Can Poetry Save Houston’s Kids?

Right now in Houston, a group of kids who might otherwise be skipping school or dodging gangs is excited about class. Today, they aren’t statistics to be shamed or problems to be forgotten. They’re poets. And a Pablo Neruda-quoting, poetry slamming, world-renowned breakdancing social activist is their teacher.

“When I was a kid, my high school counselor told me I should become a bank teller because people get paid every Friday, and they will always need someone to cash those checks,” says Marlon Lizama, the published poet and short story author, and aforementioned teacher. “I was like, ‘I’m 14 years old. And that’s as high as you see me?’ We were being set up for survival. We were not being told we could achieve anything.”

It has become Lizama’s mission to find the kids he used to be and deliver a radically different message. His vehicle is Iconoclast, a writing program launched in October 2014. So far, 175 students at five Houston Independent School District (HISD) public high schools as well as two lockdown facilities — one for boys, one for girls — are writing, reading, and performing poetry. Lizama leads all seven classes.

“It was always, ‘But poor people don’t do poetry, right?’” — Marlon Lizama

To commemorate the initiative’s unlikely breakout success, Iconoclast has published They Say, its first anthology of student work. They Say is a bold collection. Revelatory and intimate, funny and sad, the poems transcend the places, loves, frustrations, hopes, and hopelessness that have inspired them and demand respect not as kids’ play, but as unforgettable art.

“We treat them with integrity and respect, and we treat their work with integrity and respect,” says Lizama. “I think that’s the most important thing. They’re not at-risk kids. They’re artists.”

The artists in the Iconoclast program are staring down daunting odds. At Sharpstown High School, one of the weekly hosts of Iconoclast, 98% of the students are minorities. While recent reports show dropout rates are improving at Sharpstown and across HISD, proficiency in basic subjects including English and math remains alarmingly low. In 2014 at Sharpstown, 74% of students earned “Unsatisfactory” scores in English on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness test. About 8% of the school’s Hispanic population is considered college ready, and about 6% of African American students there meet the same benchmark.

Thirty-four-year-old Lizama understands where his students are and what they face because he’s lived it. He and his family moved to Houston from El Salvador when he was nine. He struggled to learn English, and fought a stutter as he tried to master two languages. There wasn’t much money in his home, but there was art. His mother introduced him to poetry early. “My mom used to make my brothers and I read poetry when we were bad,” Lizama says. “We read Pablo Neruda and other Latin American poets.”

The disciplinary technique familiarized Lizama with great voices, but he didn’t see himself as one of them. He explains, “It was always, ‘But poor people don’t do poetry, right?’”

Art as creative punishment is a theme for the witty, irreverent Lizama, a self-confessed class clown. He was 15 when a teacher, tired of his antics, told him that in order to pass his class, Lizama would need to write and then perform something that blew him away. “I wrote what I didn’t realize then was a poem,” he says. “It was called ‘Where I’m From.’ In it, I talk about truths of where I’m from compared to America. When I performed it, it just naturally came out like a theater act, with cadence because I was into hip hop. The reaction from my classmates — the connection we had — was immediate. It was like, ‘I knew exactly what you were talking about. That’s my life.’”

Today, Lizama uses “Where I’m From” as a writing prompt and discussion tool for his students. That act alone sends a compelling message: I wrote this when I was your age, and I’ve written a lot since then. But I am still proud of this. What will you write today that you’ll be proud of in 20 years?

Lizama remembers his predominantly Hispanic neighborhood being full of hardworking immigrant parents. “There were tons of kids I knew whose parents were undocumented,” he says. “So many kids lost fathers who never came back home from work because immigration got them. When I started writing, all of that would come out. I accidentally became an activist because of those stories.”

A lifeline named Charles Rotramel also helped set Lizama’s path. Today, Rotramel runs Houston: reVision, and when Lizama was a teen, Rotramel founded and directed Youth Advocates, which supports local kids through mentoring and the creation of safe spaces. “Charles had this disgusting old brown building that he used to open up and let us breakdance in, every Thursday from 6 to 10 p.m.,” Lizama says. “It was our church.”

While he was still a teenager, Lizama and friends founded a breakdance group called Havikoro. The crew began entering the world’s elite breakdancing competitions — and winning. Lizama also continued to write and perform as a poet. Then, in a twist that reads like a movie script, the U.S. State Department hired Havikoro to travel the world as cultural ambassadors. Lizama and his friends visited 40 countries, where they presented huge theater shows comprising dance, poetry, and music, taught in schools, and held workshops in slums. He used a pedagogy called the Art of Storytelling, and even though he relied on an interpreter most of the time, the results were consistently powerful.

