Michael Haeflinger’s love of poetry has taken many forms throughout the years. The executive director of Write253 and author of the recent volume Low Static Rage has been composing poetry and cultivating opportunities for others to share their work for most of his adult life. Before moving to Tacoma in 2014, Haeflinger taught poetry in Ohio, Chicago, and New Jersey, helping teens record their work, curating performance spaces, and coordinating the youth poetry festival Louder Than a Bomb.
His career with Write253 (then Write@253) began with volunteer work shortly after relocating to Tacoma, while he was employed as a bookseller at King’s Books, and later taught at the University of Puget Sound. As a volunteer, Haeflinger helped to lay the groundwork for programs that would come to flourish. In 2016, the same year Haeflinger became the executive director, he launched Louder Than a Bomb–Tacoma, creating the festival’s first West Coast offshoot. Haeflinger also helped establish Write253’s youth program at the Remann Hall Juvenile Detention Center.
Since Write253’s founding in 2011 by Mary Fox, the organization has sought to create meaningful writing opportunities for Pierce County’s youth. Under Haeflinger’s leadership, the organization has grown to serve 500 to 800 students each year in programs that span from summer camps to a letterpress pop-up currently housed at the Washington State History Museum. We spoke to Haeflinger about how he brings his passion for poetry to Pierce County’s youth.
How did you get started working with youth, particularly high-schoolers?
One of my first gigs was in Dayton, Ohio. I was just out of college, and there was an arts high school that was looking for a couple of adjunct artists to come in and do poetry workshops, and so one of my friends and I applied. We both got hired to do this gig, so we would co-teach poetry workshops. We didn’t really know anything about what we were doing; we would just show up and talk to high school kids about poems. We weren’t that much older than they were at this point.
Then I moved to Chicago in 2003, and that same person who I was co-teaching with in Dayton asked if I was interested in doing an audio recording project for an organization called the Young Chicago Authors. … (I) was going into classrooms and recording youth reading their work, and then making CDs out of it. From there I stuck around YCA. They had created a new position that they called the performances manager, and I applied for it and got it. My job essentially was to work with those aspects of the organization that were connected to live performance. So, we had a weekly open mic and a poetry festival called Louder Than a Bomb that I was the event coordinator for. I did that for three years before leaving Chicago. So, that’s how I got into the work I’m doing here. A lot of the work I do here in Tacoma is influenced by the work that I did in Chicago.
How do you keep Write253’s programming relevant to the youth you work with?
We ask them what they want to do. I think the poetry slam, particularly, the kids that are into it are really into it. I think there are limited opportunities for them to get on stage and read their work and have an audience that is as engaged as the audiences at Louder Than a Bomb are.
One of the things I’m really excited about now is we received a grant from the Children’s Museum to purchase audio equipment that will live at Remann Hall. I set up three microphones in one of the classrooms there, and these three young men basically recorded a song off the top of their heads. They had all the parts already written out; we picked out a beat from the preprogrammed beats the recording software has, they found one they like, and they traded off verses, and in about 20 minutes, they had this full song. We were listening to it afterward, and I’ve never seen the kids in this particular group get so excited about something at Remann Hall. In that sense, all I really did is buy the stuff and plug it in, and they make the art from that. It’s just being able to provide tools for young people to create; that’s a big part of what we do as an organization.
Interesting, too, given your own background in audio.
Full circle. Honestly, the first gig I ever had at YCA was going out to buy mini disc recorders that we can take to these schools. Which now seem like such obsolete technologies. …
My background as an artist, as a writer, is one that is very much rooted in the oral tradition of poetry. When I was in college, I would sit in my dorm room and listen to CDs of poets reading their work, and I would be writing. That’s how I learned about rhythm, and that’s how I learned about tempo, and that’s how I learned about dynamics.
I think I’m always going to be drawn back to that. The oral and aural tradition of poetry. I love working with young people around that. They have all of this vocabulary that I just don’t know. They have all these ways of saying things that are new. They’re very present; they’re very contemporary. That’s what I wanna be a part of and be about. It’s very exciting for me.
What is it about slam poetry, do you think, that connects so well with that age group?
I think that the poetry slam provides a kind of space for a shared understanding. I think there’s something really to be said about one-sided conversations. If you have an opportunity to talk for three minutes, and you can say whatever you want to say for three minutes, and nobody is going to interrupt you, and nobody is going to try to rebut anything that you’re saying, that’s a very powerful thing.
The encouragement in the room is just so amazing. When people forget their lines, because sometimes they get nervous, or they just forget, the crowd cheers to encourage them to keep going. People will tweet out the lines from other people’s poems that they like. Or they come up to them afterward to say, “I really like that piece.” These are kids who two weeks before have never met each other, and they might not see each other again until Louder Than a Bomb 2021.
But what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to create some momentum around that. Thinking about what are we going to do in April when LTAB’s over this year to keep these kids engaged and keep providing spaces for them to read their work. Keep building that community around poetry.
It seems like there’s something incredibly infectious about this particular program and community.
It’s just really fun. For a week, you get to hang out with all the other poets, and you might not have known before that there are the other poets — this sort of family you didn’t know you belong to. You show up, and it’s day one of prelims, and there are 30 other poets there, and they’re all working just as hard as you’ve been working on your piece. I think you’re right: Infectious is a great word. It’s hard to not be incepted by the spirit of it.