St. Paul’s first Youth Poet Laureate gets personal in new book

arts / Article

August 29, 2017 by Ira Brooker

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Images courtesy of Donte Collins.

Watching clips of Donte Collins reading poetry online, the first thing that stands out is the straightforward beauty of the words, the carefully observed imagery and perfectly chosen descriptors that immerse the audience immediately in Collins’s world. The second thing that grabs the attention is the confidence and nuance of Collins’s stage presence. The poet generates a captivating aura that befits a long-time veteran of literary performance, and is well beyond what some people might expect of a reader young enough to claim the title of St. Paul Youth Poet Laureate.

But then, Collins is hardly a newcomer to the poetry scene. “I started writing poetry when I was about 12 or 13. I started writing as a way to communicate with my mother,” Collins explained. “She and I had a very strained relationship, a very heated one. It was the only way to process my thoughts.” Using poetry as therapy came surprisingly naturally, Collins said, especially since an early exposure to reading poems was largely limited to studying Edgar Allan Poe in seventh grade. “I even remember telling people he was my favorite poet, when he was the only poet that I’d come into contact with.”

Now about to begin senior year at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Collins has never stopped writing poetry. Fortunately, the student found a supportive network in the St. Paul arts community. “I got involved with an organization when I was about 13 called TruArtSpeaks,” Collins explained. “They provided writing workshops and field trips to different readings around town. Through that organization I got to go to the International Youth Poetry Slam Festival, Brave New Voices. There’s also a local program, run by TruArtSpeaks, called Be Heard. They identify the top six youth poets in Minnesota, and I got into it. I started writing more seriously after that, talking more about global politics. That happened naturally, and quickly, and organically.”

Collins’s work is a mix of the personal and the political, both handled with sensitivity and a deep sense of wisdom. “My mother passed away last year, so my last book was about her, but also about my upbringing in general. I find inspiration in memory. And also the political climate. Sometimes I feel discouraged by it. I’ll feel like I just can’t write about it, but then it becomes a necessity.” It’s an inspiration that’s presented itself all too frequently over the past couple of years in the Twin Cities. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the police killings of Philando Castile, Jamar Clark others figuring heavily in a number of Collins’ poems.

Collins’s local acclaim hit an apex in May when named St. Paul’s first Youth Poet Laureate, a new title awarded to a poet between the ages of 16 and 24 by the TruArtSpeaks organization, with funding from Knight Foundation. As befits a city’s Poet Laureate, Collins draws a great deal of inspiration from St. Paul. “I was born in Chicago but I was raised here…in the Rondo neighborhood and also Frogtown. A lot of my visual language and imagery comes from St. Paul. I can’t separate being a poet from St. Paul.”

Watching footage of Collins’s readings, it’s easy to see why they’ve caught the eyes of so many arts organizations. Collins is a skilled performer with clockwork delivery and easy charisma, which makes sense given their other fields of interest. “I’m a double-major in theater and English at Augsburg College,” Collins said. “I do love acting. I love the stage. Sometimes it’s nerve-wracking, but I honestly feel obligated to share my work in that way. There’s an obligation - just for myself, not for poets in general - to share my work on stage.”

Collins’s big year as Youth Poet Laureate will reach another peak in early September with a joint book release party with acclaimed poet Danez Smith. This will be Collins’ second book of poetry, following a chapbook released in January. After that, Collins plans to finish the undergraduate program at Augsburg and focus on submitting poems to more publications and applying to as many writing workshops as possible.

While obviously honored by the Laureate title, Collins is also humbled thinking back on the evening of the award ceremony. “The beautiful thing about that night was that any one of us could have been chosen. The poems were that good and that charged. When they called me I was honestly shocked. And equally honored, but I was mostly shocked. There’s so many beautiful young poets in St. Paul.”

Donte Collins and Danez Smith host a joint book release party at Black Dog Cafe in St. Paul from 7 to 9 p.m.. Sept. 5. Find out more at truartspeaks.org. 

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