Donte Collins became a poet when he was 7 years old.
That was the year he wrote his first poem, which he read over the phone to his older brother. It was about feeling trapped, unheard.
"Great job," his brother told him. "Keep writing."
"I remember that. Every time I write a poem — I remember his encouragement," Collins, now 20, said.
This week, Collins' phone won't stop ringing with encouragement. He just won the Most Promising Young Poet award from the Academy of American Poets. It's been a parade of wonder for the Augsburg College junior, who lives in St. Paul.
Some poems take months to write, he said, but his winning poem, "what the dead know by heart," took just 15 minutes. Flooded by news of Jamar Clark's death and a social-media stream of other police shootings, Collins poured his thoughts out on the page last fall.
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Toi Derricotte, a judge for the prize, praised how Collins "captures the trembling heart of the living boy as he walks through the world in his targeted body."
what the dead know by heart
lately, when asked how are you, i
respond with a name no longer living
Rekia, Jamar, Sandra
i am alive by luck at this point. i wonder
often: if the gun that will unmake me
is yet made, what white birth
will bury me, how many bullets, like a
flock of blue jays, will come carry my black
to its final bed, which photo will be used
to water down my blood. today i did
not die and there is no god or law to
thank. the bullet missed my head
and landed in another. today, i passed
a mirror and did not see a body, instead
a suggestion, a debate, a blank
post-it note there looking back. i
haven't enough room to both rage and
weep. i go to cry and each tear turns
to steam. I say I matter and a ghost
white hand appears over my mouth
Copyright © 2016 by Donte Collins
Collins has been writing and performing spoken word at venues around the Twin Cities for years, first as a student and now as a mentor with TruArtSpeaks, a nonprofit that promotes literacy and social justice.
"Any poem can be a spoken word poem: You have text, and you perform it in a theatrical way," he said. Through poetry, he's found a way to confront difficult topics.
"It's a trick — it's all a trick," he said. "That's the power of a metaphor. You're tricking people into listening to you."
Poetry has also offered him a freedom, a place to play with language and toy with meaning.
"I don't have to follow the rules in poetry, like grammar, things like that. There are rules in poetry — you're just allowed to break them," he said.
With the $1,000 prize money from the award, Collins is self-publishing his first collection of poetry, a chapbook called "autopsies." It's set to be released Nov. 1.
For those who say they don't get or don't like poetry, he offers a few reading recommendations.