On March 1, I attended the grand finale of the week-long “Mountain of Words” Write-A-Thon, the group's first fundraiser as a nonprofit (newly designated as of December 2012), AWITS entertained and inspired with slam poetry, music, dance, and readings from area writers. Griffin Payne, UNCA graduate and a teaching artist with AWITS, started the evening off with an impromptu story, in which he declared his belief that storytelling has the power to rebuild community. Payne and another key figure of AWITS, Jonathon Santos, co-hosted the grand finale at the Dr. Wesley Grant Southside Center in the River Arts District, where more writing events are set to take stage in the coming months.
Santos believes that putting words to music allows people to redirect emotions like rage and fear into something beautiful, relieving the pressure and helping others in the process. Every Wednesday through the end of the school year, he leads a group called “Lyrics to Life” at Asheville Middle School, in which he is “Helping kids put their lives to words.”
To kick off the grand finale, Payne slammed a poem that was inspired by his work in Asheville City schools and tells of his love for students and his hope that they can find freedom within the lines of a blank page. Through writing, he says, young people are able to speak up to bullying, anger, sadness and all the other realities that they may encounter.
Just when Payne's poetry and Santos' pure soul sound had us on the edge of our seats, the dance group “Eternity” of the Urban Arts Institute took the stage and rocked us to our feet. This youth troupe performs all around Western North Carolina, including the “Celebration of Cultural Awareness Through the Arts” event at AB-Tech. Creative Director of UAI and AWITS board member Michael Hayes explained that together on stage, the elementary through high school dancers use movement to express the feelings and truths in life that can't be captured by words alone. I honestly can't do their performance justice with these computer keys. I still feel the current of dance, energizing me with their passion and cooperation to dive more fully into the present.
Before she shared her work, Aisha “Ms. Brown” Johnson thanked her students in the audience for coming out on a Friday night to hear this side of who she is. In her first performance in Asheville outside of the school setting, Johnson — a featured writer in the Write-A-Thon, AWITS board member, and teacher at Asheville High School — showed no fear while she poured out her poetry. Her love poem to music, one of her many passions, helped students understand what she meant when she said, “You don't have to be just one thing.” She wants students to leave her classroom knowing, “You are more than how the rest of the world sees you — and that if you find love and compassion for yourself you can do so much more for others.”
Middle schooler Nicolai Rolett took the stage courageously, unshielded by his notebook, and delivered a heartfelt poem of social justice that was poignantly wise. He asked our government to work “hand-in-hand with other nations” and touched on local inequality issues that he has observed in the Asheville community.
Another student poet, 16-year-old Shanita Jackson slammed a tribute poem to her grandmother, a warrior in her eyes. The youth board member of AWITS, she started performing her poetry in 7th grade. “My mother gave me a notebook to write in, and I felt like closing that notebook was sort of like closing my feelings in, and so I wrote. At first I didn't even know I was writing poetry, and then I got the chance to perform it — I didn't know if it was good. I remember reading one poem to my class [at the time] that I didn't even know had so much emotion for me, I wrote it at 2 a.m. and didn't even really think about what I was writing. Reading it out loud, by the end I was crying and the class was crying. To me there's nothing better than knowing that your words resonate with even one person in the room, that my words spoke to what they were feeling.”
What Asheville Writers in the Schools is doing is a key component of wellness for the youth in our community. Life moves fast, especially for children. Writing gives them a chance to gain their footing, to speak their truth without being talked over, rushed along or bullied into silence. Backed up by Santos' melodic chorus of “Take up your pen, and go in, share your story,” Payne conveyed in a poem that writing is a tool to “let what's in out.” It helps kids discover who they are.
AWITS story started a couple of years ago when Asheville writer Janet Hurley, inspired by the work of the Writers in Schools Alliance, decided that young people and families should have access to writing support and education whether or not they could afford camps and workshops. With two other local writing activists, Tamiko Ambrose Murray and Meggen Lyons, she co- founded AWITS. The trio say that the organization is truly a “cooperative,” since so many collaborating writers are integral to its success.
Around that time, Laura Boffa, a children's book writer and Spanish teacher at Azalea Mountain School, got on board with Hurley's True-Ink writing camps, teaching her first camp in the summer 2011. Boffa believes that through writing, “Kids can express humor, imagination, and deep personal beliefs and find that these things are actually valued.” Boffa adds that she is “fortunate to be part of the process of AWITS developing.”
One way AWITS is achieving its goals is through a year-long residency program devoted to family literacy and writing at Ira B. Jones Elementary. There, a writer visits classrooms, and families can sign-up to write together at Southside Center. As programming expands, a big priority is to establish more resident writers in public school classrooms. Hurley says that she has seen so much healing through writing, for children and adults alike, and for the families. The experience often allows parents and children to communicate about tough issues that they may not be able to bring up any other way.
Kevin Bringman, author of the novel, Borderline, drove from Greenville, S.C., to read from his piece, “The Letter,” in which he highlighted individual strength and the power of hope. Bringman wrote to raise money for AWITS during the weeklong Write-A-Thon in which numerous “Write-Ins” were held at local cafe's. Online alone, more than 80 donors pledged to sponsor participating writers, and more community members donated in person.
I saddled up with the AWITS crowd at a write-in at Malaprop's last weekend. It was amazing to feel the energy of people supporting each other in this intimate form of expression that has the power to change reader and writer alike.
If you've already fallen in love with writing, you might feel almost overwhelmed by the desire to write at the end of a poetry slam. If you are a reader, a musician, a dancer, a singer, a communicator or someone who breathes, you've most likely experienced the power that creative expression has to make us feel more heard, held and whole. So please get involved and help empower the growing minds in our community. For young and old, “page” or slam-poet, writing is a form of expression that all people should have access to. The passion of the brave individuals who took the stage, literally pulsing with the current of their words, is a testament to its transformative power. So whatever your creative expression may be, find what makes you come alive and share that energy with our community!
To find out more about programs through AWITS and upcoming events, visit http://www.ashevillewritersintheschools.org/ or search on Facebook: Asheville Writersin theschools (honor the funny spacing) for their page (make sure to “Friend” or “Like” them on Facebook if you like them in real life).
You can contribute to the movement by making a financial donation through their website. AWITS is also in need of marketing help and cost-conscious space to house operations. Contact Janet Hurley directly at email@example.com.
Katie Souris is an yoga instructor and health advocate.