For most, the idea of American poetry conjures daunting images of academia, analysis and a look back at the rigid guidelines for interpretation. Ask someone to name their favorite poet, and you’re guaranteed to hear a name like Whitman, Elliot or Dickinson — poets that have become ingrained in the modern high-school curriculum over the past half-century.
For many, literature and poetry are now symbols of a bygone era, rendered useless by modern forms of media. A group of local high-school students and mentors aims to shift focus away from the rigidity and formulation that now encases modern poetry.
So they started their own printing company.
According to its website, Red Beard Press is a “cutting-edge, youth-driven business dedicated to publishing emerging voices and inspiring passionate authors.” Operated out of the Neutral Zone and part of the literary arts program, Red Beard Press aims to rage against the current state of American poetry by creating a new standard of contemporary verse that young people help develop.
The second you walk in, you can tell that Neutral Zone is a place where creativity thrives. Teens assemble in large rooms with murals on the walls to spend time with each other or work on their own projects. Instead of chairs, large beanbags dot the carpet of some rooms, and windows showcase a view of Ann Arbor. It is in one of these rooms that Red Beard Press holds its weekly meetings where high-school students, college students and other young people in the community come together to run their own publishing business.
A new take on an old craft
“(American Poetry) does not read itself. American poetry does not sit around reading books goddamn it,” Aimée Lê writes in “Feral Citizens,” one of the 13 books that Red Beard has published.
It is this type of virile and liberated thinking that exemplifies the style of writing that Red Beard delivers. This isn’t your grandmother’s poetry; this is poetry for the newer generation.
“We’re trying to be the press that documents what life is like right now for young people,” said Jeff Kass, the Literary Arts program coordinator of Neutral Zone. “We like to have work that’s really examining what it means to be alive and to be a young person right now in the year 2013.”
Fiona Chamness, co-author of “Feral Citizens,” described their poetry as more accessible for younger readers.
“It shows that kids will care about these things,” she said. “They will care about poetry, they will care about art. You just have to give them stuff that feels relevant to their lives.”
Lê and Chamness are the authors of one of only a few combined manuscripts that Red Beard has produced. For the duo, it was a natural choice to work together on the book; they have been friends since first grade and have each been writing poetry for almost as long.
In “Feral Citizens,” in addition to contributing poems for their own sections of the book, they also spent time pouring over each other’s work and helping perfect everything. In many ways, their work is a metaphor for the Red Beard printing process: Each work is a combined effort from the authors, the teens who helped produce and edit the work, and the community from which it emerged.
This is the type of poetry that the young people of today can really identify with, and who better to publish this work than those same teenagers and young adults. Although there are a few mentors who work at the program, Red Beard Press is run almost entirely by the teenagers.
“The people who design the books, who help edit them, select writers, promote the books and run the business aspect; It’s all teenagers,” Kass said. “They can learn about the publishing business and help be part of the voice and be in on the decisions that create books that people are reading.”
Up to scratch?
The job of running a publishing company seems like a lofty task for teenagers, but the members of Red Beard have shown that they are up for the job. To date, the press has published 13 books, and has hosted numerous events, ranging anywhere from book release parties to poetry slams.
Shoham Geva, a senior at Skyline High School and a member of the Red Beard Press, discussed the interesting prospect of giving complete creative control of a business to teenagers.
“(Putting) this in the hands of high schoolers which is an opportunity which really isn’t given out — that was a big thing for me,” she said.
“There’s just a lot of the confidence that comes from that sort of responsibility,” Geva added.
The students have a reason to be confident: In addition to playing a large role in shaping the Ann Arbor cultural community, the press is even beginning to pick up recognition in New York, the publishing hub of the country. The company also has deals with independent bookstores, which have begun selling a steady stream of Red Beard books. While in the past Red Beard members have gone searching for authors or works that they wanted to publish, after some deserved attention the tables have turned: Many poets now specifically ask to be published by the press.
“In some ways, if you’re going to be doing a book, this is almost the perfect way to do it,” Chamness said. “There’s no one that’s going to be more discerning and going to give your work more attention than a teenager. They really cared about it and were invested in it in a way that larger publishing places don’t really have the time or inclination.”
This extra care and attention might be one of the reasons why Red Beard has started to garner national attention. As people in the community are excited to see how well the press is doing, the publicity also serves another purpose: inspiring other writers and kids to get involved.
