Poet Jordan Chaney teaches youth resilience through art

by Patheresa Wells


The path to becoming a poet is a unique journey. For Rainier Valley poet Jordan Chaney, the journey began in childhood, watching his mother write poetry and sketches. Although he started writing in high school, it wasn’t until he was 20 that he began to perform his poems. Now a published author, artist and motivational speaker, Chaney encourages young people to use their imaginations through art. During the pandemic, he released three books of poetry, A childish wonder (2020), Columbus sailed on a warship (2021), and Call out the names of dead saints at sunrise (2022). Her commitment to her craft, even during lockdown, shows an inspiring level of self-determination.

Chaney was born in Alexandria, Virginia. After his father died, he moved with his mother and two brothers to California for a few years before landing in Pasco, Washington. His family came to the area when he was in first grade. But, he said, “I didn’t fully understand what it meant to be a black Native growing up in the Tri-Cities until I got older and started reading James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks and Eldridge Cleaver.

Racism was part of Chaney’s growth in eastern Washington. Along with instances of people shouting the N-word at him, he later became “clearly aware of the subtle microaggressions that fertilized the soils of overt and covert racism”.

Poetry and art were outlets for Chaney during this time, and in 2004 he performed for the first time at a poetry slam in Seattle. The Washington Poets Association and poet Bart Baxter hosted a slam at Hugo House. Of the 17 finalists to compete, Chaney won sixth place.

“I personally didn’t care if I won or lost,” he said. Instead, he was just glad he hadn’t let stage fright push him to cancel. “Since that night I have shared my poetry across the country and even had the opportunity to travel and perform with La Pocha Nostra all over Greece.”

For Chaney, poetry and storytelling are inextricably linked to his anti-racist work, and both have led him to travel and collaborate with like-minded people. This job led to him moving to Seattle in 2020, although his ties to the Tri-Cities are still strong.

In 2018, with funds from an event, “Poet Jordan Presents: An Evening With Academy Award Winner TJ Martin”, Chaney opened his first The Art Dojo site at the Benton-Franklin Counties Juvenile Justice Center in Kennewick. Chaney and others converted unused basement space into an art school. With the motto ‘Don’t waste your sentence(s)’, ‘the idea was to instill ideas of resilience in incarcerated youth. … Young people continually prove that they are some of the most creative and imaginative people I have ever worked with,” he said.

The school includes a program developed by Chaney called The art of speech which incorporates public speaking skills, writing and performance skills, and confidence building. It has since expanded to include two more locations, one in Pasco in an apartment complex and the other in Spokane Juvenile Detention Center.

Chaney shares her story with students at Highlands Middle School in Kennewick. (Photo: Jordan Chaney)

Chaney also works with youth as a motivational speaker. He says poetry paved the way for storytelling and storytelling for motivational speaking. “Educators in the area who work with ‘free and reduced meals’ students or with incarcerated students would hear about me and ask me to share my story,” he said. Whether in schools or prisons, Chaney always accepted invitations, no matter what they did or didn’t pay.

The pandemic has led to an outpouring of Chaney’s poetry, with three books published in the past two years. In A childish wonderhis poem of the same name “invites people to imagine possibilities of identity, to dream, and to be liberated in your dreams and by your dreams from the highest visions of self”.

Columbus sailed on a warship includes “Blankets”, a poem that blends the spiritual and physical worlds. In Howlthe poem “Getting Back Up” is “for anyone who’s ever been chin-deep in their own tears, about to drown in their own grief, but swimming anyway.”

Excerpt from “Reassemble”:

when the sorrow
find you
stop hiding

ascend

Dance
in your grave
cause
means of healing
become yourself
once again

The ability to keep swimming is evident in Chaney’s drive to write and publish books during lockdown. He is currently writing his first memoirs, The lemon treeexpected in 2023. The ability to use creativity in the face of adversity is a legacy Chaney builds with each book.

Check out his website for more details on poet Jordan Chaney, his work, and his upcoming books.


Well Patheresa is a queer poet, writer, and storyteller who lives in SeaTac, Washington. Born to a black mother and a Persian father, her experiences as a multicultural child shaped her desire to defend and amplify her community. She is currently attending Highline College in Des Moines. Follow her on Twitter @PatheresaWells.

📸 Featured Image: Poet Jordan Chaney is an author, storyteller and activist whose poems are bridges between three worlds. (Photo: Jordan Chaney)

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