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A Young Poet Offers An Unblinking Look At His City's Complexity

Courtesy of Derick Ebert
Derick Ebert draws adoring crowds when he performs his pointed and nuanced poetry across Baltimore.

  With a bounce to his step and a backpack on his shoulder, Baltimore Youth Poet Laureate Derick Ebert hovers in a constant state of motion. The magnanimous teen’s speech is an energetic patter, but as soon as the discussion turns to his poetry there’s a change in his demeanor. The energy is still there but now instead of jokes, it’s fueling deep reflection. He may only be 19 but he’s an artist, after all, and he wants to be understood.

As a poet, Ebert explores narratives of race and identity in Baltimore. The police are a frequent focus. His poems are filled with a frustration as powerful as the applause he regularly receives when he performs them.  “How can you take ownership of a city that seems to reject you?” his poetry asks.

(Listen to Ebert perform some of his poems below.)

His poetry also probes dualities, plumbing liminal spaces. Growing up the biracial son of a white father and black mother in an all-black neighborhood, Ebert felt judged. He says in far back as middle school, people regularly challenged his black identity.

“I desperately wanted to be seen as black,” Ebert says. “And I am. It’s kind of weird to have teachers say ‘No you’re not black you’re not black at all.’ They would not believe that my mother was African American until I brought her in."

Following a city-wide competition, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake named Ebert Baltimore’s first Youth Poet Laureate back in February. Ebert has toured throughout the area, performing for many other young artists. He also was awarded a national book deal.

Ebert is happy for the honor, but he says being a voice for Baltimore isn’t as easy as it might seem. The burgeoning political poet learned early on that the expectations the city has for him don’t always line up with his own goals.

“I was told this is what the poet laureate can do and this is Derick,” Ebert says. “Sometimes it’s a problem because sometimes Derick wants to write about a lot of things, about things that the poet laureate shouldn’t necessarily try to say.”

Even if Ebert is trying to tone down his intensity, his poems feel unadulterated and real. The University of Baltimore sophomore shows no qualms aiming a critical eye at the Police Department in the poem “Animal.” He decries the burden of being a young black man in a system that professes to protect him even as it quietly kills people like him.

"Hunters will set up blinds in the woods so the prey being hunted will get used to what seems foreign but sometimes I wonder if they know they’re getting used to their killer," he writes. "Like we are accustomed as ammo-ended angels assimilating all around us cops will patrol cities so the civilians feel safe in the communities although the ones protecting you look nothing like you."

After the death of Freddie Gray, he told his mentor that it wasn’t safe to walk on the streets anymore. His mentor offered to have a black police officer come in to talk to students about how to navigate the city more safely. This became the inspiration for another poem, where he rejects the idea outright 

“It’s like, ‘Why do I have to navigate through Baltimore? Why do I have to find a safe place? The streets should already be safe,’” he says.

The dark themes Ebert explores in his poems – racism, police brutality and inequality --  could be a bleak litany for a less talented poet. But Ebert lifts up the ugliness he sees and examines it critically, shifting it around to explore all of its facets in the light. And that’s the point, he says; poetry is not supposed to be clean.

“There’s not this facade that you can mask over poetry,” Ebert says. “Poetry is supposed to be dirty; it’s supposed to be filthy. It’s supposed to make you feel ugly. To make it seem clean, to me that’s fake and I don’t like that.”

Still, Ebert is conscious of how his work may be perceived by outside audiences as well, and he says it’s important to also offer appreciation for the city he has called home for all of his 19 years. On Saturdays, Ebert drives through a mostly black neighborhood to get to the University of Baltimore. Every week, he sees the same group of kids sweeping and cleaning the streets.

This is another side of Baltimore he thinks outsiders don’t see because they can’t see past the misconceptions and references to The Wire. But even in something as simple as kids sweeping a sidewalk, Ebert sees something more complex.

“Its good people wanting to create change and wanting to clean up the mess that has been left to us living in Baltimore,” Ebert says.  “I would say it’s those kids cleaning up the streets wanting to create change and clean up what’s left behind.”

Take a listen to Ebert's poems "Animal" and "Reach," recorded by YouthRadio.