Mila Cuda is a student like many other students. She goes to high school at iLEAD North Hollywood (NoHo), a public charter school in the city of Los Angeles. Sometimes her classmates stop her in the hall to talk. But sometimes they ask her for help with their poetry. After all, it’s not every high schooler who’s been a finalist for the Youth Poet Laureate of her city or invited to share her poetry at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, or is a regular poetry slam participant. And it’s also not every high schooler who, when asked how she does it, smiles and says, “I Get Lit!”
Get Lit is not what you might think. It’s a program that connects youth to classic poetry as a means to self-expression. It urges young people to “Get Lit” in a different way—not through drugs or alcohol or crime but through words and ideas and expression. It seeks to keep teens out of trouble, to help them voice who they are and how they feel. Founded in 2006 by educator and former latchkey kid Diane Luby Lane, Get Lit now serves over 20,000 people ages 13 to 24, can be found in over 50 southern Californian schools, and has been talked about as far away as Iceland and Italy. “I got help that I didn’t know I needed or wanted,” says Cuda. “I didn’t go into it thinking it was going to do as much as it did.”
Recently at iLEAD NoHo (formerly Valley International Prep), the poetry team Poets 4 Progress met to discuss their accomplishments and goals. The conversation was punctuated throughout by the snapping of fingers — a nod, perhaps, to the Beat poets of the mid-20th century. Cuda was joined by April Wells, a veteran of the group; Caitlyn Bove, who recently had poems published in the journals Dead Snakes, Tunnel, and Compass; as well as Helen Drizhal, who has a screenplay with producer interest.
Get Lit’s Classic Slam requires poets to select a classic poem from an approved list, then craft a response to that poem. Last year, Wells and Kierra Duncan chose Langston Hughes’s “Harlem Sweeties” and responded with what they called “Rapper’s Delight.”
The full effect of these two poems is best experienced in their performance, where Wells and Duncan play off each other as if they are one, espousing racial equality and women’s rights. It’s as if they are talking to Hughes directly, saying, “It’s great you don’t care about the color of your ‘honey,’ but you know we’re people, too, right?”
This theme deeply motivates Wells. “I feel like women are degraded, period. They still get paid less than men. And that’s not okay. And I feel like young people—people say that we are their future. So if we are your future and we talk about it now, then things will get done now.” One of her favorite lines has to do with the perception of women in higher education. “They feel like, because we’re women, we couldn’t get letters from Harvard. But we could.” In fact, April has already won a full-ride scholarship to a top school.
Wells thinks one of the team’s best poems is “Countdown to a School Shooting.” In it, Bove, Drizhal and Cuda take different parts: teacher, student, shooter. The piece performed is much more theatrical than you might expect. Even though the poets are standing before microphones, each has a different, clearly defined character, both in voice and in body, and their thoughts interact with each other. Each number of the countdown is given a specific scene, a specific idea. For example:
There are 480 minutes in the average school day.
That’s not enough time for any of us
Eight hours is only enough time to help those who reach out
But they’re all struggling
We’re all struggling
Our fears have been drowned in eager backlash and expectations
They’ve forgotten how to gasp for air
Oxygen is running out faster than water in California
Faster than passion can replace it.
At “three,” an offstage voice, provided by Duncan, makes the dreaded announcement that an armed student is loose in the building. “Please lock your doors and remain as calm as possible.”
Bove says her poetry became “a cry for help” as she made life discoveries. “I was like, whoa, that needs to be fixed, both in society—and in Caitlyn.” Drizhal loves the safe space Get Lit creates for teens to express themselves, this community where “everyone is so nice and comforting to each other.”
That, however, is only half the equation.
“California has a huge literacy crisis,” says Veronika Shulman, the communications manager at Get Lit. According to some studies, California ranks 49th in terms of teen literacy, and “the correlation between incarceration and literacy is huge.” Get Lit serves to help young people deemed “at risk,” but that’s a broad term; different kids are at risk in different ways. “If you live in bad neighborhoods, it’s so easy to fall into bad habits.” Shulman compared Get Lit to a familiar TV ad campaign: for many, poetry is their “antidrug.”
Photo courtesy of getlit.org
Get Lit has done a great deal in an attempt to raise the literacy level in the Los Angeles area. They offer a number of outreach programs, including the Get Lit Players, an elite, competitively auditioned group of teen poets. They perform all over the country, bringing the Get Lit message to the national stage, including an appearance on The Queen Latifah Show. The YouTube video of the Get Lit Players performing “Somewhere in America” has over six million views.
Get Lit’s biggest priority is to provide plug-and-play curriculum for teachers to use in their classrooms. Two of those teachers are Kelly Grace Thomas, who chairs the English department at iLEAD NoHo, and her colleague Crystal Salas. Both poets themselves, they have seen their small team sweep Get Lit’s Classic Slam event — a remarkable feat when you consider that most of the teams in the competition had help from a Get Lit Player and iLEAD NoHo had none.
“These girls are kind of Get Lit ambassadors,” says Thomas. They routinely assist their classmates with their writing. The effect of Get Lit is not limited to its participants; it is a reverberation that echoes through the entire school.
In Washington, DC, Cuda performed two poems for the Poetry Slam event, part of the National Book Festival at the Library of Congress, and took second place. “It was the craziest experience,” says Cuda. One of them, “Lakota,” was written about her best friend. She first performed it for the LA Youth Poet Laureate finals.
The other was a new piece titled “Shh,” about what she calls “the silencing of books.” “She laced in all these literary references, because she’s a genius,” says Shulman. Her mother, Heidi Siegmund Cuda, writes a blog for Get Lit called #POETMOM. In a recent post, she writes, “Truth be told, I knew her wisdom would garner her an invitation to Washington in some form or another. I just didn’t know it would happen when she was fifteen.”
Photo courtesy of getlit.org
This year, Mila Cuda and Caitlyn Bove auditioned for the Get Lit Players and made it. Caitlyn also attended an author workshop at Denyson and was published in a Get Lit publication and more lit magazines. Mila placed second in the National Book Festival’s Poetry Slam at the Library of Congress and will be competing with Get Lit’s team this July in Brave New Voices, an international poetry competition in DC. “Looking back on it now,” says Cuda, “I see that I’m in a much better place” because of Get Lit and her experiences. “I’m still kind of in the clouds about it. Like, I haven’t come down, officially, yet.”