Student Poets Find Their Voices At “The Word”

Abiba Biao | March 28th, 2023

Student Poets Find Their Voices At “The Word”

Education & Youth  |  Poetry & Spoken Word  |  Arts & Culture  |  Neighborhood Music School  |  The Word  |  Youth Arts Journalism Initiative  |  Neighborhood Cultural Vitality Grant Program


Theo Constantinescu, writing down feedback from Tarishi Shuler. Abiba Biao Photos.

Theo Constantinescu sat before the circle of chairs in front of him. There was a beat, then another, then words. Constantinescu didn’t hold back in front of his small audience of five people as they absorbed his sentences in stilled silence. 

“So how can I blame my trans brothers and sisters for taking internal pain out on their bodies when I starved myself?” Constantinescu read. “I wonder if I was just asking ‘Do you hear me? Do you know my name or do you only see what you want to see?’”

That was the scene last Thursday at The Word, a poetry workshop held at Neighborhood Music School (NMS) on Audubon Street from 4:30 to 6 p.m. each week. Born over a decade ago, the program now operates under interim Artistic Director Tarishi “Midnight” Shuler, a teaching artist and spoken word poet who followed Aaron Jafferis in the role last fall. 

The sessions are held weekly with a virtual option on Wednesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. and an in-person workshop on Thursdays from 4:30 to 6 p.m.. Thursday workshops reliably take place at NMS, in a classroom at 100 Audubon St.

Last Thursday marked an intimate group, with just a few readers who gradually warmed to the idea of sharing their work. With a nudge from his friend Karter Black, Constantinescu broke the ice and read his poem aloud first. 

“Of all the trans people I know or have been close to, I have yet to find one without an eating disorder,” he began. “And maybe there's a selection bias being that they're my friends, maybe I'm conflating correlation and causation. No … It isn't an accident.” 

He pushed his hair back in a gesture of annoyance. Then, with little pause, he described his own body dysmorphia as a “grotesque ill fitting Halloween mask,” caused by being stuck for too long inside a female-presenting body. 

Constantinescu’s poem is currently untitled, he said. He wrote the poem a day before the workshop on his notes app, filled with emotion while writing in his car. He drew inspiration from his own journey as a trans man and the friends around him, he said. 

“There's a big overlap between body image issues, eating disorders and gender dysphoria that I feel like it's just not talked about often enough,” he said. “They're talked about in separate spheres, like, as separate things, when I think there's such an interconnection between them.”


Ian Reyes.

A senior at Hamden High School, Constantinescu plans to major in psychology at the University of Vermont. Two months away from his 18th birthday, Constantinescu said he also hopes to take the first steps towards his transition journey and take testosterone. 

He also noted the internal conflict trans people face when they are raised to abide by cisgender societal norms of being cisgender. Their gender expression becomes an act of unlearning. 

After a round of applause went by, participants took a moment to digest the poem. 

“I relate to so much of what he said. It just made me feel like it's not just me,” Ian Reyes said. “But it also upsets me because I know so many other people are facing this. But I'm also happy and proud of him to be able to write that down and to openly say it.”

Reyes is a freshman at Penn Foster College, working towards his associates degree as a veterinary technician. While he was initially shy, Constantinescu’s reading gave him courage to read his poem aloud.

“It hurts when you care so much about someone when they don't want you to care at all,” Reyes began. “And you eventually get to the point [where] you don't even want to try to fight with them over it anymore. Just stop caring until they need it again.”


Tarishi “Midnight” Shuler.

Putting on ambient music, Shuler sat down and performed an unreleased poem, capturing the message of one person to another across the stratosphere. While he has been doing poetry for over 20 years, and opened for notable figures including U.S. President Bill Clinton, rapper Saul Williams, and R&B artist Dwele, he is best known in New Haven for his work as a mentor and educator. 

“Captain's Log stardate 0504202088. Hello? Can you hear me? Hello? Anybody out there? Wake up,” he started. “We live multiple lives simultaneously in different timelines. Every time I have deja vu, it reminds me I'm trying to get back to you. I found you in my sleep. When I woke up. You forgotten all about us.”

The music then switched from to light guitar strumming, marking  a transition to a more personal note.

“I know I said this a million times before, but this time in this life, I hope I find the strength to walk through that cosmic door. This is the closest we have gotten to sharing this experience together here on this timeline. I might not be here when you hear this, but know this. I will always be with you. Hopefully, my energy, my love  will guide you, where you’ll find me waiting for you on the other side of the universe.”

Shuler’s premise with this poem was to make its meaning ambiguous, wanting the message to be applicable to a variety of circumstances and up to the audience’s interpretation. 

This premise rang true with Black, a senior at New Haven Academy. Touched by the reading, he spoke up, revealing how he tied it to his personal experiences. 

“I had a hard time trying to connect with the poem until the very end,” Black said. “I started thinking about my dad. He passed over a year ago, and it just kind of felt like a little message from him to me saying like, ‘until we meet again.'"


Meeri Ellis.

Among the other attendees was Meeri Ellis, a sixth grader at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School (BRAMS). Looking over a poem, Meeri said she had only recently gotten into poetry, and learned about the program from her sibling and Word alum and mentor Dyme Ellis. With support from both Shuler and Ellis, Meeri read aloud. Like Constantinescu, she said she had written her poem the day before. 

“Rethinking the decisions you've made that resulted in misery. The people who have left you in confusion and sadness replaying in your mind constantly, making you want to disappear like the depths of darkness,” Meeri read in a monotone voice. 

“The laughs closing on you, the tips of stringers looking into your direction. Is this really life? Is this really reality? Maybe it is. Maybe this is real life. Maybe this is really our reality.”

The group erupted into snaps and applause, excited to hear from a voice that had initially wanted to evade the spotlight. Meeri mentioned a goal of hers was to leave the workshop “confident and more inspired,” and did so by closing the workshop at the end. 

To the elder Ellis, coming back to The Word felt like a space of “intergenerational camaraderie,” they said. They were grateful to see a group of students, like their sister, using poetry as a medium of expression. 

“I just come out of college when I joined The Word but still I was developing my craft and it's been a couple of years,” Ellis said, talking to the students in the room. “It feels nostalgic and cool [to be back].”

New Haven Art Culture Tourism_colorIn addition to its weekly workshops, The Word will be holding a poetry slam April 14 at 5:30 p.m. at the Stetson Branch Library, 197 Dixwell Ave. in New Haven. The top six poets will go on to represent Connecticut at the Brave New Voices slam in San Francisco from July 18 to 23. To participate, email

This article is a collaboration with the City of New Haven's Department of Arts, Culture & Tourism, which is supporting young writers who cover recipients of the 2023 Neighborhood Cultural Vitality Grants. Abiba Biao is a graduate of the Arts Council's Youth Arts Journalism Initiative and has stayed on with the Arts Paper as a freelance writer and photographer. She is currently a freshman at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU).