Sharrif Simmons (right) developed "Poet's Corner" to encourage students to find their voices and express their ideas to their peers and their communities. Photo courtesy ArtPla
For the past five years, Birmingham-based spoken-word artist Sharrif Simmons has run a program called “Poet’s Corner” in which he has gone into a dozen local public and private schools and convinced hundreds of students to write thousands of rhymes—and yet he will tell you he doesn’t really teach poetry.
“I create the condition for poetry to exist and be performed,” Simmons says. “I believe I succeed by using encouragement as my primary tool.”
Simmons is a teaching artist for ArtPlay, a new education and outreach initiative of UAB’s Alys Robinson Stephens Performing Arts Center, and the complete title of his program is “The Poet’s Corner: Going from the Page to the Stage.” Designed for students in grades 5-12, “Poet’s Corner” is a six-week workshop that introduces participants to the rich history of oral tradition and the intersecting lines that connect it to contemporary forms of expression such as hip-hop, rap, and rhythm & blues. Simmons’s students listen and learn and then write their own rhymes and dare to speak out loud. In other words, they become poets.
“There are, of course, universal challenges and insecurities innate to a project like this,” Simmons says. “But I’ve found that students who are more extraverted inspire the introverts, allowing them to overcome any stage fright and fully participate.”
To prepare students for these creative endeavors, Simmons performs his own music and spoken-word poetry in the classroom, and has students read and listen to works by historic and contemporary poets. To date, he has taken “Poet’s Corner” to Barrett, Hemphill, Simmons, Lewis, and EPIC elementary schools; West End, Wenonah, Huffman, and Homewood high schools; and the Cornerstone Schools.
The success of the program in each school, Simmons says, depends a lot on teacher involvement. “It makes a big difference in how students open up to the experience,” he says. “Almost always, the more involved the teachers are, the more effective the program is.”
Students spend the first half-hour of the workshop period “going to the page”—writing down poetic ideas and thoughts based on prompts that Simmons provides. Then, it’s “to-the-stage” time, when all of the students are invited to share their work with the group.
“Some students are hesitant at first, but over the course of the six-week program, I’ve had 100 percent participation,” Simmons says. “As the sessions unfold, they begin to see the value of being creative and speaking publicly. Students—and their teachers, for that matter—get to know each other in ways that they rarely expect, and there is an innate value in that exchange.”
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Sharrif Simmons discusses the Poet's Corner program in this video.
Talking It Out
Spoken-word poetry has a history that stretches back for centuries, even millennia, Simmons says. He works to show his students the connection between poetry’s oral traditions and the word-rhythms of contemporary hip-hop and rap. He emphasizes oral tradition because, he says, the sound of the human voice is something he knows his students can freely and consistently have access to.
“In the age of Facebook, text messages, and e-mails, we run the risk of losing a very basic skill—the ability to hear the emotion and feeling in our voices,” Simmons says. “The oral tradition celebrates that process. I try to convey—through their poems—why that’s important.”
Some students start the workshop already enthusiastic about creative expression, but others, Simmons says, find their voices more gradually.
“My students spend most of their days having to absorb information and conform to the rules of the world around them,” he says. “Poetry allows for dialogue rather than monologue. It empowers students to speak back, use their voices, and define their worlds for themselves.”
Key of Life
|Click here to listen to a clip from the CD Poems in the Key of Life.|
Some of Simmons’s top students are now recording artists in their own right. Inspired by Stevie Wonder’s classic album Songs in the Key of Life, Simmons paired student-poets with student-musicians from the Birmingham-based Neo Jazz Collective this spring in order to set their work to music. The resulting CD, Poems in the Key of Life, was released on March 26, 2011, with live performances at UAB’s Alys Stephens Center. Poems features eight tracks of original poetry composed and performed by “Poet’s Corner” students and members of the Neo Jazz Collective, which is open to student musicians ages 13 to 20.
“The Neo Jazz Collective is a perfect fit for the program,” Simmons says. “I thought the pure honesty and courage displayed by the students and musicians during the live performance was incredible.”
Echoes Around the World
Simmons would like to see “Poet’s Corner” expand into more local schools and even develop a global outreach program. He says he is inspired to continue growing the program in part because he has learned almost as much as he has taught.
“The Poet’s Corner has renewed my faith in the oral tradition and my belief in the brightness of our future,” Simmons says. “Over time, I’ve encountered truly gifted students that have inspired me, and I’ve discovered a lot about myself also. I’ve come to realize and appreciate my patience and passion for great writing and for encouraging others to do their best at all times.”
—By Glenny Brock