A poetry book review by Gary Lawless

Every person has a story, and every person has a story worth telling.

Since 2004, Portland’s Telling Room has been helping young people share their stories and enriching the lives of a wide circle of tellers and listeners. The Telling Room began in Portland with the idea that the power of story could change a community for the better. Starting out with a small group of students who were from immigrant or recent refugee families, the Telling Room now offers programs serving more than 3,500 students from over 75 towns in Maine. Many voices. Many rich, diverse stories of the many ways to be human in this world.

The Telling Room has published an anthology each year, as well as numerous chapbooks, collections, novels, and multimedia projects. This year they have published A New Land: 30 Groundbreaking Poems by Youth Poets, a sort of “greatest hits” of poems from the last 15 years of the program (but then, every work produced through this program is a greatest hit, a treasure, a gift to the wider community).

Many readers of Amjambo Africa may hear echoes of their own stories as they read through the collection.

Here is a section from a poem called “Inside the Life I Knew” by Clautel Buba, originally from Cameroon:

My life by the gray soil banks
of the Abubaca was inside the life I knew.
But we were like animals living in the zoo.
Animals who were born there.
The food they eat is the only food they know.
They don’t know there’s a whole forest out there

Clautel Buba with Molly McGrath

where they can eat as much as they want
do whatever they want to do
go anyplace they want to go
and be free.

And here is a section from the poem “Drop of Melanin and Blood” by
Benedita Zalabantu:

To teach someone something about self-love
you got to start with yourself.
Your skin is not a dirty shirt that needs to be washed

Benedita Zalabantu

like yesterday’s shirt.
Your skin is like hot chocolate that warms winter nights.

Like rings around tree stumps, you have a history
attached to your melanin.
Never let the glaring whiteness blind you
from the beauty you are.
Dark as the night sky,
constellations are tucked neatly underneath your bones.
You know what?
When they call you dark as the night,
tell them without you the stars wouldn’t have anything to shine for.
Perfection was not your destination,
dark girl, it was your starting point.
“Some say the blacker the berry the sweeter the juice,
I say the darker the flesh, the longer the roots.”

The poems are not windows on other worlds, they are doorways to walk through, into – yes – new lands. The wonderful poets in A New Land: 30 Groundbreaking Poems by Youth Poets share their worlds with us, and in doing so make our worlds larger, richer, more diverse, more informed, more human. Reading these poems will put you on a path to citizenship of the heart.
The book is beautifully strengthened with artwork throughout, by Alicia Brillant. Their poem “Astriferous” ends the collection, closing with the quote:

“It’s good to see you, old friend.
How about we speak again?”

This is a book of poems by new friends, and leaves you hoping that, yes, we will speak again. We will be hearing from the Telling Room’s writers, in many ways, for many years to come, as they guide us into “A New Land.”

Gary Lawless meets with the Young Writers & Leaders in 2014