Poet La Shaun Phoenix Moore performs at the 2022 If the River Could Sing event. She will be the host for this year’s event, which takes place Thursday at Robert Valade Park. (Courtesy photo from Sara Faraj)

For those wanting to soak up the last of Detroit’s summer season, a Thursday festival will offer creative activities, poetry and music–complete with picturesque views of the Detroit River.

InsideOut Literary Arts is hosting its second poetry and music festival If the River Could Sing: A Celebration of Writing and River with InsideOut 6-9 p.m. Thursday at Robert Valade Park in the Rivertown neighborhood. The event was born last year out of the nonprofit’s Poetry for the People initiative, a series of workshops, installations and performances in neighborhoods across the city designed to demystify poetry. 

The free festival will feature a full lineup of Detroit performers including singer John Bunkley, rapper, singer and former InsideOut writer-in-residence Mahogany Jones and singer/songwriter Audra Kubat. Ann Arbor poet Carlina Duan will perform, along with Detroit poet Cherise Morris and InsideOut’s poetry contest winners. The contest was open to kids and adults and judged by Michigan Poet Laureate Nandi Comer and Columbia University professor and poet Wendy Walters. 

Attendees gather at Robert Valade Park for InsideOut Literary Arts If the River Could Sing event. The poetry and music festival will return for its second year Thursday. (Courtesy photo from Sara Faraj)

The event will be hosted by vocalist, spoken word artist and InsideOut Advanced Youth Programming Coach La Shaun Phoenix Moore. She’ll open with a performance of the Common and John Legend song, “Glory.” Afterward, Moore will switch to poetry with a recitation of Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” before her youth performance troupe comes to the stage to share original pieces. 

“I’m really excited about the quality of artists that we’re bringing in,” Moore said. “InsideOut is well on its way to fostering a true literary festival environment. I believe that it can be one of the largest in the state. It’s gonna be really dope.” 

Bringing poetry to a wider audience

InsideOut Executive Director Suma Rosen said for the last couple of years, the organization had been brainstorming how to connect poetry with the broader community and amplify youth voices and thought If the River Could Sing would be an event to showcase that. The festival received positive feedback from performers, partners and attendees, she said. 

“We had such a great time with it that we were like, ‘This actually feels like us and it feels like something we should be doing on an annual basis,’” she said. “It is part of our commitment to providing ways in which the broader community can engage with the power and the joy of self expression, which is really central to who we are.” 

New this year is dividing activities into four zones–arts and culture, wellness, teen and conservation. Some activities include a sound and river meditation, Live Coal Gallery leading sessions on creating collage art, youth photography nonprofit Capturing Belief opening their “D Portrait Studio” to take photos of people onsite and a riverfront history walking tour from city historian Jamon Jordan. 

Another attraction of the festival is the winner reveal for If the River Could Sing poetry contest. Open to kids and adults, entrants had to submit a poem inspired by the Detroit River. The youth and adult winners will share their pieces at the festival and the poems will be brought to life as letterpress broadsides by arts organization Signal Return. Letterpress is a form of printing where the surface of letters or images is raised by ink and then pressed into paper.

Michigan Poet Laureate Nandi Comer performing at the 2022 If the River Could Sing event. This year she served as one of the judges for InsideOut’s poetry contest. (Courtesy photo from Sara Faraj)

Themes from some of the poems included grief, immigration and the history of the river, Comer said. 

Rosen said interest in the contest was high. She added that while poetry has never disappeared from the arts and culture landscape, she feels the art form making a comeback. 

“More people are talking about poetry just in regular conversations I’m finding and I think poetry has a real goal,” she said, “It’s not it’s a dead art. It’s active, it’s live and relevant and there are people talking about the world that we’re living in and their experiences right now and I think lots of people relate.” 

As a former writer-in-residence and administrative program coordinator for InsideOut, Comer said the organization is beneficial for creative youth in Detroit who want to develop their writing skills. 

“They’re a really important organization for many writers,” she said. “Writers that are my age and younger probably wouldn’t have even known how to get started with their writing careers had they not participated in some InsideOut program. I don’t think there’s any program in Detroit – and I would dare to say Michigan – that has the kind of transformative programming InsideOut has created in the writing community here.”

Meanwhile, Moore said that children may have an interest in writing and the arts overall because those types of classes are being taken out of schools. 

“It’s re-exposing the community to this arts component, and giving them permission to play, to thrive, to find respite and curiosity in this hobby that has been life changing for so many artists,” she said. “That’s what InsideOut does, I think they just flick on a switch inside of young people and provide them with opportunities of creative ways to expand and broaden their voices with the greater world and I think that’s what poetry and art actually does.” 

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