By Karen Price
David Jones was named Philadelphia’s third Youth Poet Laureate as a 17-year-old in 2015, and today he continues to share his love of poetry with others.
He recently helped students learn the art of haiku – and they’ll have the chance to see the poems they wrote appear like magic on the streets of the city – through PA Humanities’ new Rain Poetry initiative as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
Rain Poetry is a hands-on poetry activity facilitated by local poets and Youth Poets Laureate through a series of workshops in local schools for children in grades one through five. Inspired by the theme, “What helps you keep growing?” the students learn haiku and write their own poems. Selected poems will be installed in public spaces throughout Philadelphia this spring and summer by installation and fabrication consultant Tiny WPA with a special rain-activated solution. All it takes is a splash of water to watch them sprout.
The first installation will be revealed with a special public celebration from 10 to 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 20 at Vernon Park in Germantown. Everyone is welcome!
David led six workshops, including one at Samuel Powel Elementary School in West Philadelphia, two at Emlen Elementary School in Germantown/Mt. Airy and three at Al Aqsa Islamic Academy in South Kensington. PA Humanities recently caught up with David to learn more about his experience with the project.
Q: How did you first become interested in poetry? What was your introduction?
DJ: My introduction to poetry starts with my introduction to music. Growing up, I always loved music. Went to church just about every Sunday, played the drums in church when I was younger, played a little keyboard, and then at one point I was a really big fan of hip-hop so I started writing my own songs when I was in middle school. I went to a private Christian school so I wrote Christian hip-hop, Christian rap. Then in high school, I met this guy named Steve Clark who came in and introduced us to what at the time was called the Philly Youth Poetry Movement. They had a slam league for high schools, now known as just the Philly Slam League. So that was my real introduction to poetry. Of course I had read poems before – my favorite poem to talk about is Langston Hughes’ Harlem – but what really took me over the threshold was spoken word. And I got introduced to that when I was about 15 or 16.
Q: What were some of the things you did as Youth Poet Laureate?
DJ: Anytime anybody asks you to come read somewhere you do it if you can, and then you kind of carve your own path. Making space for poetry and introducing it to children was a desire I had while I was Youth Poet Laureate because it felt very meaningful. Being in front of a group of students was always the most empowering thing for me because I think that was something I couldn’t do on my own, just as David.
Q: What influence did being Youth Poet Laureate have on your life?
DJ: It was almost 10 years ago and people still contact me to do things in regards to that and they hold that title in high regard. Through that door other things came up. I started coaching some of the kids that I went to high school with, helping them write and helping them perform, and then doing workshops at colleges and performing a lot. But I really started stepping into the teaching role toward the end of last year when I did my first workshop with Temple’s Babel (Poetry Collective), and then I did a couple one-off creative writing classes for high school students. So this is kind of a pivot for me from performer to teacher, or maybe it’s just me adding a new tool to my toolkit. That’s how we got from poetry at 16 to poetry workshop facilitator at 25.
Q: What made you want to get involved with Rain Poetry?
DJ: Yolanda (Wisher, former Philadelphia Poet Laureate and Rain Poetry poet mentor) reached out and I’m not going to say no to Yolanda. The project was well-detailed and I liked the end goal of it. And also, because I’d never had to develop a curriculum before I saw it as a way to challenge myself and stretch that muscle. It was challenging for me… And I got to work with students and know that this might be the gateway to some second grader or third grader finding their voice. I couldn’t say no to that.
Q: Had you done much work with haikus in the past?
DJ: My most involved experience with haikus was when I was doing slam a lot. When they would have the big shows, the grand finals, there were three rounds and you had to perform three poems – a three-minute poem, a 90-second poem and a haiku. So in that way I was sort of practiced at writing haikus because for that I would write 10 a day.
Q: What was it like facilitating the workshops?
DJ: With some students, I had to teach syllables. Some of them hadn’t worked with syllables before, depending on the school or the age. I also broke it down by counting things out, or suggested maybe you can take one thought and span it across three lines. The form actually requires a lot of discipline, and I admire the students who tried because it’s hard, especially when you don’t think you have a lot to say. Working with the theme, I had to kind of push the students to push past what they could grab first. Talking about growth, of course I got a lot of poems about plants so I had to ask them, what other things grow? How do you grow? Do you grow this way? Do you grow that way?
Q: In addition to helping the students realize they did have something to say, what else do you think they took from the experience?
DJ: One essential piece of the workshop was we asked them how the workshop made them feel and we had them write those words on the same paper they wrote their poems. The kids would say, ‘I felt calmer,’ or ‘I felt relaxed.’ It generated a lot of positive feelings. Not just like, ‘This was cool,’ but ‘I feel calmer, relaxed, more creative.’ I was like OK, we’re getting somewhere.
Q: How about you? What did you learn from the experience?
DJ: In terms of just teaching, always have a plan, and also be prepared for that plan to go out the window. And, also, cater the content in a way that’s relevant to students’ experiences. I know sometimes at first I felt like I was trying to get a certain type of content out of the students or having them write a certain way, but I quickly learned to let them be authentic about what they want to write about and not try to narrow their voices. Form follows function, as they say, so I think the function of what kids have to say is prioritized over the form of haiku. They may not all be the exact 5-7-5 form, but that’s OK because we care more about what they have to say than how they said it.
Q: What are you most excited about for this project as it goes forth into the city?
DJ: My favorite part is that the poems will be installed in neighborhoods as opposed to just downtown and out of the reach of the average neighborhood person. A lot of people go downtown, but there are also a lot of people who don’t have a reason to go downtown and might miss out on this. Some of the work that the kids did is going to show up in their own neighborhood and that I’m very pleased with. That’s what I’m looking forward to most, is kids in Kensington seeing their own words in Kensington. Kids in Germantown seeing their words in Germantown, as opposed to being in a place they may never see.
Rain Poetry transforms everyday spaces into opportunities to engage with the humanities — and fosters learning, conversation, and community stewardship along the way. Throughout the next year, PA Humanities will be expanding Rain Poetry to cities throughout Pennsylvania. Stay tuned to learn when and where you’ll be able to see it “rain poetry” near you!