“Poetry allows me to move beyond what would otherwise weigh me down. I get to be braver in a poem.”

From a young age, Donte Collins felt empowerment through words. At 13 years old, the Black, Queer, Minnesota poet felt the impact of poetry when they used a poem to communicate to their mother feelings that they had previously been unable to express outside of therapy. Connecting across a generation, the two were able to be vulnerable with one other, and Donte felt that they had “built a bridge across bodies.”

In seventh grade at St. Peter Clevers, Donte competed in a poetry competition. “It was the first time I ever competed or performed. And the poem I read there was about identity, it was about me trying to take back the narrative of Black and Queer folk. Saying ‘This is who I am.'” Focused on Black leadership, St. Peter Clevers became a space that shaped Donte’s journey as they came to terms with their sexuality and their identity.

Thinking back to their time at the school, Donte remembered an art teacher who painted portraits of the students on canvasses and reflected, that “[St. Peter Clevers] was a community [that] saw us, and they weren’t shy about saying ‘This is a safe place for you to be Black, beautiful, intelligent, seen.’”

Donte Collins shares their poem, “The Orphan Performs an Autopsy on Adoption.”

A featured artist who performed in the April 2019 event Art Is… My Origin, Donte speaks more extensively about some of the themes they confront in their poetry.

On belonging…

“I am always seeking to belong. Not from a place of deficit. But from a place of who can I welcome into the family of me? Or, how many families or homes can I have?”

“The ‘I’ that I gesture to in my poems is very much like a living self, a past self as well as a future self, a self that I seek to continuously name and wonder about in order to survive. And yes, part of that is to make peace with my body and my sexuality, these things that should have only ever begun with joy. But also to signify and affirm my spirit.”

On identity…

“It’s what poetry does for me, it calls me into myself. It says, ‘What do you know about words? What do you know about rhythm and sound and song? And what can you make and what do you have to say?'”

“My blackness is tied to courage, and my queerness is tied to courage and tied to a people who have had and still have to fight to prove we are beings worthy of love. My blackness is tied to celebration, and my queerness is tied to celebration, but I think both are tied to a kind of love. A love that prioritizes unilateral distributions of power of wealth, of protection. A love that futures my kin but also futures the earth.”

On finding a voice…

“I want people to find power in their narrative and lead with that narrative. And I think that that disrupts a lot because a lot of people are being told what their narrative is or [they are] being grouped into this system that benefits from them not knowing that they have power in their own story.”

“I want to remind young artists, as I keep reminding myself every day, to trust the process and to really lean on your community for support. As a poet, as a human being, as an artist, to not be afraid to wonder… Lean into asking braver questions.”

Donte Collins was named the inaugural Youth Poet Laureate of Saint Paul; they are also the recipient of the 2018 McKnight Artist Fellowship for Spoken Word and winner of the 2016 Most Promising Young Poet Award from the Academy of American Poets. Donte also authored the poetry collection Autopsy (Button Poetry, 2017), which was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award.

 

Special thanks: Golden Thyme Coffee & CafeSt. Peter Claver
Production Team: Kate McDonald, Ryan Klabunde, Brennan Vance, Joe Demko

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This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

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Donte Collins was featured in the 2019 event Art Is…My Origin, which was curated by spoken word artist Tish Jones. In this essay, Jones writes about how “My tribe heals best when we come together.”

A Hmong refugee of war living in Minnesota, Bee Yang never let the light of his song poetry craft go out while working manufacturing jobs in Minnesota. Trained by the great traditional song poets, Yang is the inspiration behind the book The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father, written by his daughter, Kao Kalia Yang. Both artists were featured in the event Art Is…Our Call for Peace.