The process seems simple: Classic poems are read aloud and students raise their hands to claim them.
But what happens next could actually change the way that many students approach writing, language, poetry and the way they process the things that happen in their lives.
Get Lit is an L.A.-based nonprofit organization that brings poetry, slam and otherwise, to schools across the city. Students learn the classics and craft their own responses to start a dialogue that will hopefully spark their literary imaginations. The organization also crafted a curriculum currently taught in almost 100 schools. As its website explains, the curriculum is “aligned to Common Core standards in both English and Performing Arts,” making it a serious program that can benefit both students and schools.
Even so, founder and executive director Diane Luby Lane has definitely encountered some pushback.
“Schools will say, ‘You don’t know our students, they’re not gonna like this stuff,’” Lane says. “And they did. They did! It makes me so angry because we decide, ‘Well, if you’re going to go to classes, you better bring hip-hop here because that’s what the kids like.’ We just dumb stuff down.”
Lane definitely sees the significance in acknowledging contemporary work (especially figures within the hip-hop scene like Kendrick Lamar), but Get Lit is very much about exploring how timeless pieces can still be brought into a modern conversation. Kids know Lamar — and they should know Whitman, too.
“It’s just that it’s all good, and it’s all vital, and we shouldn’t decide what certain kinds of people are going to like,” says Lane.
As the organization continued to reach more students, Lane decided to start collecting their work. She eventually submitted a few pieces to the Huffington Post, where they reached a larger audience. The book Get Lit Rising: Words Ignite. Claim Your Poem. Claim Your Life was published in October and features the work of 19 teen poets. As the book description stresses, the poets in the book come from a variety of backgrounds, including some who've struggled with homelessness.
Lane and a few poets recently went on a tour where their worlds collided, each student learning more about the others. There’s power in poetry to come together but also to find individual strength, Lane says. She remembers her love for writing starting with a class assignment — to keep a journal. Her teacher said students could “mark the top of the page” to keep the content private.
“I feel like literacy and this work is a way out. It’s a way to connect with your own power,” Lane says. “And if you connect with your own power, you’re gonna be OK.”
One of those poets is Rhiannon McGavin, who got involved with Get Lit during her freshman year of high school. She was named the 2016-2017 Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles and has a book coming out next year.
Seeing her work in Get Lit serves as a reminder of her progress but also an important step in her own writing career.
“When I’m looking back at it now, I could pick through it and say, ‘Oh, this needs better editing, this sentence doesn’t flow well, why did I phrase it this way?’ and just pick over it because my work has evolved since then,” McGavin says. “But it’s just nice to be able to look back and say ‘Oh, I did this.’ That’s real ... and having that sort of reminder is good.”
Even in school, though, McGavin realized that standard school canons tend to favor male writers. Get Lit gathers students from various backgrounds and experiences — students who have fought, in their own ways, to tell their stories and express their feelings.
“I remember in all of middle school we read one book that had a female protagonist,” McGavin says. “It was a really great book, but for three years straight we didn’t read anything except about, you know, white boys. … I remember in eighth grade fighting with the head of the English department because I asked him, like, OK it says on the syllabus that we are reading to expand our horizons. But how are we going to do that if all of the books are about white guys? And he said that he couldn’t find anything literary enough that was written by a woman.”
So she slept through the rest of the class and never looked back. Now, McGavin loves the fact that she can go to open mics in the city (her favorite is Da Poetry Lounge on Fairfax).
As an organization, Get Lit has impacted schools in various L.A. neighborhoods — it’s reached the “richest kids possible," as well as “students that don’t speak any English,” as Lane explains.
Yet McGavin acknowledges that many people don’t see L.A. as a city brimming with poetry and serious art.
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“They think that because of the proximity to Hollywood and celebrity culture and the entire entertainment industry that like everyone is a Kardashian,” McGavin says. “I tell them that there’s a lot of street between Hollywood and Vine and Rodeo Drive.”
In a poem, she writes about the grit and beauty of the city:
Ignore the smog. You see what you want to
here. You have to peel the sky like a loquat. Focus
on how, from high enough up, it all gleams; a surge of street lamps
and restaurant neon, undercut
by steel bones whistling hot wind.
Get Lit Rising is available here.