It started as an after-school writing program.
Then it grew into a poetry club, a film club, essay workshops, summer camps. Now, Write253 is blossoming from small volunteer group into a full-fledged nonprofit. Its 501(c)3 papers will arrive any day now, and its second Louder Than A Bomb poetry festival is coming April 29 at Tacoma Community College. But during its six years, the Tacoma group has stuck to its goal: helping Tacoma kids find their voice through writing.
“So if Andon writes a line like, ‘Tacoma is full of crime’ — OK, that’s not a good line, but if you do that then what would Evans write?” says Michael Haeflinger. “Something that’s not just the opposite, but is something only you would see?”
“Umm …” comes a response. Four sets of eyes stare into the middle distance, thinking. It’s the poetry club meeting at Baker Middle School in Tacoma, and Haeflinger, poet and Write253 program coordinator, is gently prodding four students toward a pressing assignment: writing the group poem they’ll perform at Louder Than A Bomb.
They have lots of ideas and a format. And it’s clear that, thanks to Write253, these kids are not just communicating and organizing a project in a way that most adults would be proud to do. They’re also thinking deeply about their city and their own experiences, and how best to express them in words.
Any opportunity we get to engage with the humanities leads to greater empathy and critical thinking. I wonder what we lose when we don’t ask (kids) to do that. -
Michael Haeflinger, poet, Write253
“The humanities are being shoved to one side in favor of STEM education,” says Haeflinger, explaining why he spends upward of 25 unpaid hours a week teaching middle-schoolers how to write. “STEM is good, but the humanities are treated as secondary to subjects that will lead to jobs. I don’t know how fair that is. My doctor was an English major before she went to medical school, and she told me that made her better at communicating with patients and colleagues. Any opportunity we get to engage with the humanities leads to greater empathy and critical thinking. I wonder what we lose when we don’t ask (kids) to do that.”
Engaging kids with words has been what Write253 (originally Write@253) has been quietly doing since 2011. Operating out of a rent-free Spaceworks storefront on the Hilltop and modeled after the hugely successful 826Valencia in San Francisco, it began programming in 2012 with after-school writing classes and on-site workshops.
Founder and executive director Mary Fox, an English instructor at Tacoma Community College, wanted to give more attention to creative writing and enrich Tacoma’s writing environment.
Over the years, Write253 has done just that. The First Creek Middle School group became a film club, now meeting twice a week. Other schools joined the roster: a twice-weekly creative writing group at McCarver Elementary, now in its fourth year, and another at Roosevelt Elementary; a book club at Giaudrone Middle School; a memoir group at Jason Lee Middle School; the poetry club at Baker. There have been four years of summer writing camps at the storefront, and workshops on everything from spoken word to college application essays.
The rotating group of college-student helpers has grown. In August, Write253 started twice-monthly poetry workshops for incarcerated youths at Remann Hall. Last year saw the first Louder Than A Bomb poetry slam, led by Haeflinger, who’d just finished an assistant professor post at the University of Puget Sound and had successfully begun a similar program in Philadelphia. Last year’s four teams and 30 teenage poets (including a recorded team from Remann Hall) has this year expanded into a whole day of workshops, attracting teams from Lacey and West Seattle, with state Poet Laureate Tod Marshall as guest.
After a year of preparation, Write 253 is waiting to be confirmed as a stand-alone nonprofit. It’s starting the search for a board, and applying for grants to pay a core teaching staff. Having moved out of the Hilltop space due to a landlord change, the group dreams of eventually having an open writing center downtown.
“It’s exhilarating and scary and fun,” says Haeflinger.
Most of all, it helps young people find their voice.
I like that you can express yourself through writing. -
Coleman Fleetwood, teen poet
“I like that you can express yourself through writing,” says Coleman Fleetwood, a Baker sixth-grader who’s been in the poetry club since wrestling finished in December. “Sometimes I don’t know how to get my feelings out through words.”
Coleman says the club has taught him how to use his imagination and concentrate on his work without getting distracted. Oh, and his Language Arts grade has risen from C to B.
Benji Abueg, though, is harder to pin down. He joined the club because of Coleman, his best friend, and admits he’s “kind of hyper.”
“My favorite hobby is spinning in circles,” he says earnestly.
Yet in the empty classroom where the poetry club is planning its Louder Than A Bomb takeover, it’s very clear what writing does for these eight kids. Coleman is busy with Andon Huynh, Ausha Smith and Jalen Evans as they organize the “13 Ways of Looking at Tacoma” group poem. He’s articulate, coming up with good ideas and convincing the others. All of them agree to come in before school for the next few Wednesdays as well.
Abueg, meanwhile, is deep in thought about a solo poem. He’s not fidgeting or spinning in circles. Finally he comes up to ask for a rhyme for “tundra.” Behind him, Andrew Espinoza is several stanzas into an eloquent poem about the butterfly effect.
Mary Fox acknowledges that, after five years, Write253 doesn’t really have any concrete way to measure success. They get student data from the organizations that host their after-school groups — the YMCA, Peace Community Center — but none of it is individual. Teachers want literacy to improve grades, but Fox and Haeflinger want to balance that with a love of making art and with student needs, such as how to write a college application.
“Success for us has been stability,” says Fox, pointing to the many returning students and families at school groups and summer camp. “Right now, if we have a safe place for kids and can make writing fun, that’s good. But I know we have a lot of work to do.”
Louder Than A Bomb teen poetry festival
When: Workshops, panel from 9:30 a.m., public slam 2-5 p.m., April 29.
Where: Building 11, Tacoma Community College, 6501 S. Mildred St., Tacoma.
Also: Indie poets may enter the slam any time. Email email@example.com.
Poetry night: The festival will be followed by the free Tacoma Poet Laureate handover event 5-8 p.m. in the Tacoma Community College auditorium, Building 2. Featured poets include current laureate Cathy Nguyen, new laureate Kellie Richardson, Miriam McBride, Marquis McCrary and more, with a hands-on art project.
Information: 253-460-4474, write253.com.