Poetry highlights in honor of National Poetry Month!
Poet of the Day: Jacob Saenz

 Jacob Saenz was born in Chicago and raised in Cicero, Illinois. He graduated from Columbia College and published his first book of poetry, Throwing the Crown , in 2018. He has received several awards and fellowships for emerging poets, including the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. He frequently gives public readings in and around Chicago and has published in Poetry Magazine .
This poet belongs in our classrooms because . . .
his work speaks passionately about the difficulty and potential of coming of age. In particular, his poetry highlights the complex beauty of neighborhoods that others might overlook or neglect. He doesn’t shy away from or paper over difficult realities in neighborhoods dealing with issues like gang violence or gentrification, but he also refuses to neglect their immense beauty and human dignity. His voice is accessible, lyrical, and often deeply introspective. In a world that can so quickly write things and ideas and people off as "good" or "bad," Saenz calls on us to see beauty in contradiction and power in our ability to transcend those who don’t see our potential.
A Poem by Jacob Saenz
Evolution of My Block

As a boy I bicycled the block
w/a brown mop top falling
into a tail bleached blond,
gold-like under golden light,
like colors of Noble Knights
’banging on corners, unconcerned
w/the colors I bore—a shorty
too small to war with, too brown
to be down for the block.
White Knights became brown
Kings still showing black & gold
on corners now crowned,
the block a branch branded
w/la corona graffitied on
garage doors by the pawns.
As a teen, I could’ve beamed
the crown, walked in w/out
the beat down custom,
warred w/my cousin
who claimed Two-Six,
the set on the next block
decked in black & beige.
But I preferred games to gangs,
books to crooks wearing hats
crooked to the left or right
fighting for a plot, a block
to spot & mark w/blood
of boys who knew no better
way to grow up than throw up
the crown & be down for whatever.

Teaching Connections
  • One striking aspect of this poem is its juxtaposition of images of childhood with images of violence. As you reread the poem, track instances where the speaker combines images that we might associate with youth with images of the gang members he speaks of. What commentary might the poet be making by associating these images? If students struggle to identify these examples on their own, draw their attention to phrases like "warred with my cousin" or "a shorty too small to war with" as a starting point.
  • This poem is a strong example of Saenz’s masterful use of internal rhyme and alliteration. What effect do these elements have over the course of the poem? How does the use of internal rhyme compare with the use of end rhyme? Can you draw connections between these literary elements and a theme of the poem?
  • The speaker of this poem says he preferred "games to gangs," but he also refers to those who participate in gang life as "pawns" and "boys who [know] no better." In one sense, we might think of this poem as drawing attention to the ways in which gangs draw in young men, exploiting their youth or lack of other options. You might consider asking students how the speaker seems to feel about gang life and to find evidence in the poem to justify their assertions.
  • Consider pairing this poem with Patricia Smith’s "10-Year-Old Shot Three Times, But She’s Fine." What structural similarities can students draw out from each poem? How would you characterize the speaker in each poem? Are their attitudes toward their subjects similar or different?
  • This poem can be read as a piece of social commentary. Consider having students visit the Poetry Foundations collection Poems of Protest, Resistance, and Empowerment to select a second poem that functions similarly as social commentary to discuss the role poetry might play in movements for social justice.
  • The title of this poem references "Evolution," but it’s arguable who or what is evolving. Is it the neighborhood? The speaker? Neither? Or both? What changes in each contribute to the tension in the poem?
  • As a creative writing exercise: This poem can be thought of geographically. It traces the change over the course of time and space of the gangs that populate a specific location in the speaker’s hometown. Think of a geographic location in your own life that has changed significantly over time. Write a poem in which you investigate those changes and what they might mean about you and/or your community.
A brief sampling of other works:

“Blue Line Incident” —Note: This poem contains graphic language

Brennan Lawler is the dean of humanities instruction at Muchin College Prep in Chicago, Illinois. He is also a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he studies English education. He has been a member of NCTE since 2014 and was named a 2015 CEL Emerging Leader Fellow. This is his second year as a contributing member of the NCTE Verse Poetry Month collaboration.