Caroline Kennedy at the DreamYard Art Center
Photo: Rob Howard
From left: Denisse Cotto, Destiny Campbell, and Malek Hawkins hanging out at the DreamYard Art Center with their friend Caroline Kennedy.
The notorious South Bronx, with its weedy lots and raggedy buildings crouching low along desolate streets, radiates pretty much anything but joy. Stuck in the poorest congressional district in the country, nearly half of the residents live in poverty. But the funny thing about joy is, it can take root in the least likely places. It doesn't discriminate; doesn't need cash or lush surroundings to thrive. Come see: Joy is alive and well at the DreamYard Art Center in the tough upper reaches of New York City.

During an era of brutal budget cuts, the largely grant-funded DreamYard Project provides arts education by sending actors, dancers, painters, and poets into sorely underfunded Bronx public schools for year-long residencies. The art center, which opened in 2009, takes the mission a step further by offering an after-school oasis of inspiration, feedback, and community. For local kids yearning to rhyme and write, it's a place where they can harness their inner demons and better angels through poetry workshops and regular open mikes that transform the timid into truth tellers.

Inside, every surface—whether the blades of a ceiling fan or a tabletop or the seat of a chair—is painted bright green, red, yellow, or blue. A vast flock of delicate origami cranes in equally uplifting colors is suspended from the ceiling. There's a comfy couch, a kitchen, and a vibe of pure nurture that says you and whatever's on your mind are safe here—no matter the pain that comes walking through the door. On the walls are self-portraits by the kids, their facial features made from words. In one, the eyes are formed by faith, love, care, hope, fun, destiny, grace, peace; on another, the mouth reads I AM AFRAID TO DIE.

At about 4 P.M. on a chilly December day, the place starts to fill with kids wearing cornrows and close crops and hoodies of all colors, jangling with excitement about the open mike that's happening later on. There is Denisse, a high school senior with coppery crimped hair and a knowing gaze, who's been involved with DreamYard for six years, during which time her poetry has evolved from the stuff of teenage angst to informed riffs on global strife. "I've had different phases," she says. "In my first phase, all my poems were about my mom. The second phase was about domestic violence"—the kind she witnessed at the hands of her stepfather—"and how my mom is like my angel and I'll always defend her, how we're like soldiers for ourselves in that isolated world. And the next phase was about my dad and how much I need him, and him not being there. Now my phase is about America and what I think of it"—particularly the callous treatment of illegal immigrants. "Poetry," Denisse says, "has helped heal my pain."

According to sweet-faced Destiny, 15, whose expression toggles between sunny and brooding as she shoulders the hard fact of her mother's kidney disease, "Poetry is a way to let out every emotion that you have when you feel like you don't have anyone to talk to, or you just feel locked in. Just write it down and your paper and pen become your best friend."

Next: How Caroline Kennedy found her way to DreamYard

While most of the people here are black or Latino, today there is also a cool blonde drifting about, wearing a cashmere cardigan over a silk blouse with jeans, her hair scalloping around her cheekbones. This would be Caroline Kennedy, 53, whose large eyes are a color that could only be called Kennedy blue. In her capacity as vice chair of New York City's Fund for Public Schools, Kennedy learned about DreamYard and quickly became hooked. In addition to helping raise almost a million dollars in grant money for the program, she also visits the art center regularly, assisting kids with their poems and attending open mikes.

"Writing and poetry were hugely important to me, growing up," Kennedy explains, scanning the counter for snacks ("What can I eat?" she says at one point to no one in particular, prying the lid off a cookie tin). Her comment calls to mind her iconically cultured mother, Jacqueline, who expected Caroline and her younger brother, John, to select and memorize poems for her on special occasions, as well as illustrate them for eternal placement in a big scrapbook. (Have her own three children contributed poems to the book as well? "Well, yeah, of course, 'cause I made them," Kennedy says with a laugh.) Her mother gravitated to Lord Byron; her grandmother Rose was a Longfellow fan, as was Uncle Ted, who'd recite Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride" at the slightest provocation. As for Caroline's father, President John F. Kennedy, it is hard to picture his 1961 inauguration without thinking of Robert Frost reciting "The Gift Outright." (Frost had written a new poem, "Dedication," for the occasion, but with the sunlight reflecting off the page almost blindingly that day, he had to default on the spot to something he had memorized.)

