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Poetry to the People

Get Lit brings literary empowerment to MUSE Conference



As a teenager, Diane Lane couldn't be bothered with poetry. Despite the passion her teachers tried to impart, she just couldn't get into poems about flora and fauna, written by dead white dudes.

"I didn't give a hoot about flora," Lane tells the Source. "I was from New Jersey. So I cared about the height of my hair. And who I was socially. And where I was going in the world. There weren't any poems about things like that."

It wasn't until she was a young adult that she discovered poetry that spoke to her—Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass first broke the ice—and came to recognize poetry's power, expressiveness, and accessibility.

Today, she shares that transformative force with youth through Get Lit-Words Ignite, a nonprofit program that offers poetry-based literacy curriculum as well as opportunities for students to perform both classical poetry and their original responses.

Lane's innovative curriculum has been selected by President Obama's TurnAround Arts Committee to be placed in California's lowest performing elementary schools and earned her the Presidential Lifetime Volunteer Service Award.

She brings her inspirational approach to youth empowerment to Bend for the 2015 MUSE Conference, where she will speak on the power of art to empower youth, and help lead a poetry workshop for teens.

Source Weekly: Why is teen literacy especially important for girls/young women?

Diane Lane: Spoken word poetry gives girls the opportunity to express the parts of themselves they don't usually reveal. The writing of a poem is not finished until you feel sated and spent. You only get to that place by telling the deepest truth you can tell. That truth can be funny, it can be clever, it can be nuanced and hidden, or even scholarly, but it is not superficial or pat or untrue. Interesting art requires some kind of honesty. Girls live in a world where they are encouraged to "cover up" their acnes, scars, opinions, weight—and reveal, even flaunt, what has been deemed pleasing. It's liberating for girls to realize that they matter for a whole other set of criteria. And that their first obligation is to tell the truth to themselves. And then often they discover how their truth can move and liberate others. Teen literacy is important for girls because knowledge—about anything—brings confidence.

SW: What is the relationship between literacy and empowerment, and what role do you see Get Lit playing in that?

DL: When you know something, anything, you are empowered—filled with power. So again—it's really not about being "literate" as in "reading a lot." It's about knowing whatever you are passionate about deeply. One gift of Get Lit is that it doesn't require that people who are not inclined to read books to read and read and read. It just asks that you go deeply into whatever you do read. And I mean deep. You have to listen to poetry; you have to claim the poem that speaks to you—actually raise your hand and reach for it; you have to memorize it; and then you have to perform it. Learn about the person who wrote it. And then you have to respond to it by writing a poem of your own. This increases someone's confidence. Greatly. Enters them into a world that was heretofore restricted. Gives them a secret society. Makes them hungry for more. "A specialist in a particular brand of study." A scholar. 

SW: What impact—measured or anecdotal—do you see the program having on graduation rates?

DL: We always say, "Get Lit builds scholars not statistics." Most recently, one of our Get Lit Players, Walter Finnie, told his story of dropping out of high school and selling drugs before finding Get Lit and turning his life around. The Get Lit Curriculum introduced Walter to Langston Hughes. Walter learned that Langston attended Lincoln University, so Walter applied to Lincoln. He was accepted and today is a freshman on the honor roll. His poem, "Stand Clear," about his journey won first place in a national contest about the drop-out problem called "Raise UP." Ninety-five percent of our Get Lit Players go to college and over 70 percent with scholarships. 

SW: Oregon has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country. Do you think Get Lit would work in rural environments, as well as urban ones?

DL: Absolutely! It is currently being implemented near Bakersfield [California], which has the absolute lowest literacy rate in the nation. The magic all starts with "claiming" a poem. Poems are like medicine. You choose the right one that speaks to you and then through memorization, it does its work transforming and elevating you, and then your life. 

For people who struggle with reading, poems are short. They are not intimidating like a book. And just because you struggle to read, doesn't mean that you are not brilliant. That you are not insightful. That you are not struggling heroically with huge issues every single day. Poems are short, but they are deep. They give the mind and the heart and the soul something to chew on.

MUSE Women's Conference

March 6-8. Various locations.

$350 for full weekend pass; access to individual events starts at $10.

Register at museconference.org

About The Author

Erin Rook

Erin is the Source Weekly's Associate Editor. Before moving to Bend in 2013, Erin worked as a writer and editor for publications in Portland including PQ Monthly and Just Out. He has also written for the Willamette Week, El Hispanic News, Travel Portland, OUT City, Boston magazine and the Taunton Daily Gazette...

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