InsideOut Literary Arts Project and the poetics of abundance

Recently, one of the writers teaching for InsideOut Literary Arts (iO) shared Kandinsky with second graders. It was more of a dialogue than a lesson, as the students were asked to write back to Kandinsky, to engage his painting through language.  For over 20 years, iO, the largest literary nonprofit in Detroit, has been bringing writers into K-12 schools to lead weekly writing workshops. At the end of the academic year, iO publishes an anthology of student writing for each participating school, complete with a book launch and reading. With approximately 30 schools and 4,700 students participating in the program, most of them in the Detroit Public Schools system, iO stays busy.

The program was founded by Terry Blackhawk, a poet and former classroom teacher. Terry tells me that she discovered poetry in her mid-40s, a transformative event that she wanted to share with her students. She began by inviting writers to her own classes, and saw how the experience of working with authors shaped and inspired her students. Through grants from the Detroit Arts Council and other local funders, Terry’s project grew in reputation and size. Soon after, Terry was approached by an alumnus of the school, who offered to fund the program’s expansion across Detroit.

iO cultivates writer-teachers as well as students. The program has supported writers early in their career, many of whom have gone on to achieve national recognition — the list includes Jamaal May, francine j. harris, and Matthew Olzmann. iO also collaborates with the University of Michigan; each year, four students in the Helen Zell Writers’ Program are granted stipends to teach for InsideOut.

Beyond the classroom, iO is involved with a number of community projects. They have developed writing centers in their program schools, sponsor Citywide Poets, a youth performance troupe, have launched a new journal for writers under the age of 21 entitled undr_scr review, and are currently planning a yearlong project, funded by Knight Arts in Detroit, exploring the relationship between poetry and techno music. In the coming months, Wayne State University Press will be publishing To Light a Fire: 20 Years with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project, an anthology of essays by writers who have worked in iO classrooms. As Terry tells me, iO doesn’t subscribe to a “deficit-based approach” to learning, reading, and writing. Their poetic economy is one of abundance, not scarcity.