The setting in itself is quite poetic: a frigid, snowy morning at an independent coffee house in Grand Rapids. Marcel “Fable” Price, or Fable the Poet, as he is known in the Grand Rapids poetry scene, tells his story as a socially conscious writer who never dreamed he would love teaching his craft to middle and high school students.
But that’s what he does, with a band of fellow spoken-word poets that make up The Diatribe. In many Kent County schools he introduces his rhythmic, snappy, tumbling poetry to preteens and teenagers, and then challenges them to write their own.
What results is often quite remarkable.
Students dig deep, and even the coolest, most seemingly together teens reveal their inner thoughts and struggles. Free-flow verses address strong topics, themes and statements. Many students stand up and present their poems to peers, and a sea of support unfailingly rises around them. One student even shared her story with National Public Radio.
The Diatribe has presented assemblies, workshops and poetry slams in many public schools, including Kelloggsville, Grandville, Northview, Comstock Park. Caledonia, Byron Center, Godwin Heights, Kentwood, Wyoming, East Grand Rapids, Kent City and Grand Rapids. Mainstay members include Fable, Rachel Gleason and Foster G. Foster II, who are often joined by other poets.
Not only is Price a founding member of the Diatribe, he’s Grand Rapids Poet Laureate, working to connect people with mental health resources and address issues affecting the community.
“Poetry has always been my safe place, a place where I could talk about what I had been through or look back at where I have come from, but I didn’t think I would fall in love with teaching so much,” Price said. “I love being a teaching artist. I love interacting with these kids. I love teaching them and I love learning from them.
“Middle schoolers especially are so honest and genuine,” he added. “I miss that courageousness.”
With his long hair tucked into a black cap and his ear lobes stretched wide by gauges, Price shares his experience as a struggling high school student who was inspired by an English teacher who told him he could be a writer.
“It was because of that phenomenal educator who believed in me and pushed me – that’s the whole reason I write,” Price said. That year, he read his writing in a school talent show, stunning his classmates.
“That’s another reason I try to get students up in front of the their peers … because of that boost you get from being scared, and then reading and having all your peers, go ‘What! AHHH!’ It’s a surge of energy and confidence that a lot of students need.”
Poetry is the Platform
That initial boost has grown into a mission to use poetry to educate, unite and spread awareness.
Price, 29, is now education-savvy enough to talk to educators about teaching methodologies used by The Diatribe, offering literature, videos, and other resources. He is working to create a fundraising committee to help schools pay for The Diatribe’s programs.
Last April, Price was named the Poet Laureate for a three-year term. He is the author of “Adrift in a Sea of M&Ms,” a book of poetry on race and mental health issues, and he is working on a second book. As Poet Laureate, his goal is to address community mental health needs.
“It’s been a surreal experience in so many ways. It’s by far the most rewarding thing that I do or have ever done,” Price said. “We want to send poetry through Grand Rapids’ veins the way we know it can be, and to start that culture of, OK, we have thousands of students who are interested in writing in middle and high school, and we can really create the energy that is going to make Grand Rapids a poetry mecca for years to come.”
The Diatribe poets’ own writing delves deep into topics many people, especially teens, aren’t often willing to talk about or consider taboo: identity including race, sexual orientation and gender-role expectations; experiences of abuse and violence; instability; mental health issues; grief and deep love for family. The poets find there is something that resonates with every student.
“You always connect to what you relate with, and if you have the courage to talk about something others will too,” Price said.
Rachel Gleason, his fellow Diatribe poet, sees those connections at the schools she visits with Price.
“I would say that Fable connects really well with students because he is honest and approachable in both his poetry and teaching,” Gleason said. “He is relatable and funny, but not afraid to go deep in his own feelings and history as well as talking candidly about social justice.”
Recently, at a middle school poetry reading, 50 students stood up to read their poems. One boy revealed that he had been sexually abused. “To see his peers stand up and clap for him, run up, hug him and lift him up, that’s changing the culture of a school,” Price said.
Kelloggsville High School English teacher Jennifer Sadler was one of the first teachers to invite The Diatribe to her classroom. She said Price’s impact has been huge.
“He finds a common ground between the different cliques of high school,” Sadler said. “He teaches them that not being normal is normal, that not being OK sometimes is OK, and that they have a voice in the world. He knows what they are going through and is vulnerable with them.”
Because Price is open about his struggles, students feel safe to talk about theirs too, whether at school or home, she added.
“Fable makes my students feel seen and heard. He encourages them, empathizes with them, and acts as a friend and a mentor. Fable is the whistle and a clap during a performance. Fable is a ‘me too’ for these kids who think they are all alone.”
From Troubled Teen to Passionate Poet
Price grew up in a single-family household in Ypsilanti, where he attended Lincoln High School. He has never met his father and his mother worked long hours to make ends meet. At age 14, he was diagnosed with with anxiety, bipolar II disorder and depression, he said. He attempted suicide. He was suspended from school multiple times for fighting, which he said was a result of living with a violent stepfather. “It was this toxic journey to feel like I could defend myself.”
Price has worked in graphic design for FedEx, at Best Buy, at shoe stores and other odd jobs to get by while developing his poetry. (“I love shoes and technology.”) Now he’s a full-time poet.
He uses his poetry as activism, touching on topics that affect the students he teaches: mental health, gentrification, race, trauma, identity, the way boys are raised.
“We need to create a culture where where people can talk about what they are going through,” he said. “I try to make everything I write feel like a conversation, and do it in my own voice instead of doing it some poetry style, because then it’s seen as authentic and it’s easier to relate and connect with.”
An Unlikely Path to the Classroom
Price realizes how deeply art and creativity can shape a person’s path.
It was at ArtPrize, the city’s annual art competition, in which The Diatribe created the contest’s first blind and deaf-friendly piece several years ago, that Price started his unlikely trajectory into teaching in middle and high school classrooms.
“There were so many teachers and adults bringing their kids through and they were like, ‘Hey, do you think you could come to our school and speak?’ It was nothing we ever planned on.”
They started visiting schools for career days and to share poetry. Recalled Price, “So many teachers were like, ‘We want you to come back.’ We were just like, oh, snap! It started to spread like wildfire.”
From there, they created a syllabus and streamlined their focus into assemblies, workshops and after-school programming. They typically perform an all-school assembly and then offer a six-to 12-week session of workshops. They partner with organizations including Kent District Library.
“Fable understands the issues and problems many of our youth face,” said Kathy Vogel, English teacher at Crossroads Middle School in Northview Public Schools. “He strives to empower students by using words to build understanding and empathy for others. The Diatribe promotes a sense of community which helps student poets use their voice to make a difference.”
A Platform to Spread Words and Resources
As Poet Laureate, Price is using poetry as a catalyst to encourage people to reach out for help. He organized a mental health awareness event attended by 200 to 300 people at Grand Rapids Public Library, which included poetry, storytelling and resources such as Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services and the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan.
He’s learned from being in schools things he never knew before, like how many students are in foster care. He’s gotten involved with West Michigan Fair Housing to get students to talk about gentrification, how their communities are changing around them and informing them of how housing affects their education.
Using poetry as expression is one thing but using it to arm and equip people to improve their lives is another, he said.
“I want to bring a lot of focus to poetry in Grand Rapids and get more people active in the poetry scene than ever before,” Price said.
Adding unique color to that scene, a lyrical landscape both scarred and beautiful, are the voices of youth given a microphone by Fable the Poet.