Ten Minutes With Jake Snow
North County’s teen mentor and slam poet
Photo by Matt Petricone
Jake Snow, who writes and performs slam poetry as Phoenix, sees mentoring as an integral part of his work, particularly with the North Adams Teen Writing Workshop. The program, established by Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, has been around for 14 years and helps to transform the lives of participating high-schoolers. Snow has been part of the group for a dozen years.
What was the first time poetry made a big impact on you?
It was my dad reading me poetry before I went to bed. Some of it wasn’t exactly age appropriate, but all of it was fantastic. It was like he ran out of stories to tell, and then my disinterest in the books he would read to me before bed, so he started showing me poetry. He gave me a little plaque that later he told me wasn’t a family crest or anything. It was just something his grandfather had picked up, but it had our name on it. So, to me, it was good enough as a family heirloom, and that was the first poem that really had an impact in my life, this “Snow” poem on the plaque. It’s the very first poem I memorized.
When did you start writing your own?
Elementary school. I didn’t really call it poetry. It was journaling, I guess. As I got older, I realized there’s not a huge difference with this beautiful spoken-word poetry that I love so much. There is no rhyme, meter, fashion, or style that is inherently better than another. So your journal entry could be a poem. It all depends on how you read it. I got into writing poetry when I was in seventh grade. It was for a project. I was a very angry, confused kind of kid. I just wanted people not to be afraid of me, so I wrote a poem for class about how I was just a boy like everybody else, and I didn’t understand why they were afraid of me. I had my growth spurt when I was in third grade. I was a foot taller than most people till I got into high school.
What was your first experience with the teen writing workshop?
I sat outside of the circle, which wasn’t allowed, but they made an exception for me. I was in utter amazement how three kids from Hoosac, two kids from Drury, a kid or two from McCann, a bunch of kids from Mount Greylock, they all got along. When it started, there was something very simple and beautiful about the class. It was 45 minutes of writing in silence and 45 minutes of reading aloud. It is magical, it’s that simple, and what it produces by just being around people your age doing what you’re doing is a camaraderie. I like to call it a safer ground or haven that we create within that space, and nothing outside can get in it. Nothing that happens in it can get outside of that place. And there’s really no value you can place on that when you’re having trouble at any point in life, but especially for them.
What challenges do teens have that the writing group helps with?
One of the hardest things for kids is not to have their own space, and when they are in a space together, it’s so incredibly structured that they’re not allowed to have a conversation. The challenge is that they work through a lot together. My mentoring part of it is helping with their writing, but not a single kid doesn’t write about what is ailing them at the time or causing them strife or problems. Often enough, it’s just the ability to get it off their chest that starts the healing process. That’s one of the things we do: give them the opportunity to use the voice they’re finding to say the things that in other places might be problematic or taboo. We encourage them to say whatever they need to and through that process find ways to help each other and become a therapeutic process like any journaling could be, but in the setting of a group of kids who can’t judge you.
Do you keep up with writers after they leave the group?
We stay in contact as much as we can. A lot of them go on to be a part of their college newspaper or decide that English and communications is the place for them in college, whether it’s a major or a minor or a point to keep them interested in college. Most of them continue writing creatively. More and more, we’ve had people becoming involved with performing poetry and groups like Common Folk. They seek out continuing to write creatively, and there’s a group of them that I’ve worked with over the years that continue to mentor others as well, they get to the point where they’re confident, and they start mentoring others in writing and helping them pursue creative endeavors. Or a lot of them keep using it for what it is at its most basic, a way to use and find your voice, and self-therapy, helping yourself weed through the confusion of problems that you have.