This month, new blooms sprouting on Hoffner Park’s biggest tree herald a new neighborhood collaboration that helps Northside kids’ share their voices with the world.
Called The Poet Tree and timed to coincide with National Poetry Month, the project is the brainchild of WordPlay co-founder and Executive Director Libby Hunter. She was inspired by an earlier WordPlay project during which young readers and writers crafted poems on handmade paper and hung them from a small tree inside the nonprofit’s Hamilton Avenue storefront.
Everyone loved the display and it made young poets feel proud when they saw their work showcased for visitors to enjoy. She knew that research shows that kids with confidence tend to be better equipped to deal with peer pressure and their own strong emotions. Confident kids also tend to be better able to cope with challenges and frustrations. All of those benefits can improve kids’ school, and life, outcomes. So Hunter wanted to bring the project back, using National Poetry Month as a natural hook. Then, in true WordPlay collaborative fashion, she designed a volume-boosting twist.
Instead of having the new version of the project include only poems written by WordPlay Cincy regulars, she wanted to offer an outlet to all Northside youth. Outreach is nothing new at WordPlay, where every program must fall in line with the organizational focus on community, innovation, education and transformation. With an eye toward transformation, Hunter wanted to display this new crop of poems outside, on a real live tree that young poets could visit regularly with their family and friends.
“These poems are wonderful gifts for people to take home and share,” Hunter says. “Plus, it increases students’ confidence in themselves when they see their work shared and valued.”
Cincinnati Parks allowed for the Hoffner Park tree’s month-long transformation. Now Hunter needed poems. Lots and lots of poems.
To inspire and gather them, she knew she’d need partners. WordPlay Writers-in-Residence Pauletta Hansel and Corey Burdine coach young people at WordPlay, but they also will visit all K-6 classrooms at Chase Elementary to get even more poems to take root. Still, they needed reinforcements to cover all of the school’s classrooms.
Hunter recruited the poets of nearby fellow nonprofit Chase Public to help lead poetry sessions at the elementary school. After that, she extended a Poet Tree branch into the Northside Library, where children’s librarian Marni Blanken runs after-school sessions. The library will host a WordPlay poetry workshop for children of all ages on Thursday, April 7th from 3-4 pm, where Writers-in-Residence will plant the seeds for even more poems. The group even decided to display an additional Poet Tree in front of the library. Librarian Blanken sees it as a wonderful opportunity in many ways.
“With most children relying heavily on computers and phones to communicate, I think sitting down and putting thoughts on paper is getting to be a lost art,” Blanken says. “Children are so rushed just to get homework and assignments done, there isn’t really time to process their feelings and emotions in written form.”
The process involves students writing their poems, which are then typed and printed on cardstock. Each poem is identified with the author’s first name, age and affiliation—Chase Elementary, WordPlay or the library—written on the back. Poems hang in small plastic jewelry bags tied to the trees with brightly colored ribbon.
Poems are gifts from the youth to the community. Passersby are encouraged to take one, read it and enjoy. Trees will be refilled with poems as necessary, Hunter says.
“These poems are a very public opportunity for us as a community to hear from our youngest neighbors,” she said. “I can’t think of any better way to celebrate the amazing young people all around us while also taking advantage of the arrival of spring in our neighborhood.”
At the library, Blanken mentions an additional benefit, one that will last long after the last poem-gift has been taken home to be treasured. “This is also a good opportunity for children to get together and exchange ideas about their lives and the world around them,” she says.
WordPlay's Writer-in-Residence program is generously funded by the Louise Taft Semple Fund and the Ohio Arts Council. If you'd like to get involved as a volunteer with the Poet Tree project or sponsor a branch, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 513-541-0930 to learn more.
By Elissa Yancey, WordPlay Co-Founder and Past President, Director of Special Projects and Associate Director of Marketing and Communications for the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Cincinnati.