The experience gave Lizama more confidence, and he began to dream of introducing the Art of Storytelling to kids at home. “Lee High School in Houston speaks 40 languages,” he says. “The same poverty, refugees, and immigrants are all right here.”

So Lizama returned to Houston and took a job with a nonprofit. But he grew frustrated with the system. “It felt exploitative to me,” he says. “How many health fairs do you need? Look, I am a product of free lunches. People in suits took pictures with us. And I remember thinking, ‘It’s just a sandwich, bro. Calm down.’”

Lizama approached his old friend Rotramel, and told him that he wanted to create a new space in Houston for kids. “He said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’” Lizama remembers. “And I said, ‘I don’t know,’” — he laughs — “‘But it has to do with writing. I want to work with tons of kids and create poets. I want to create creatives.’”

Rotramel had an idea. “He said, ‘There’s this crazy guy you need to meet,’” Lizama laughs. “And that’s where Matt came in.”

“Marlon is working to create imagination in a place that doesn’t just have a dearth of imagination. It kills it.” — Rev. Dr. Matthew Russell

“Matt” is Rev. Dr. Matthew Russell, Senior Associate Pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. He and Lizama shared complementary visions, and Iconoclast was born. When asked about the church’s involvement, given that Iconoclast does not espouse any religion, Dr. Russell doesn’t hesitate. “I think the main point for us is that it’s not about fitting into the categories of ‘religious’ or ‘non-religious’,” he explains. “Those are becoming less and less helpful markers. It’s about human flourishing, and that does not have a category. I’m interested in improbable crossroads in our city. We’re handed this world and told this is how it is. Marlon and I should have never met each other — the city is actually set up so that an immigrant from El Salvador and a guy like me will never meet. Part of what I think Marlon and I are doing with these kids is imagining a different world.”

Lizama and Russell became a two-man band, and Iconoclast became one of the initiatives of ProjectCURATE, a non-profit created to bring communities together. Iconoclast’s twin is the Iconoclast Sessions, an event that pairs an academic poet with a spoken word poet for a night of performance and overlapping communities. One Iconoclast Session was devoted to the Iconoclast students, giving them a space, stage, and audience. More than 250 people showed up — only a handful of them were parents of performers. It was an overwhelming turnout.

“We’re just like a half step ahead of these kids,” Lizama says, laughing. “They say, ‘Dude, I love writing. Now what?’ and I respond, ‘Okay, well, let’s create a community of young writers so you guys can get together.’ Then it’s, ‘Alright, Marlon. We did that. Now what?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh. Let’s put together some performances and get you guys on a stage.’ Then, they come back, ‘Yeah, we’re into this. Now what?’ Honestly, this anthology and everything else has basically come out of these kids asking, ‘Now what?’”

In just over a year, Iconoclast has published the They Say anthology and is prepping its first curriculum to share with teachers and other leaders. Iconoclast is also establishing a scholarship fund to support the participants’ educational and entrepreneurial aspirations. Houston is starting to notice: Lizama was the recipient of the 2015 John P. McGovern Award for the Promotion of Public Health.

When asked why poetry is part of the answer to a web of problems as daunting and complex as social and racial inequality, Lizama responds, “We are taught to conform and stand in line, but it’s always the creative, crazy guy or outspoken, strong person who leads. Everybody has a story, and everybody’s story is important. I’m working with kids who have never felt empowerment. I am saying to them, ‘I have faith in you.’”

Dr. Russell adds, “Marlon is working to create imagination in a place that doesn’t just have a dearth of imagination. It kills it. Imagination is the first step to actual change. The reality is that this city does not ‘work’ for everyone. But we can imagine it differently. We can work together and form improbable friendships across the divides to make this city great. Rice sociologist Stephen Kleinberg says, ‘The future of America is going to be worked out in Houston.’ These kids will lead us to the better angels of our nature if we let them.”

It turns out a big part of letting the kids lead is accomplished by simply listening to them. A boy named Abdul Reda wrote one of the poems in They Say. His first few lines introduce his subject vulnerably:

His accent is like a baby trying to

communicate with a grown up world

A hungry boy who spits and eats the alphabet

A picture into his first street,

his first language, an old rose in a cup

Lizama will never forget telling Abdul his poem had been included in the anthology. “When They Say came out, I went up to him and said, ‘You’ve got to check out this new poet I’m reading. He’s amazing.’ I put the book down in front of him, opened to the page with his poem. And he started bawling.” Lizama pauses, leans forward, and grins widely. “He is a published writer.”