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How a poet handles thunder: A profile of Juelz Davenport

Julian “Juelz” Davenport interacts with students during a creative writing workshop. (Source: Provided)

(Editor’s Note: This feature by guest author Dana Kinsey is presented in celebration of National Poetry Month, an initiative of the American Academy of Poets.)

I saw the storm coming
but refused to move.
I guess I got tired of running.”

— Juelz Davenport

Storms warn us to seek shelter with mighty crashes of thunder that come closer and closer, sharp exclamations of lightning flashing in charcoal skies. Meteorologists describe the approach, the time we can expect danger, and precautions we should take. Most of us heed the advice. One local poet does not. It isn’t that he doesn’t fear storms; it’s that he’s forged through enough of them to know he’s strong enough to face them down.

Juelz Davenport

Central Pennsylvania spoken word artist and writing teacher Julian (Juelz) Davenport grew up in Harrisburg — Alison Hill to be specific. He discovered writing when he became a pen-pal to his father who was in prison. He succumbed to temptations to make money selling drugs, went to prison for it himself — twice — then decided that was not the life he wanted, flipped his perspective, reframed his goals, wrote several books of poetry, taught numerous students from kindergarten to adults, built a successful business as a teaching artist, wrote his first novel, and confronted adversity at every turn. Storms. Ferocious ones. Ones that most artists might not write through, and yet he has. He continues to document the world around him, providing hope for those caught in the same storms he survived.

Elizabeth Peters and Teddy Boucard, owners of Read Rose Books in Lancaster, where Juelz’ poetry lives on the shelves, said: “We love having Juelz and his books as a part of our store. When people read his poetry, they are able to relate to his words and feel a connection. The covers of his books really stand out and people can’t help but pick them up. When Juelz comes in, his energy fills up the room and people are drawn to him.”

This month, Davenport’s first novel, Who’s Shawn?, is on its way to print. It tells the story of a young boy trapped in inner city Harrisburg. It is somewhat autobiographical, based on the life he knew when he was young. Students will read this book and instantly connect to Shawn who has so many choices to make and so few possibilities for good outcomes. Whether or not a student grew up in this world is of no significance because every young person has decisions weighing on them.

A workshop at Millersville University. (Source: Provided)

After a 20-minute reading by Davenport at Millersville University, one student said: “I so wanted to hear more. I became invested in the narrator’s voice and perspective. Hopefully when it’s published, I can purchase it and finish the rest.”

Another said: “I enjoyed the storyline of Who’s Shawn?, the narrator’s reading style, and the subject matter. Juelz is very authentic and captures what a struggling teen in a rough area could experience. I’d love to research more of this author’s work and read more from him.” (The students’ comments come from a survey conducted after the reading.)

Davenport is unapologetically himself in the telling. The narration is real, raw, and intriguing, as in this excerpt:

“Shawn usually would meet up with Ty, the friend he grew up with since they were kids. The two began to walk through the scattered cans, torn plastic weed bags, and other miscellaneous items thrown aimlessly throughout the street. As they walked past the boarded-up houses of the run-down, drug-ridden street they grew up on, they fell into an easy rhythm of cracking jokes, laughing despite their bleak surroundings. Each made jokes at the other’s expense, comfortable in their brother-like friendship.”

Who’s Shawn? by Jules Davenport

Davenport provides characters who are multi-faceted, and although he paints a realistic picture of their surroundings and disadvantages, he’s also instilled fortitude and humor into this story. The relationships are inspiring, familiar yet fresh. They are people one can’t help but invest in; if teens are to embrace reading, they need to care about the characters, see themselves in the decisions they are making, and be willing to process the consequences of these decisions.

In his novel, his poetry books, and especially his teaching, Davenport reaches students. His mentors and those whom he’s taught describe him as an extraordinarily gifted instructor. His former student at Hershey Middle School, Bria, makes this clear:

How is his teaching style different from other teachers you’ve had in the past?

Bria: He didn’t just sit there and lecture. He talked to us and understood us. He read his poems and went more in depth. He did things to get us all involved, and if someone didn’t want to participate, he respected that and didn’t force it.

