By Matthew Burgess
I started this “poetry-mural” initiative back in the spring of 2017 while working as a writer-in-residence at PS 51 in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. The school building was already brimming with color and creativity, thanks in large part to the collaborative spirit of the art teacher, Shani Perez, and the principal, Nancy Sing-Bock. At the time I had been working on my picture book biography of Keith Haring, and though it was still years away from publication, the impulse to merge art and poetry is connected to Haring’s legacy.
The idea of a poetry mural, in a nutshell, is this: After teaching and writing poetry with kids, I invite an artist to meet the students, read their poems, and inspired by their words, to design and install an original mural in some nearby space. Then, following a celebratory unveiling, I would invite the young writers to create new poems in response to the artwork. I call this project “PUMP,” or Poetry Urban Mural Project.
I remember breezing through the halls of PS 51, up to the rooftop garden, and down into school’s interior courtyard with Shani and Nancy. Whereas others would lead with reservations, anticipating potential problems, Nancy and Shani were flashing green lights all the way. Encouraged by their enthusiasm, I pitched the project to my colleagues at Teachers & Writers Collaborative, and they were open to the idea as well. It took a bit of good fortune to find the artist and muralist, Nick Kuszyk, and luckily for us, he turned out to be the ideal collaborator for this maiden voyage.
Flash forward to August 2020, the first summer of the global pandemic. Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring, illustrated by Josh Cochran, had published in May, and I received an invitation from the Philadelphia-based organization, A Book A Day, to do an interview related to the book. Little did I know that I was about to meet another pair of likeminded spirits, Sibylla Shekerdjiska-Benatova and Boyana Siramahova. When I told them about the PUMP projects that I had done so far (at that time, two), Sibylla didn’t miss a beat. “Let’s do one at Lea Elementary in West Philly.”
Josh was on board, and so was I. But…the pandemic. We thought about the students and teachers stuck at home, trying their best to simulate the classroom online amid enormous pressures, and we all agreed that we would make it work. I would lead the poetry workshops via Zoom from Berlin, Germany, where I was living while teaching my classes at Brooklyn College virtually. Meanwhile, Sibylla, Bonnie, and the team at A Book A Day valiantly proceeded with planning in order to make each step of the project possible. At a moment when funding for the project seemed uncertain, Teachers & Writers Collaborative came on board as an additional supporter.
For our first meeting with the 5th grade students at Lea Elementary, Josh and I presented Drawing on Walls along with our editor and publisher, Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Enchanted Lion Books. The students were genuinely interested in Keith Haring, a fellow Pennsylvanian who (among other adventures) traveled across the world making art with kids. I shared images of an original Keith Haring “We The Youth” mural located just a few miles away from their neighborhood. We also discussed the collaborative process of making the book to give the students a glimpse into the stages of book publication.
The next two virtual visits were focused on poetry writing. I started by sharing N. Scott Momaday’s poem, “The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee,” and we wrote individual and collaborative delight songs. At the following meeting, we listened to an audio recording of Sekou Sundiata reading his poem, “Shout Out,” and we took inspiration from his work to write shout out poems of our own. When the 5th grade teachers shared their students’ work with me, I combined lines from the various students’ poems into a single collaborative piece titled, “Superheroic Delight Song.”
SUPERHEROIC DELIGHT SONG
A Poem by the 5th Grade Students of Lea Elementary
We are a speckled sky filled with bright shiny stars.
We are a zebra struggling to find food,
a giraffe with a long neck,
a poodle with pink fur lying around doing nothing.
We are a fierce mama bear protective of her cubs,
a sloth at times trying our best to catch up,
a snake slithering through the sand shedding old skin.
We are a shadow walking around freely without a human to follow.
We are leaves that feel the breeze and water
flowing for miles and miles.
Sometimes we are an astronaut soaring through space
without a care in the universe,
and sometimes we are a Xoloitzcuintle panting
from the heat of the sun.
We are lamps lighting up the whole room—
our imaginations activate through
a portal of mind and thought.
We are rocking in the white rocking chairs
on our great grandma’s front porch.
We are leaders who can grasp the truth,
and we are gladiators still in our youth.
We are dreams that come to life fast—
thanks to our school and class.
We are the sunset and the sunrise.
Shout out to the world savers,
the doctors and nurses and teachers,
all the folks who care and fight for people!
Shout out to the hardworking parents,
the scientists and artists and janitors and activists!
Shout to all of us trying to make the world a better place!
I shared this poem with Josh, along with a folder of the students’ individual poems. Then we talked about the kind of mural we hoped to create. How might the mural visually connect with the students’ poems? What do we remember about being in elementary school? What kinds of ideas and feeling do we want the mural to inspire?
One highlight of the collaboration for me was when we talked about “the 5th grade Josh.” What was he like? I asked. What did he love to do? What would he want to see on a big wall in his school? Josh lit up, and these questions seemed to spark a new direction. When, a couple days later, I saw Josh’s sketches for the mural design, I felt the uplift, the joy.
One of my intentions with PUMP is linked to this exchange. I want students to meet artists—individuals who have found a way to make creativity central to their lives and livelihoods. And I want artists to have meaningful encounters with kids, in part to share their experiences and in part to ‘remember’ the kid they once were (and that lives within them). My own creative practice was transformed through my work as a teaching artist in elementary school classrooms, and I feel motivated to share that experience with others, too.
As Josh was completing his designs, I flew back from Berlin for the mural’s installation. The A Book A Day team had worked closely (and tirelessly) with the teachers and administration at the Lea Elementary School to plan the entire weekend. On a Friday morning in May 2021, Josh and I caught the train from NYC to Philly. We went directly to the school, where we were greeted by some of the students and teachers whom we had met during the sessions. Our meeting was brief but memorable. Everyone was wearing masks, yet there was palpable excitement in the air. And yes, some apprehension. Would we be able to pull this off over a single weekend?
We spent the next two-and-a-half days drawing on walls. And we were not alone: Sibylla from A Book A Day and Rich, the Community Partnerships Coordinator, were on site for the duration, generously bringing us lunches and coffees and overseeing the whole operation. Lea’s art teacher, Vanetta, also joined us for a few hours of painting. She revealed her Keith Haring tattoo—surprise!—Keith is also one of her own artistic heroes. The principal of Lea and several other folks passed through to say hello and paint a boba in the bubble tea or a stripe on a sneaker. The welcome we received from the community around Lea Elementary and A Book A Day was incredible.
Josh completed the mural on Sunday evening, right on schedule. We both were physically exhausted and spiritually elated. As people entered the 2nd floor and caught a glimpse of the “Superheroic Delight Song,” their reactions said it all. A more celebratory unveiling would have to wait until the lifting of COVID restrictions, but for the moment, we were a bunch of “lamps lighting up the whole room.”
Matthew Burgess is an Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College. He is the author of six children’s books: Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings (Enchanted Lion Books), The Unbudgeable Curmudgeon (Knopf), Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring (ELB), The Bear and The Moon (Chronicle), and most recently, Bird Boy (Knopf) and Make Meatballs Sing: The Life & Art of Corita Kent (ELB). Matthew also has edited an anthology of visual art and writing titled Dream Closet: Meditations on Childhood Space (Secretary Press), as well as a collection of essays titled Spellbound: The Art of Teaching Poetry (TWC). More books are forthcoming, including The Red Tin Box (Chronicle, 2023) and Words With Wings and Magic Things (Tundra, 2023). A poet-in-residence in New York City public schools since 2001, Matthew also serves as a contributing editor of Teachers & Writers Magazine.