From Pink Hair to Poetry: Artists in the Making
It was 2008. I was thirteen years old, I had dyed my hair pink and not done a great job, I had glow-in-the-dark braces, and I liked to write. Every day after school, I would go to my best friend Aya’s apartment in Chelsea. There, we would write songs and poems, which we would perform in costume, perched atop Aya’s loft bed, for her laconic pet rabbit, Wynneth.
Needless to say, we were not very popular. We were teenagers now, which meant self-expression was considered to be deeply embarrassing. Aya and I fancied ourselves an actress and an author, respectively. We attended School of the Future, a public 6-12 school near Gramercy Park in Manhattan, and despite its progressive bent, we did not have very many people to sit with at lunch.
Enter Community-Word Project, spring of our eighth grade year. Leticia Perelstein, a multimedia artist, and Ellen Hagan, a writer and performer, started coming weekly to work with our class. They urged us to write, with a specificity that unnerved and elated us, about ourselves and our experiences with language. Once, we drew self-portraits and wrote words about ourselves on the faces. Another time, we made language maps of our apartments. What words did we use in our kitchens? What words did we use by the doorways?
Many kids in our class were bilingual, and some of the writing projects incorporated the languages they spoke at home. With the help of Leticia and Ellen, the eighth grade made a poetry mural together, written in Spanish and English, which we hung in the school cafeteria. I remember some of my classmates saying it was the first time they had been asked to do academic work in the languages of their parents.
Rie con la gente, nationality and culture come bound like threads woven together,
love our lives, and where we come from.
CWP was only with our school for a few months, but they worked to make their presence felt after they were gone. Leticia and Ellen taught us to freewrite every day, to record and journal, to draw pictures about our lives. They also encouraged us all to submit our writing to the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, a national platform dedicated to recognizing the creative work of young people. Aya and I both submitted poems and won regional medals. I continued to submit to the Scholastic Awards for years, and it afforded me all kinds of opportunities -- one year, through Scholastic, I got to go to a poetry event hosted by the Obamas at the White House!
In May of 2008, Aya and I were both asked to read at a CWP Benefit at the National Arts Club. The event was very fancy, they even had a car service pick us up from Aya’s apartment -- a choice, I later realized, that was intended to help us recognize that our art was worth celebrating. We read our poems in a strange old room full of ornate pictures in frames. Aya and I, two thirteen-year-olds with blotchy, dyed hair, nervously read our poetry to an audience of grown-up writers and artists. At the reception afterwards, we picked at weird hors d'oeuvres, feeling both very young and very grown-up. Someday, we realized, we would be adult artists. This fact both frightened and excited us.
Though CWP taught our classmates that art could be cool, it didn’t help Aya and me become any more popular. We realized we had made a choice between doing what we loved and having a lot of friends, and for us the decision was simple. Aya and I dyed our hair a sickly fuchsia, which faded into an even sicklier light pink. We wrote poems and songs and plays. And while the kids in our lives never told us that was okay, our teachers at CWP did -- and that, for us, was all we needed.
Aya told me recently that working with CWP was the first time she felt recognized as somebody who could write. And she continued, through high school and college, to pursue creative writing in conjunction with her interest in theater. Now, at 24, she writes and performs songs, has acted in many plays, and her one-woman show, Eh Dah? went Off-Broadway in 2016 at the New York Musical Festival, and will return Off-Broadway next year at the Player’s Theater.
After my class with CWP was over, I began to seek out other, similar opportunities to learn from writers and artists. I wound up connecting with Writopia Lab, an organization that holds writing workshops for kids and teens. I took classes at Writopia and in high school began working for them as a teaching intern. I also participated in various summer writing programs, at Simon’s Rock and NYU and the University of Iowa. I went on to get my BA concentrating in poetry at Hampshire College, and am now doing my MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
It’s been ten years since Ellen and Leticia visited my eighth grade class. My hair is no longer pink, the braces are (thank God) gone, and though Aya and I stay in touch, she is no longer my only friend. Even so, I continue every day to make the choice I did when I was thirteen -- to be unabashed in my art, and in my life. I am so thankful to Community-Word Project for helping me make that choice.
- Nora Claire Miller