Teaching artist spotlight: Hakim Bellamy

Hakim Bellamy was the inaugural Poet Laureate of Albuquerque (2012-14) and facilitates youth writing workshops for schools, jails, churches, prisons and community organizations in New Mexico and beyond.

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Photo by Wes Naman

JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art?

HB: Good teachers are comfortable at the front of the room talking. Better teachers are good at listening. Great teachers are good at processing what they’ve heard, pivoting when required and using it to moderate the dosage. Ultimately, I’ve learned to equip my students (both in prison/jail workshops and as a high school creative writing professor) with the tools they need to construct and deconstruct writing even in my absence. And often, I pick up new tools to share from them. As a writer and teacher, I chose to teach from a space of ideation rather than refinement (the traditional editing/drafting process). I leave that for my English teacher counterparts. I firmly believe that the best ideas give way to the best poems. Perspective, a different analysis or way of seeing the world than my own is what my students (especially those in carceral spaces) offer me. Other than irreversibly changing me as a human, they become ideas I can share with writers in future workshops to prime the imagination pump. For instance, the idea of writing a poem from the perspective of what it is like to have a birthday in prison. And them teaching me through their work that birthdays are not something we look forward to in prison. It is a monument to the passing of time, wishes and dreams.

JAC: JAC, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?

HB: In the last workshop that I facilitate about doing work with incarcerated populations, there was a skills share that was part of my work prior to then workshop. I was able to bring/share work (scrubbed for identifiers) and prompts/practices with workshop providers. I think this sort of skills share is useful, not just in e-mail/newsletter format but with conference call/zoom meeting or meet up. I think the sharing of work, something Wendy [Jason] taught me, is as important for our workshop participants as it is for us providers. Sure, our coveted funders may frown upon this sort of hierarchy flattening, but once we stop getting silo’d and competing for resources we will have more impact. None of us are doing any thing that it proprietary…cultivating humanity through writing and performance circles is creative commons. We can have more of a sustainable and measurable impact reaching across instead of up…and maybe, just maybe there is a funder waiting to fund that sort of sector/operational work. Call it sector/professional development.

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with system-impacted artists?

HB: The grace by which they welcome me and the light/hope I try to bring into a space that is designed to deprive them of those things. It could be easy for them to go, “so what? This shit has no tangible impact on my lived situation.” But by and large, they don’t. They are open to the possibility of learning something…about themselves. All I provide is the rare person who sees them as what they write/say rather than what they did.

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Hakim Bellamy is a national and regional Poetry Slam Champion and holds three consecutive collegiate poetry slam titles at the University of New Mexico. His poetry has been published on the Albuquerque Convention Center, on the outside of a library, in inner-city buses and in numerous anthologies across the globe. Bellamy was recognized as an honorable mention for the University of New Mexico Paul Bartlett Ré Peace Prize for his work as a community organizer and journalist in 2007 and later awarded the Career Achievement Award for the same Prize in 2018. In 2013 he was awarded the Emerging Creative Bravos Award by Creative Albuquerque and was named a W. K. Kellogg Foundation Fellow as well as a Food Justice Resident Artist at Santa Fe Art Institute in 2014. Bellamy was named “Best Poet” in the Weekly Alibi’s annual Best of Burque poll every year between 2010 and 2017. His first book, SWEAR (West End Press/UNM Press) won the Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing from the Working Class Studies Association. He is the co-creator of the multimedia Hip Hop theater production Urban Verbs: Hip-Hop Conservatory & Theater that has been staged throughout the country. Bellamy has had his work featured in Rattle, AlterNet, Truthout, CounterPunch and on the nationally syndicated Tavis Smiley Radio Show. In 2017 he was named a Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow and he’s served as the on-air television host for New Mexico PBS’s ¡COLORES! Program for three years. The proud father of a 10 year-old miracle, Bellamy was recently appointed Deputy Director for the City of Albuquerque’s Cultural Services Department and is the founding president of Beyond Poetry LLC.

 

 

The City Inside

By Hakim Bellamy

About the guest blogger: Hakim Bellamy became the inaugural poet laureate of Albuquerque on April 14th, 2012, at age 33. He was the son of a preacher man (and a praying woman). His mother gave him his first book of poetry as a teen, a volume by Khalil Gibran. Many poems later, Bellamy has been on two national champion poetry slam teams, won collegiate and city poetry slam championships (in Albuquerque and Silver City, NM), and has been published in numerous anthologies and on inner-city buses. A musician, actor, journalist, playwright and community organizer, Bellamy has also received an honorable mention for the Paul Bartlett Ré Peace Prize at the University of New Mexico. Bellamy is the founder and president of Beyond Poetry LLC. For more information on the author, please visit www.hakimbe.com.

The City Inside Me

I want to think about my future.
I want to put my past behind me,
but my heart is in the streets.
I am away from my seeds,
aggrieved,
praying to God on my knees .

I want to succeed.

I am tired of making mistakes.
My mind is in a place it cannot escape.

My son looks me in the face.
Is it a man he sees?

I tell him about the streets and the damage it brings.

Rochester, New York is where you find me.
Rochester,
filled with so much pain.
Rochester, the city inside me.

Manuel, Monroe Correctional Facility

Courtesy of the New York State Literary Center

It’s a simple prompt, or so I thought. Describe the city inside of you. What is the weather like in that city? What are the people like in that city? What are you like, in that city? Having served on the Governing Council of Gordon Bernell Charter School inside of Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) I have a fairly nuanced understanding of corrections and incarceration in this country. Enough to know that many of these men at Monroe Correctional Facility where probably not even from Rochester, NY. They’d likely been displaced from their hometowns and families, moved like chattel, but no matter where they go there is a piece of their city inside of them.

I was so fortunate to be invited into the Monroe Facility by Dale Davis of the New York State Literary Center and poet John Roche. I had roughly 90 minutes to work with about 30 men. At 35, I was one of the youngest Black men in the room. And most of these men were black. Incredulously, I find the same overrepresentation of Black bodies in the pods at MDC in New Mexico. The only difference being that New Mexico has a 2% African American population per the last Census.

So we went to work on that right away. When teaching artists go into correctional facilities we are not there to entertain or be part of some enrichment programming, we are there to transform. We are transformed. Because the best way to teach is by example, so I shared with them some tough poems about identity and a rap or two about fear and fatherhood. I used the first 30 minutes to tell them Where I’m From (sans the poem prompt by George Ella Lyons), and also share with them this transformational arc in my own life, that I document through my practice of poetry. And for the last hour of the workshop, I give them that practice. Together we remember, reflect, write, reflect, share, reflect and let that resonate.

Sure, they learned (or were simply reminded) that the weather inside them, is changing. Just like weather is always changing in a city, just like people are always changing in a city. That’s inspiring when you are inside and “outside” is something that is rationed to you. But what they really learn is community. As a group they took a risk with me. They decided to share some of where they are from and some of who they are inside with each other and some dude they barely met (me). In that short period of time, we established a space where folks felt safe to take risks (whether that be reading in front of the group or sharing personal thoughts) and we brought people together through the practice of listening. Frankly, adults on the outside need these skills as much as these men did. And skills like these, like empathy, like compassion, like communication and understanding, take practice.

My job is not just to help Manuel imagine a city inside of him, my job as a teaching artist is to help him create that world around him. Poetry is just one tool to help that process of reconstruction.

Hakim Bellamy at the Monroe Correctional Facility.
Hakim Bellamy at the Monroe Correctional Facility