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Muskegon students emerge from poetry workshop empowered to tell their stories

Two students on stage
Bryce Huffman
Michigan Radio
Two students performing a group poem at Orchard View High School

A group of high school and middle school students in Muskegon have recently discovered the power of poetry. That’s thanks to an after school workshop led by three West Michigan poets.

The nine week workshop finished with a final showcase last month where the students performed the pieces they wrote.

Destiny and Norton are both juniors at Orchard View High School in Muskegon. This is the first time either of them has done a group poem before.

This is the first time Norton has ever been on stage.

“I come from a family of performers, but I was never really much of one,” he said. ”But I really think this has helped me with performing and speaking in front of people.”

He’s not alone in that.

Many of the high school and middle school students who took the workshop had never been on stage before.

Students at desks writing
Credit Bryce Huffman / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Students writing during the wokshop

Andrew Vandenberg – or Mr. Vandy as his students call him – is an English teacher at Orchard View High School.

He was happy to see his students get comfortable talking about things that are uncomfortable.

“They were not only able to feel their own power or be empowered but also share what they have and share what they’re made of in a way that’s different for them on a regular basis,” Vandenberg said.

The Diatribe is the nonprofit group from Grand Rapids who ran the workshop. It was first brought into Orchard View so students had something positive to see and be a part of in their community.

The school felt it was important to combat the negative press attention Muskegon has been getting for years.

Rachel Gleason is one of the poets in the Diatribe. She says this was one of her favorite student showcases.

“You could tell how much it mattered to them and see their passion all the way through, from the beginning to tonight,” Gleason said.

She tips her hat to anyone who gets on stage, especially people who aren’t very vocal to begin with.

Rachel Gleason helping student
Credit Bryce Huffman / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Rachel Gleason working with one of the students on their poem

Some of the students in the workshop said they would have never given poetry a chance if not for The Diatribe. One such student was senior Christian Burns.

Christian had never written poetry before the workshop, so he stuck to writing what he was emotional about, the death of his granddad.

“Society says men don’t cry, so I let my ugliness out behind closed doors,” he said in his poem, “those doors allow me to mourn, although those same ones trap me inside my own mind.”

Christian says he had to think back to when he first learned the news about his grandad to get the poem out.

“I think you have to put yourself in those shoes to be able to put it on paper. If I didn’t put myself in those shoes, that poem wouldn’t have been nearly as meaningful as it was,” he said

Christian graduated earlier this month, but he says he will continue to write.

As for the rest of the students, Destiny and Norton have already talked to their principal and a few teachers about starting their own poetry club.

“I’ll put posters and flyers up so next year it’ll be like, ‘Hey, poetry club, come at it.’ It’ll probably be just like an hour and a half after school. We’re just going to do whatever and get our stories out,” Destiny said.

Destiny and Norton both look to keep performing. If you’re lucky enough to catch them at the same open mic or showcase, you may get to see them do their first ever group poem.

“Two opposites can create something beautiful. With the stories we all have to tell, the person next to you could have bored the same pain. So see through their eyes,” they said together at the end of their poem.

The Diatribe on stage with students
Credit Bryce Huffman / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The Diatribe on stage with students at the final showcase

If you want to see some students from the workshop perform, they were invited to the Diatribe’s Summer Pop-up Event at Outside Coffee Company in Grand Rapids this August.

And some will get the chance to share a stage with renowned poets Siaara Freeman and Andrea Gibson at the Diatribe’s showcase at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids this October.

Bryce Huffman was Michigan Radio’s West Michigan Reporter and host of Same Same Different. He is currently a reporter for Bridge Detroit.
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