APPLETON — Mya Koffie is no stranger to difficult subjects, but it’s in writing poems that she feels freed from their burdens.
It was one of the main thoughts that inspired the 17-year-old junior to start the poetry club at Appleton North High School.
Simply put, writing makes her feel better.
“In writing, I find a way to exist in a way the present moment doesn’t always allow — fully, courageously,” Koffie said.
At a time when daily mass shooting alerts are emerging in every corner of the country and ongoing civil unrest erupts amid a deadly pandemic, Koffie and other Appleton North students respond with a message of bold unit.
When Koffie enrolled at Appleton North this year, she started and now chairs the school’s poetry club. With about fifteen other students, they tackle topics that offer a unique perspective for growing up in 2022, including suicide and suicidal ideation. For Koffie, the topic of suicide prevention is personal. Far too many of his peers struggle with mental illness, and poetry is the perfect way to speak truth to power.
“The past three years have presented everyone with many unprecedented experiences. These experiences have amplified the intensity of the already very strange teenage experience,” Koffie said. “Suicide prevention is very personal to me, and I know countless young people struggling with their mental health.”
‘Poetry…contains truths that may be too dangerous to say aloud’
Koffie was first drawn to poetry because of Maya Angelou – the late poet, author and civil rights activist – whom she chose for a biography project when she was in second grade.
At first, the second year student chose her because they shared a name, but even at a young age, Koffie could delineate Angelou’s insights and apply them to her own life experiences.
“I fell in love with his work, or, you know, the kind of work a sophomore might enjoy,” Koffie said. “From there, poetry mingled with my identity.”
This weaving of life and literature will eventually push her to carve out a space for poetry in her high school, where she can share her love of poetry with a small group of other avid readers.
It also led her to win a prestigious award this year. Across 42 schools and from 268 eligible entries, Koffie won first place in the senior division of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets for her poem, “26 Things to Liquify.”
“Poetry has always given me a way to hold onto the truths that seem too dangerous to say out loud — the words I have no way to hold onto,” Koffie said.
These hard-to-digest truths relate to suicide and mental illness. It is in her poems that she can address the complications of sexual assault, her identity as a young multiracial woman, and the oppressive forces within anti-LGBTQ legislation and the killing of unarmed black people.
Data shows suicide rates in Wisconsin are consistently higher than the national average for 10- to 19-year-olds, with 32% of suicides attributed to family issues and 25% attributed to problems at schools, the report said. of 2020 “Suicide in Wisconsin: Impact and Response,” published by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Between 2018 and 2020, the DHS reported 32 suicide deaths for the 0-14 age group. In the 15-24 age group, there were 1,179 deaths by suicide.
Bringing Poetry to Appleton North
The Appleton North Poetry Club culminated with a showcase connecting poetry and activism on May 26 in the school auditorium. Students read poems that highlighted their stories of female circumcision, recent mental health diagnoses, living with ADHD and autism, eating disorders, personal accounts of trauma and gun violence .
The showcase took place two days after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, a fact that was not lost on the students.
It particularly resonated when student Gabrielle Beaman, in her poem “Thoughts and Prayers,” recounted being at the Fox River Mall with her friends when deadly mayhem hit the mall in a mass shooting the last year. She described seeing a body lying in a pool of blood before being escorted outside.
Koffie read a poem called “The Microaggression Tree”, which, among other themes, addressed bullies who taunted her for talking “like a white girl”. The poem emphasized resilience despite the root causes of microaggressions, or the unconscious or involuntary thoughts and actions that reveal harmful attitudes toward marginalized groups.
Not all trauma is tied to a specific time and place, which is part of the beauty of poetry, according to Leah Dreyer, an English teacher at Appleton North who serves as the club’s adviser.
Dreyer said students come together during main class to talk about the power of poetry, share a space to hear each other read aloud from original work, and analyze poems familiar and unfamiliar to students.
“There are very hard-hitting, distressing and sometimes even disturbing issues that students write about in their work,” Dreyer said. “But the reality is that these issues are real and have affected them in some way.”
As an advisor to the club, Dreyer is aware of her position as both a practitioner of poetry and an educator of students. The subject matter students are writing about, she says, can be intense and at times unsettling, but creative expression trumps problem bottling.
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“For students, the poetry they wrote is a form of reaching a sense of purpose or closure,” Dreyer said. “Even though those painful parts of their lives will always follow them, writing and sharing a poem about it has allowed them to really release those pent up emotions in a healthy and fulfilling way.”
To begin her article on gender equality and the wage gap, Olivia Feng, a ninth grader, read Maya Angelou’s poem, “Equality,” which repeats the phrase “Equality, and I will be free.”
Feng uttered this phrase until it became a powerful mantra that ties into her own exploration of gender equality in the workforce that she, too, is likely to occupy.
Feng, 14, said she felt both excited and nervous about sharing her poem. But the power of self-expression outweighed any feelings of stage fright she had.
“I was really nervous before the show, but standing up and sharing my voice to empower people felt so special,” Feng said. “I encourage everyone to share their voice because although it may sound terrifying, you never know who you might inspire.”
Between ticket sales, concessions and donations, the poetry club donated $250 in proceeds to the nonprofit Prevent Suicide Fox Cities.
Koffie said she hoped it would be a catalyst event for future charity events that the club could put her poems behind. She also hopes these showcases will help center the toll not only on the pandemic, but also on other societal concerns that are causing people to consider suicide.
“People were struggling with suicide every day even before a pandemic shook the world,” Koffie said. “The disconnect caused by COVID-19 within communities persists, even as we struggle to forget the stress caused by the pandemic.”
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