“Seeing the poets and writers that come to Red Beard and ask — they know we’re a group of high schoolers and the fact that they would trust us with their book, that’s a big thing.” Geva said.
“People look at our books, and they don’t believe that something that professional can be done by high schoolers. But this is entirely youth driven, it’s pretty much all us,” she added.
Despite their young age, these individuals know what they’re doing. The outpouring of support is a testament to the fact that Red Beard is not just a fun club for teens that like books, but also is a well-run and respected business.
“It’s a business; it’s a professional thing,” Geva said. “It’s not just a bunch of high-schoolers sitting around.”
Giving voice to the youth
Currently, the press is self-sufficient. Red Beard prints and sells just enough books to guarantee that the next project can go to print. Admittedly, with all the good that they have done in the community, it seems like an expansion would be a chance to expand influence rather than a way to make money.
“I’d like to grow a little bit beyond that. We’d like to try and get a distribution deal so we can get our books around the country a little more. We want to create a new curriculum for teachers and schools so they can use our books more in class,” Kass said.
But Red Beard isn’t just about getting books published or being a business — they have also undertaken a mission to reinvigorate youth in Ann Arbor and elsewhere.
“It’s about giving a voice to youth, but we also didn’t want to be the ‘voice of youth.’ We just wanted to have good poems,” Chamness said.
The press focuses on poetry and writing that they think should be heard. And thanks to the efforts of these teens, it finally has the chance to be.
“We want to create this new canon of poems and writers that people don’t necessarily think of as the great writers of our time. We want to give them the stage,” Kass said.
“This is poetry that probably speaks to (you) a little more about contemporary issues. We like to have work that’s really examining what it means to be alive and to be a young person right now … (with) all of the different influences swirling around you.” Kass said.
Anyone wanting to see this type of poetry in action need not wait long — Red Beard Press is having a release party on Jan. 18 for its newest book, Electric Bite Women, which is the work of University students Haley Patail and Carlina Duan, who is a Daily Arts Editor.
Although some poems do end up having a message, there is a deeper level of meaning that these poets manage to tap into. The act of writing is a very personal thing, and even poems that don’t have an explicit direction can still be interesting and relevant to a teenager’s life.
“I do use writing as a space for exercising a lot of voice and power and working through ideas and that can be explicitly political … all of these things that are relevant to me and my community,” Chamness said.
“I didn’t necessarily have (a message), and I didn’t want it to be easily coherent in that way, but in some ways having all of these different things in it was something that felt important.” Chamness added.
Since kids today might not have ample opportunities to explore the more experimental side of literature and poetry and since the most exposure that many kids will have to poetry will be in the classroom (and even that is waning), it is becoming even more important for them to be able to experience different types of writing as an art form.
Reigniting a passion for words
“In the context of the way public-school education has been going these days, creativity and imagination has been eliminated from the curriculum,” Kass said. “It’s crucial that there’s an opportunity for young people to be in the community and working on developing their voices … All those kind of questions that don’t get asked in class are the kind of questions that we ask students to pursue.”
Red Beard Press has certainly injected much-needed artistic vigor into the youth of Ann Arbor. There has been an outpouring of support as the press has sold out of every book that has been published so far. Even more importantly, the young people attending the book releases and poetry events put on by Neutral Zone are able to discover for themselves what poetry is really all about, or rather what poetry can be about.
“There were kids coming up and saying, ‘This is really cool, I didn’t know that you could write poetry like that; I didn’t know you were allowed to do that,’ ” Geva said. “We’re letting kids hear that there are a lot of different ways to be a poet.”
Lê explained her growth as a writer in a way that may remind many people of their own experiences of growing up and finding a sense of self — certainly something that teens and other young people in the community might be going through themselves.
“I think that for me, it’s my way of modeling back to the community, that people should take themselves seriously,” Lê said. “You may not think your voice is important, but it probably is. It took a long time I think to take myself seriously.”
“I already felt so strongly that the work of the youth here and elsewhere was incredible and worthy of notice,” Chamness said.
“There’s this idea that it’s kind of less important or less likely to be good or undeveloped. The fact that there’s consistently good work coming out of young people — and coming out of young people in this community — is something that I feel like is worth celebrating.”