Last fall, when word came of another shooting of a black man by a white police officer, Donte Collins sat down and wrote a poem. “Sometimes my writing process takes three months to write one poem,” he said Thursday. “That poem I sat down and wrote in 15 minutes.”
The poem — “what the dead know by heart” — has won the Most Promising Young Poet Award from the Academy of American Poets, a prestigious national award that goes annually to a poet under the age of 23.
“i am alive by luck at this point,” Collins wrote. “i wonder/ often: if the gun that will unmake me/ is yet made.”
Collins’ poem “captures the trembling heart of the living boy as he walks through the world in his targeted body,” judge Toi Derricotte wrote in her comments for the Academy. “I am amazed and thrilled by the formal sophistication and the emotional maturity of this young poet. This is a voice to be encouraged.”
Collins, 20, lives in St. Paul, studies at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, edits a journal and is active in the spoken-word poetry scene. He was born in Chicago and came to Minnesota at the age of 2 when he and one of his brothers were adopted by a St. Paul woman.
“My childhood was filled with both beauty and struggle,” Collins said. “I was so angry. I didn’t understand what adoption meant. I had so much grief.” In therapy, Collins realized that he could best make himself understood if he spoke in metaphor.
“I would read my poems to my mom in therapy, and to the therapists,” he said. “The therapist would have me read poems to the receptionist. It was really encouraging.”
When he was 13, he and his brothers got involved with Pillsbury House Theatre in Powderhorn Park, where he met poet Tish Jones.
“She was really the person who helped me just chew through thought,” Collins said. “She really helped me slow down my thoughts. She was awesome. She took time to read my first drafts and talk about what worked and what didn’t work.”
Cary Waterman, one of his Augsburg professors, submitted his poem to the Academy. “I didn’t know I was in this competition,” Collins said. “When I won, it was like, I didn’t even!”
He has known for months that he won, but he was sworn to secrecy. “I guess I didn’t realize how big the award was,” he said. His background is in spoken word and, “It’s only in the last two years that I started experimenting with other ways and forms, and really studying poetry. So I feel really new to it all. It’s kind of scary to win this award when I’m still so new to it.”
Ideas for poems come to him in the morning, in the shower. “That’s where I have an entry point or an idea, or a weird collection of language,” he said. “I jot them down in my phone and I might let it sit a while and come back to it and add and add. Sometimes when I’m inspired, I’m on my feet, I have my notebook, and I’m writing a line down and I say it out loud. It’s very interactive. There’s some connection with my physical body, and me speaking the words. ‘Does it sound right? Is this what I want?’ ”
The day he wrote “what the dead know by heart” was a day when a black man’s death was all over Facebook, all over Twitter. “I was in a production [of a play] and I almost missed rehearsal, because I was so set back” by the news, he said.
“I guess I just went for the feeling. I wanted to clearly articulate the grief that is often unseen when a black person walks into a room.”
At first, he wasn’t going to share the poem. “But I guess the thought of our narrative, black men, black bodies in America often being erased or rewritten or neglected, I thought, ‘No, I’m going to share it [on Twitter], and I’m going to hashtag it Black Lives Matter.’ ”
The award carries a $1,000 prize, which Collins plans to use to self-publish his first chapbook, “Autopsy,” which is he working on now. “The timing was good,” he said.
Collins sits on the youth advisory board of TruArtSpeaks, a nonprofit that encourages social justice through spoken word and hip-hop, and he is an editor at Button Poetry, which publishes and promotes spoken word poetry.
His first poem, “Old Rondo,” about his mother’s memories of growing up in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, was published in the St. Paul Almanac when he was 16.
“we were scabbed knees/ and bubble gum fiends/ all cocked up on/ Mike and Ikes/ and Now and Laters/ sounded a lot like/ a metaphor for/ childhood/ for the way we grew up/ through adversity.”