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Students At Heart Of Cleveland Teacher's Poetry

Many artists have a day job, but that doesn’t necessarily mean work and art remain separate.

Quartez Harris teaches second grade in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood and worries about inequities students face, currently exacerbated during the pandemic.

“Some schools couldn’t afford basic hand soap before sanitizer was considered an urgency,” Harris said.

He turns to poetry to highlight structural barriers in education and society as well as the vitality of youth. For instance, his poem “Alive” depicts students at play in the classroom on top of and underneath their desks, bending rules he said other school staff discourage.

“I think school should be a place where kids have opportunities just to exist in their Black skin, in their marginalized skin,” he said.

With the support of the Cleveland writing organization Twelve Literary Arts, a collection of his poems, “We Made It To School Alive,” was recently published.

“Quartez pulled these stories together and created several poems that really depict the beauty and the struggle of living with and loving Black children. It’s a very timely collection,” said Daniel Gray-Kontar, one of Harris’ editors and the director of Twelve Literary Arts.

Harris’ favorite poem in the collection, “Butterfly In The Flesh” contrasts how a butterfly reacted to his son with how someone in law enforcement might react.

“This poem is a metaphor for the narrative that when law enforcement see us they fear for their lives,” he said. “And it occurred to me that when my son was chasing a butterfly one afternoon, the butterfly wasn’t scared. The butterfly remained perched.”

Quartez Harris reads "Butterfly In The Flesh"

Last year, Harris poured out his feelings on the page while in residency with Twelve Literary Arts, getting paid to write and work with editors.

“I was able to write more than 50 poems and some of them didn’t make it to the cut. But it was a nice quality of work where that I felt like I had nothing but leisure and ample time to just write,” he said.

“We Made It To School Alive” is Twelve Literary Arts first publication under Twelve Arts Press. Three other projects are in the works between now and May 2021.

“We've always really taken pride in our capacity to be an incubation space for writers of color where they can convene and support one another's writing process intergenerationally. What's been missing in that process is really sort of an opportunity for emerging writers to publish for the first time, and so we're really happy to be able to support emerging writers in this way,” Gray-Kontar said.

Harris will discuss his book of poetry in a City Club virtual forum Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.

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