You know a poem is good when your body moves with it — when your foot taps along to the beat of each line break, each new stanza. When the poem is a melody that moves through your heart and expands to your muscles. You know a poem is good when it becomes a song that is stuck in not only your head but your arms, your legs, your stomach, your chest. The poetry of the three featured artists at the Neutral Zone’s (an Ann Arbor youth-driven nonprofit) poetry night emulates this experience perfectly. 

Happening this Saturday, Dec. 15 at the Mendelssohn Theater, the local youth poetry event “I Name This Body MINE: Poetry Night in Ann Arbor” will be a privilege to all who attend. The event will be an inspiring evening of original spoken word poetry and live music by Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti youth artists. Teen poets and musicians from the Neutral Zone will perform along with the featured poets of the evening: Anika Love, Lilly Kujawski and Ann Arbor Youth Poet Laureate Aldo Leopoldo Pando Girard. The teen performers worked under the guidance of the featured poets for two months of collaborative workshops to generate and polish material for the event. 

The culmination of these efforts will be a poignant multimedia production not to be missed. The event will also serve as the official release for “I Name This Body MINE,” a collection of the featured poets’ original work.  Book copies will be available for purchase that evening. 

I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the three featured artists of the evening: Anika Love, Aldo Leopoldo Pando Girard and Lilly Kujawski. The poems they are reading in this event embraces each of their identities and how they navigate their identity in a society that oftentimes fails to validate it. Their passion and dedication toward both the Neutral Zone and writing shined through when they were discussing the event with me. 

“I read a poetry book in high school and I saw one of Molly Raynor’s (the header of the event) poems in it, and I was like, ‘I want to be a poet like her’ and now, I work with her at the Neutral Zone and she’s making all of this happen for me,” said Lilly Kujawski about her journey in getting involved with the Neutral Zone. All three of the poets spoke highly about the Neutral Zone and their involvement with it. 

“We are very different people who found a common ground. Which is maybe a rare thing: When you bring together three people who come from such different backgrounds,” said Kujawski. Anika Love shared a sentiment similar to Lilly’s. 

“I think the Neutral Zone is amazing. It gives teens who don’t feel validated an outlet to express themselves and somewhere to go,” said Love. Her poem, “2 the whiteboi who called me out by name on a Saturday night” references the fetishization she experiences from “white boiz” in college party settings. 

“My poem is about reclaiming myself from being ‘the nameless girl’ or ‘the other,’” Love said. “I get to call that shit out. Through reading this poem, I have a space to establish myself as a human being and not be just a label or some shallow concept of who I am based on whatever physical attribute I possess.”

Love went on to express her excitement for the poetry night this Saturday, where she will be able to express the frustrations she faces as a person of color in a predominantly white area. 

“When I’m performing it, I put all that pent-up, sad, middle schooler anger into it. It’s definitely a release and I don’t ever get to express that. Except for with people who have been through the same things that I have,” Love said. 

Allowing young artists of color such as Love to have an outlet to express themselves is immensely important. Often times, stories from people of color are not told and if they are told, they’re told in a way that is not representative of them as a complete human being. The poetry night put on by the Neutral Zone alots for a safe place for voices that are usually brushed to the side, such as Love’s, to be heard. 

Aldo Leopoldo Pando Girard also spoke to the way the vibe created by the Neutral Zone has impacted his work: “There’s a lot of love at the Neutral Zone for everyone. I feel like the general atmosphere is people trying to lift each other, have a good time, whatever. People can be themselves, and pay attention to detail, and really work to create a space where teens can have more agency. The poems in the show come from wanting to be yourself completely.  On the page, on the stage, whatever, and loving the people you love on the page and on the stage as well. If the Neutral Zone wasn’t what it was, those poems might’ve been harder to make.” 

This Saturday night, the love Girard talks of will be shared on stage for all to see. As an audience member, all you need to do is listen. I can assure you, the poems these poets have written are infectious. I can only imagine the poems that the rest of the teens have written, under the guidance of these poets, are equally as captivating. Each carefully thought out word has the capability to move nations into directions of empathy, acceptance and change. Be a part of this change on Saturday night at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater. 

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