In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Carolyn West, founder and executive director of The Thank You Darlin’ Foundation, spoke with arts and culture editor Marcheta Fornoff about the organization’s youth poetry slam.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Fornoff: Thank you for taking the time to meet with me today.
West: It’s my pleasure.
Fornoff: Tell me about your role with the Thank You Darlin’ Foundation.
West: I am the founder and executive director of the Thank You Darlin’ Foundation.
Fornoff: What inspired you to create it?
West: Well, there was a need I recognized on multiple levels. Of course, the arts and making certain that children everywhere have access to the arts, and then there is a critical need to strengthen children in the area of literacy — that is reading, writing and public speaking.
Fornoff: And this weekend, you have a youth poetry slam happening. Tell us more about the event.
West: Well, we thought that we were rather clever in discovering that poetry is a great way to build literacy skills. We partner with Title I schools so that we can give in-person classes, and we teach children literary devices like simile, metaphor, personification and also introduce various types of poems and famous poets.
Fornoff: What age of students participate in these programs?
West: Third through fifth grade generally receive the classes, but not always. It can (also) be third through eighth grade, and then third through 12th grade can have their poems published. As a matter of fact we’ve published eight anthologies.
And they also have the opportunity to participate in the poetry slam, which is happening at 1 p.m. this Saturday, April 16. The doors will open for the public at 12:30 and it is adjudicated. We have five judges, very prestigious judges, and the children have written their poems, so these are original. These are not some other authors’ poetry that they’re reading. They have created their poems and now they’re going to perform them.
Fornoff: What is the student response to working with poetry?
West: We get everything from kicking and screaming to ‘I love poetry.’
Fornoff: And what made you interested in this means of communication as a tool to help young students with literacy? Why this as opposed to short stories or other other modes of communication?
West: That is an excellent question. My daughter had an English teacher… you know teachers are, in my book, superheroes. And this English teacher – I should back up and say we used to live in Chicago – decided that he would get kids interested, really plant a seed in them for the love of words, for poetry. So he engaged these 16-year-olds in open mics, poetry slams, spoken word and all these kinds of things.
Well, I was the clueless parent, maybe somebody out there can connect with me on that, and I had no idea that my daughter was so talented until I went to one of the poetry slams. I saw that just with her words, her voice, she was able to raise people out of their seats. And I didn’t only see it from her. Every poet, every team (there are individual competition team competitions) people were enthralled. They loved it. It was like being at a concert.
Fornoff: You emphasized the fact that it’s original work. There are plenty of opportunities for students to recite speeches other people have written or to participate in things like debate or mock trial. Why is it really important for you to give them a platform to share their own words, their own experiences?
West: It’s called finding your voice. Children have things to say, and we need to listen. We need to give them that opportunity to really speak about what’s on their heart and in their mind.
Fornoff: Aside from your daughter’s performance, that really struck a nerve with you, what are some of the lessons that you’ve taken away from past poetry slams?
West: Oh boy. There are so many.
There was a little boy, well, he started in the poetry slams I would say roughly age nine and third grade. And he is (now) a student here at Houston University. I can still see him standing on stage about like what, three feet tall or something, and now it’s as if he’s 10 feet tall. He speaks with such confidence. And I want to see that I want to give that opportunity to every child, every child that wants it, and so many need it.
Fornoff: This weekend, how many students do you have who will be reciting their own poetry up on this stage?
West: We have 37 students registered, and let’s not forget COVID does have an impact. We have not had the poetry slam for two years, and so we are really building it up again.
In past years, the poetry slam was at TCU, and we had participants and elementary, middle- and high-school categories. This year it’s all elementary students, but I have been able to get in touch with some of our alumni, so we’re very, very excited about that.
Fornoff: Is there anything else that you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask you about that? You think it is important to know or share with the audience?
West: We could make it a hashtag: If you give a child a word, you change their world. That’s it.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.