What does poetry have to do with football? American poet, spoken word artist, playwright, and actor Lemon Andersen had the answer to that question at a Colorado Academy All-School Assembly honoring National Poetry Day. “Words saved my life,” Andersen told the assembled students, and instantly, he had their complete attention.
He went on to tell the story of how he was cut from the football team in high school, and looking for a way to find a new identity, he gravitated to poetry, because he was “passionate about words.” That passion has carried him through a Tony Award-winning career, where his talents found many avenues, including HBO’s Def Poetry and Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway.
He told the students about receiving a call from Nike with a request to write a poem for an 18-year-old athlete that Nike was hoping to sign to his first sneaker deal. The poem clicked, and Nike beat fierce competition to sign LeBron James.
“Poetry is not just a feeling or emotion,” he told the gathered students. “It’s a journey. You can be part of sports and part of an athlete’s journey without being on a team.”
Also speaking at the Assembly about the role poetry plays in her life was CA Senior Mali Lopez. She helped funnel questions from the student body to Andersen. Even the youngest students peppered Andersen with questions, including the most obvious: “How did you get your name ‘Lemon’?” The answer? In a family with a Puerto Rican mother and Norwegian-American father, he looked like his father, so his siblings told him he “stuck out like a lemon.”
Lucky break open mic
Andersen arrived at CA for the All-School Assembly and workshops with Lower School Fourth Grade and Upper School students, fresh from a three-week road trip with stops that included Arizona State University, where he has an Artist Residency. He has also recently visited San Diego for Latin Heritage Month and the University of Nebraska to work with students on a performance.
He would be the first to acknowledge how far his love for words and storytelling has carried him since the days he was living on the streets in Brooklyn after his stepfather, father, and mother died, leaving him to fend for himself. It was pure chance—he found a flyer at a barbershop—that led him to his first open mic poetry reading.
“I saw great, experienced poets using their body and the microphone, and I was hooked in one night,” he said. “I wrote a poem on the spot and got up on stage and performed it.” Afterwards, a woman from the community center approached him about a job writing for the center’s theater troupe. “I needed a job, and she needed a writer,” he said. “This woman opened so many doors for me.”
‘I conquered it’
Today, Andersen is the father of three children, ranging in age from 8 to 18. So he easily slipped into storyteller mode, reading Stick and Stone aloud to all the Fourth Graders, along with some poems the students were studying. He also was not taken aback by questions from the students who wanted to know if LeBron James could touch the ceiling of their classroom (“With his head,” Andersen told them). The takeaway for these students was a simple concept—writing poetry is telling a story, just like the stories they tell around a campfire.
The Upper School students were interested in Andersen’s relationship with Spike Lee, whom he credits with “letting Hollywood know my voice is important.”
“Talent is given,” he told the students. “Greatness is earned.”
By the end of the day, Andersen was still going strong, and he was happy with the immediate connections he had made with many CA students, ranging in age from Kindergarten to Upper School Seniors. “I conquered it,” he said, as he headed home to Brooklyn.