"Wanting to express yourself is really the heart of education," Kennedy says. "So working with DreamYard is a nice way for me to take that interest and focus my work with the schools in a more personal way." This has meant inviting a few of the girls, including Denisse and Destiny, to pitch and research poems for a forthcoming poetry anthology for children that Kennedy is editing: A few times a month for a semester, the students took the subway down to Manhattan and holed up in a conference room with Kennedy at her publisher's office on Fifth Avenue to kick around the merits of one poem over another. ("I thought it was just so awesome," says Destiny. "Not too many teenagers have a voice. For her to ask us to work on this was, like, 'You're asking me, really?'")

"They're incredibly gifted and disciplined and dedicated to figuring out where they stand in relation to the world and who they want to be," Kennedy says of the children she's met at DreamYard. "Outside school, they're in a world that's complicated and difficult"—nearly half of the kids who live in the Bronx don't graduate high school—"and to see the beauty of the work they produce and the way they perform it has really been inspiring to me. And also to watch them grow like weeds—I mean, I can't wait to see what they end up doing." The affection goes both ways: When a photographer asks some of the kids to pose with Kennedy for a picture, Denisse snuggles in on the couch and loops an arm through Kennedy's, as though she were a girl from the neighborhood.

Before the open mike, poet Kamilah Aisha Moon leads a workshop on crafting verse about family; Moon notes the potential for clichés when we write about people we love. "It's good to shake up the language a little," she says, and proposes an exercise: Everyone has to choose an item in the room and write down ten words to describe it. Then—and this comes as an amusing shock to the group—they have to use those words in a love poem about a family member. (Kennedy is playfully miffed to have chosen a papier-mâché broccoli mounted on the wall—how do I love thee? Let me count the florets....)

The exercise completed, the kids take turns sharing what they wrote. Having zeroed in on the smallest paper crane in the flock and jotted down words like hiding, watching, unwanted, hanging, little, light, oddball, loneliness, and fly, Destiny shares this, in a burst, about her brother:

I couldn't stand looking at you.
Watching your hope fall onto your pillow.
Stupid, you were always told.
Stupid, you always felt.

I couldn't stand
watching watering brown eyes
looking for an answer,
waiting for an answer.

Hiding my defeat,
I hugged you.
Telling you that you are beautiful.
Never feel unwanted.
Trust me, little brother,
I see you

I am your light.
You don't have to look for me.
I'm right here.

No longer will you be the oddball in the crowd, little brother.
I know you don't believe me now,
but hear my optimistic cheer, little brother.

I'm here to love you,
guide you,
kiss you,
steal your taste of defeat,
help you put your loneliness aside.
I'm by your side.
you and I
will fly.

Applause and murmurs of "beautiful," "strong," and "awright Destiny" fill the room.

Crowd support grows rowdier once the open mike starts. Denisse kicks it off, morphing in an instant from a circumspect teen into a truth ninja, hurling hard-won wisdom in her anthemic "My Bronx" ("America. / Shut up. / Dare to observe us in silence. / Get away from the 5 o'clock news / and come live with us. / For years, not for two weeks— / and then you can talk."). She amplifies the verse through the theatrical lifting and lowering of her voice, the punching and jabbing that punctuates the words—all stagecraft she's developed at DreamYard. (Says writer and teacher Renée Watson, they work with the kids to help them drop their "slam poet voice"—that knee-jerk angry cadence they've all learned from rap music—in favor of something truer to the piece they've written, something more their own.) Standing in the back of the room, Caroline Kennedy seems transported, feeling the rhythm Denisse weaves with her words. Like Denisse, every subsequent poet is ushered to and from the stage with supportive shout-outs and hugs.

Because they know. They all know what this requires—to take your emotions and wrestle with them publicly, to manhandle them, mash them up, and turn them into something fierce you could almost ride right out of here. What they also know: Poetry is many things, not least of which is power.

The Power of Poetry


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