detroit

that's illiterate,

the 3/5 with an STD

or the 4 digits printed on a toe tag.

I tell him to not get comfortable

With the number in

His age because

Even that's temporary.

I try to distract him with

Childish games such as

Zing zing zing like a washing machine

To keep his innocence clean.

I don't let him play with water guns

Because I don't  want him

Familiar with the feeling

Of clips in his palms,

Triggers on his fingers,

And pointing barrels at targets.

Some people may call me over protective

But this world just hasn't done

An adequate job at protecting.

They say children are the future?

Well that's synonymous with saying

That the future is dead.

Because anytime back in Detroit

a boy can be executed

In his own front yard by

His dad,

And receive nothing more

Than a seven line newspaper article,

And a closed casket funeral,

There's something fucked up.

And I feel like I haven't done enough

Because all I could give Jamar Pinkney Jr.

Was a haiku-

The great will die young

But there story will live on

With them forever.

However, I don't want my nephew

To be one of those,

“hey do you remember that kid that…”,

Urban myths .

I'm trying to mold him into

One of those,

“hey, did you see that kid just…”,


It's a damn shame that my inspiration

For writing this piece is rooted

From a conversation.

I said “Robe',

What do you want to be when

You grow up?”

He didn't say that he wanted to be

A doctor,

A actor,

Or a lawyer,

Some Tom Sawyer writer,

Or afire fighter.

Hell I would've been fine

If he would've told me he wanted

To be a puppy.

At least then would

He be expecting a great change

From himself.

My nephew looked at me

And said,

“Auntie Riya,

When I grow up,

I just want to be alive.”

The only thing more startling

Than his response

Was its validity.

So yea,

Every morning I walk my

Nephew to school.

And I stay two steps behind him

Hoping that somebody else

Will join me on this journey

So I won't be the only one

Who has




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