Cleveland School of the Arts Student is One of the Nation's Five Best Youth Poets

Courtesy of the National Student Poets Program
De'John Hardges, 16, a junior at Cleveland School of the Arts, loves reading his own poetry out loud. On his phone, he's got a list of his poems arranged alphabetically by title, and when he begins, his voice is deep and assured... 

Hardges is a Garfield Heights resident and an energetic ambassador for the literary arts. But it was his talent on the page — a gift for powerful metaphor, among other things — that got him noticed by the President's Committee for the Arts and Humanities and the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Last week, Hardges was announced as one of five teens selected to the fourth annual class of the National Student Poets Program (NSPP), the nation's top honor for youth poets. 

Hardges traveled to Washington D.C. to accept his award, hang out with first lady Michelle Obama, and engage in conversation with some of the nation's most celebrated poets and writers, Claudia Rankine among them. 

As an NSPP poet, Hardges will be asked to serve as an ambassador, "with the mission to engage diverse audiences of all ages in the art of poetry by sharing his work, attending events, hosting workshops and leading service projects within his community."

At the new Cleveland School of the Arts building on Carnegie Avenue and Stearns Road, Hardges tells Scene that he almost didn't get into CSA. After a few years of writing hip-hop lyrics, he'd been encouraged by teachers to audition, but when he arrived with his mother to try out, he hadn't realized he was supposed to bring a portfolio of his work.    

"And my mom kinda flipped," Hardges says, "because we stayed on the west side at the time and it was a hassle getting over there. She started yelling and cursing, but then she went up and talked to [Creative Writing program director] Mr. Gray. He said I needed three pieces, so I had to sit and write them right then." 

"They were on looseleaf paper," Mr. Daniel Gray confirms. "But the writing was good, and I wanted to test him, to see if he'd come back with a polished portfolio the next week, to see if he wanted it as much as I thought he did. And sure enough...The thing about De'John is that he has the look of passion in his eyes. And that's the most important thing we try to nurture here at Cleveland School of the Arts: passion."

Hardges, on his trip to Washington D.C.: "Indescribable," a "once-in-a-lifetime experience," "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." 

On meeting first lady Michelle Obama: "I thought she was going to be all types of busy, and too busy to talk to us. But she was just like, 'Hey, how y'all doin?' I walked up and gave her my hand and she gave me a hug. She was basically just like a normal person, the smile and everything. Her personality was just very comfortable. Her intentions were to make us feel like we were her friends, and I honestly feel that she is my friend now, like I might actually be getting a call from her."

On what he'd tell young people interested in poetry: "Art is a universal language. No matter how blunt and devastating it might be, it's still positive. It's the key to a better world. When you bring art into a situation, negativity is automatically going to be pushed out. My message would be: support art, because art will support you."  

Mr. Gray says that Hardges missed a few days of school for the D.C. trip, but that the education that took place in the nation's capital was well worth it for one of his most engaged and enthusiastic students.

"As a chaperone and mentor," Gray said, "it's kind of what you live for. 

Hardges poem "Mr. Superior," which secured his place among the NSPP ranks, was also included in The Best Teen Writing of 2015 Hardges read aloud it for Scene at CSA. He says that right now he's focused on diversity in his writing, showing that despite human differences, "everything is relatable." But he also writes frequently about Cleveland.

"But it comes up so symbolic that you have to know our city to understand it," he says. "Mr. Superior is basically taking the 105th and Superior area and bringing it to life as a person who tells a story. He's a drunk on the corner."  

Mr. Superior

I saw dis drunk 
On deh corner of 1 0 5
Wearen' deh same thang
Dem red and white Jordan’s
Wit da black check on deh side
But, I sweah he told me 
Dat he stood in line deh first time
Wen dey first came out
Den tell me why he rocken' deh Dickies real baggy
A black ROC-A-
WEARing it proud
Dat was his armor
Made him bullet proof
Wit all da rips and holes
Even wit his fitted cap
You could definitely tell dis character from a caricature
Breath reeking hottah then the devil peeing whiskey 
Constantly staren' n' preachen'
On that same corner
Smellin' of the same thang
People say the same thang
Story changed but same thang everyday
He claims he's seen it all
But his eyes, solid grey 
Everybody say he's lost it but, I think he hella sane
I listen
Facts is all I hear 
A primary source, sound like he was right there
Everything becomes vivid
Deh stench of each picture
Speak descriptions only he could hear
Now he pass em' on to who eva he catch listenen'
One time
One time
He told me bout a conversation
He had wit dat house on the corner 
Like 3 different colors
Dey had a discussion
Dey criticized bein' loyal
To compromises 
Becuz' nuhen harder den self-reliance 
Out here on these mean streets
Dats how he said it
He had a sense of humor but that's not why I didn't forget him
He was actually wise 
So I respect em
Aim a few dollas his way
Jus to get em rejected
He would tell me 
Dah superior sign told him not to accept it
He claimed my ear was enough
So I continued to lend it
As he told me where he found
That shell of a building
It was dah late 80s
He said
A few cops and a gang
Were bumpen heads
A couple dozen shots
Left every body dead
It was horrible 
Building jus had to be condemned
But it still caused trouble
You know suicides 
Or car accidents
Boom.!!! Into the brick entrance
The city got sick of it 
So they tried to tare it down
But it kept resisten' em
Left a shell there 
And a few skeletons
Talked to em all
Before he cleaned up
Den settled in
Claimed it
After dey mangled it
Dah cities trash
Became his settlement

Living life
Is wat he claim he does
Everyday on dat corner
Getting extremely drunk
But wen i ask, his response
Is I'm jus a lil buzzed
I don't think he crazy
That's jus sumn u labeled em

Ears listening
To broken records
Broke ears
from passing that paper
I’m done hearin' yo

Aye – Look at this
A no named pic in the obit
Says he had no family or a place to stay
No one knew his identity
He nevah wore a mask
Said he was a drunk 
That's jus how y'all pictured em

But really he was superior

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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