- Shamil Ross of Derenne Middle School reads his work at the last Deep Speaks. Photo by Lief Carlson
IMANI MUHAMMAD has been comfortable with a pen in her hand since she was little.
“Instead of watching TV, I would sit down and write stories,” says the Charles Ellis eighth grader.
It helps that her mother, a teacher and literacy coach, gave her a writing exercise every day for years to prime her imagination.
“She would tell me to write a haiku about the weather, or something on the news,” laughs Imani.
“It’s definitely helped me in school.”
Her mom’s daily literary tasks also helped her when she signed up for Deep Center, the non-profit creative writing program that holds afterschool sessions in 13 public middle schools around Chatham County. Students meet weekly with facilitators called “fellows” who provide prompts and encourage honest, emotional writing, which can be challenging compared to straight-forward school assignments.
“It’s more responsibility because it’s not as structured,” says Imani thoughtfully.
“I really have to manage my time and stay focused.”
Imani has written several poems with Deep Center, including “One and Only,” which was inspired by a prompt about a Cinderella horror story. She’ll be one of 39 students reading their work out loud at Deep Speaks this Monday, Feb. 2.
The Deep Speaks events happen twice a year to launch the newest volumes of the center’s published stories, culled from the best of each student’s work throughout the semester. Four versions of the books are published with a cover illustration by artist Young Ju Kim, each one representing schools from south, west, east and central Savannah. Three students from each school are chosen by their peers to represent on stage based on their “originality and fearlessness.”
It’s the first Deep Speaks event for Deep Center executive director Dare Dukes, who joined the organization last September. After a successful fall fundraiser that shattered organizational records, he’s excited for audiences and benefactors to see what he’s already witnessed in the workshops.
“In school, most of these kids encounter so much attention and focus on writing that they lose the joy,” says Dukes.
- Deep Center Executive director Dare Dukes (l.) and Director of Programs Megan Ave'Lallemant (second from r.) encourage students like Kayla Flowers (second from l.) and Imani Muhammad (r.) to explore their own experiences in their writing.
“Deep’s approach is to let kids get back to the joy and inspiration—we’ll work on the grammar and punctuation later. Our feeling is that if you can connect back with that original pleasure, there’s plenty of time to work on the other stuff.”
That’s a delightful deviation that makes the program so popular. Director of Programs Megan Ave’Lallemant estimates that Deep Center serves about 280 kids per year, and there’s always a waiting list.
“I expected more reading, and doing worksheets and stuff,” says Kayla Flowers, a sixth grader at Isle of Hope who will also read her poem “End of the Days as a Cloud” on Monday night.
“But it wasn’t that. It was people welcoming you to be a true, creative person in your writing.”
Deep writers are subject to a rigorous revision process, vetting each word with partners and fellows. But rather than censor themselves, they’re gently pushed to explore and excavate their own experiences.
“There’s no topic or language that’s out of bounds,” promises Dukes.
“As long as the author is being intentional, they’re encouraged to delve deep and confront the hard stuff.”
Sharing their writing and personal lives creates strong bonds between the students, and the sentiment that there should be more opportunities to write has been expressed many times since Deep Center’s inception in 2010. The Deep staff is working on ways to stay engaged with students after they graduate from the program.
Both Imani and Kayla are also participants in Block by Block, a new program for graduates of Deep Center that meets on Sunday afternoons and takes the eager scribes out into their own community to search for stories.
Led by artist/activists Coco Papy and Molly Lieberman, Block by Block recently held its inaugural meeting at the Sentient Bean, a locus for local colorful characters and the site of Emergent Savannah’s “What Do You Love, What Do You Dream” project. The new program not only beckons the students to expand their creative platforms but also increases their visibility to those who might otherwise dismiss Savannah’s young writers.
“People think of writing as solitary, but that’s not how a lot of artists create—they go out into the world and find inspiration,” says Dukes.
“I also think it’s important that a city is able to find a space for the voices of its young people.”