Did you write any poems or stories that you were proud of while he was your teacher?

Bria: While he was at our school, I wrote poems almost every day. There was one in specific that I loved, and I waited until school the next day to show him. He was so glad that I was proud of it that he invited me to read it at the showcase where parents could come in and listen. I was not good at talking in front of people but he was there to support me and push me past this fear.

How did it feel to share your writing with him? How did he respond to it?

Bria: Sharing my writing with Mr. Davenport was amazing. I sent picture after picture of poems I wrote, and he responded to every single one. He told me how he could relate to them and also gave me advice if the poem was about a current struggle or situation. He made sure that students felt heard.

Are you still writing? Does it have anything to do with him? Do you hope to publish your writing someday? What would that mean to you?

Bria: I write almost every day because of him. I used to hate writing and just the thought of it, mostly because of school assignments when we had to write. But he showed me how much words really do have power. It truly does help me feel better instantly.

What is most inspiring about Mr. Davenport?

Bria: His words, his support, his motivation, his love for writing, his personality. He always has the right thing to say, and he will always be there to give advice if students need it.

Davenport, a nontraditional teacher, didn’t determine it was the right vocation for him; the profession found him working, and he soon realized that his power to help students was there all along. In his words, “My first visit as a teaching artist was to Marshall School (the Marshall Math & Science Academy in the Harrisburg School District). I had no idea what I was doing but quickly realized after a few sessions that I had the ability to teach what life taught me in a way the youth can easily digest it.”

Caleb Corkery

Davenport is providing inspiration to students, instructing them to use writing for expression and healing, analysis and confidence. Caleb Corkery, a professor of English at Millersville University, said, “Juelz has an open way with students that brings out their trust. Students are eager to connect with him and share back with his sharing. He cares about hearing other voices, which inspires them to come out. I admire Juelz for his honesty in his relationships. He is clear and authentic, which paves the way for good communication.”

At a time when many classroom English teachers struggle to fit creative writing into their curriculum, Davenport offers a way to supplement classroom learning and formal writing. In addition, he’s teaching students to learn from each other, form bonds that demonstrate the potency in collaboration, experience the validation they gain from reading each other’s work and responding to it. All writers care deeply about how others react to their pieces, how they are able to connect. Workshopping is a key element in helping young writers grow, ensuring they don’t feel alone or as if they’re creating in a vacuum.

Davenport is currently striving to reach even more students, form alliances with schools and organizations searching for creative after-school programs. He knows how to inspire students to write; he also knows how to encourage them to read and perform. In a time when everyone looks to video reels on social media to find validation and an audience, he places his students at microphones, gently urging them to speak their truths in real time.

After an open mic event Davenport facilitated, starting with his own work, then turning toward a workshop to develop some short pieces, one student said: “I was surprised to see how many people went up to the microphone, especially because I imagine most of us aren’t used to going up and presenting our work in front of people who will judge it.” There is no judgment when Davenport facilitates open mics because he understands the importance of a safe space to share.

Another student said: “Presenting my own poetry was enlightening. I hate presenting projects, but I found that it was much easier to present my poetry. I know I have to work on my delivery, but I feel better now that others have heard what I have to say.”

“He’s also committed and passionate about his life as an artist,” Corkery said. “He has overcome many struggles to realize his artistic vision. Those struggles have helped refine his vision, too. I’d like to see Juelz and his message reaching more students. I can picture Juelz as a prolific teaching artist, inspiring and developing poetry for presentation and publication for different types of schools.”

This National Poetry Month, I invite you to explore the work of Juelz Davenport. You can learn more about him on his website, He desires change and proposes words as the vehicle. He has shaped adversity into a career that matters and continues to build something real and rich for students in the Susquehanna Valley. He has ambitious plans for his poetry and brand, IME Vision. When storms approach, he’ll stand fixed.

This writer has penned Pennsylvania into the ultimate shelter, a space for writers to seek solace, understanding, and connection.