1. For the last month or so, I’ve been teaching an after-school writing workshop at a charter school here in Newark and it has been an absolute pleasure. Working with these students, all of them young women of color, has reminded me why poetry and arts education are crucial to the success of our youth. This post will focus on a recent assignment to workshop took on: the KWANSABA.
2. The Kwansaba is a genuinely African-American poetry form. Created during the peak of the Black Arts Movement, in coordination with the creation of Kwanzaa itself, a kwansaba is praise poem that is seven lines long with seven words in each line with no word longer than seven letters. Given the significance of the number seven to Kwanzaa, the celebration’s meaning is literally built into the poem.
3. The Kwansaba is usually the first form I introduce to my students. Typically, formal poetry is taught as if the European writing tradition is the only one civilized enough to have created valuable and lasting forms, as if there aren’t countless Latin, African, and Asian forms that are equally important and useful. (Most teachers like to throw in a cursory explanation of the haiku as a fun little excursion into the poetry of “Asia”.) My students will learn about the sonnet from me (How could they not?) but for now, I want them to enjoy writing in a form that comes from their own heritage. This is not because I believe black poetry is for black people but because it’s crucial that we remind our young people that literature and literacy are not inherently WHITE.
4. Another reason the kwansaba is a great form to teach young people, high school and middle students especially, is that it’s a poem of praise. Young writers are often only moved to write about their own extreme sadness, love, or anger. These emotions are valid and should be recognized, but they are not the only emotions out of which poems can spring. Challenging students to write a kwansaba requires them to shine a light on their own lives, to meditate on gratitude for a least seven well-crafted lines. Working with students in a city like Newark, I’ve noticed that they could use some optimism. These students are incredibly intelligent, but also a bit cynical. They have seen loved ones go to the jail, die in the streets, so forth and so on. Sometimes writing a kwansaba can help remind them that, even in the midst of hardship, there are joys worth praising and preserving on the page.
5. As far as form goes, the kwansaba is great for beginnings. No need to count syllables or stress over meter. It’s all about the number seven. Seven lines. Seven words. No more than seven letters. The form’s accessibility keeps students from panicking (I dare you to ask a 14 year old to write a villanelle.) but also challenges them. My students found the seven letter requirement to be pretty tricky. One girl pulled out her vocabulary card and started making lists of words no longer than seven letters. That’s a wonderful & useful challenge.
6. Finally, kwansabas like all forms, are great because they force young writers to slow down. My students often think that if they can’t complete the poem in less than five minutes, the poem is never going to happen. By its nature, however, the kwansaba forced the students to work on their poems for the entire week (gasp!) and to meditate on the importance of words down to the very letter.
7. Finally, here’s the kwansaba I have written in honor of the workshop students at Northstar Academy in Newark, New Jersey.
Not even day can outshine you, star.
Lost in skyward gaze, I see you
and think of wayward ships. Your light,
our guide home, away from world’s edge
again and again, but aren’t you tired?
Explain your faith in us. Tell us
what you see in our dark voyages.