Adam Henze puts poetry in motion 

click to enlarge Adam Henze (center) is the official poet of the 2016 Indy 500 - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Adam Henze (center) is the official poet of the 2016 Indy 500
  • Submitted PHoto

Growing up, Adam Henze found himself struggling with issues of self-worth and self-esteem, often leading him to get in a lot of trouble. Somewhere in between trips to the principal's office, however, he discovered his love for writing poetry.

"I was really battling depression when I was younger," Henze says. "But, writing became an awesome outlet for me, and it really changed the direction of where I was going."

Since these early days, Henze has continued to pursue his passion for poetry, performing all over the U.S. and beyond. Recently, he was also named the official poet for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 —he wrote a poem about the race and recited it at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on qualification weekend.

When he's not pursuing his own writing endeavors, however, Henze can often be found spreading the word about poetry's regenerative nature with children and prison inmates through various community-minded programs. Currently in his third year of Indiana University's Literacy, Culture and Language Education doctoral program, the 33-year-old has personally experienced the therapeutic elements of poetry, thus fueling his desire to ensure that people young and old are aware of its healing power.

"I had a really awesome theater teacher, a couple awesome speech teachers and a couple awesome English teachers who ignored the fact that I went to the principal's office every once in a while and ignored the fact that I would act up and lash out in class," Henze says. "They were really patient with me, and I feel forever indebted to them. I know I can never pay them back, so I'm hoping that I can pay it forward."

Fresh out of college, Henze was granted his first opportunity to try his hand at this community-minded poetry outreach, volunteering once a week at the Warren Juvenile Detention Center in Kentucky. It was this experience that also exposed him to the fact that prison inmates often struggle with literacy.

RELATED: Find all our 100th Running coverage here.

"It really taught me about the challenges that we face as a country in regards to literacy," says Henze. "Three-fourths of kids and adults who are incarcerated are illiterate or functionally illiterate, so it became a passion of mine."

With this same mindset, Henze and a fellow poet embarked on a tour of 10 different Florida prisons back in 2010. "That was the only time as a performer that I've felt like Johnny Cash," Henze remembers. "They were just the nicest, most receptive audiences I had ever seen." Since coming to this realization and moving to Indiana, Henze has began volunteering with a local nonprofit called Angel's Wings that focuses on serving incarcerated mothers and their families. Specifically, he is involved with poetry "summer camps" at the Indiana Women's Prison that consist of performances, workshops and more.

"I think everyone deserves poetry in their life regardless of what they've done," Henze says. "For some people who are getting out, I think it's a chance to teach them communication skills. So if they can read a poem, they can hopefully land that job interview or talk to a judge. But for the people who aren't getting out for a long time or ever, it can really be a way to improve their quality of life and help them find self-worth, and I think that's really important."

In addition to his work at the Indiana Women's Prison, Henze also heads up a performance poetry intensive called Slam Camp for high school-aged youths, scheduled this year for June 19-25 at the IU Bloomington School of Education. A multi-faceted event, Slam Camp's mission is to promote literacy, communication skills, and critical citizenship through the practice of the poetry slam, and to inspire teens everywhere to embrace their identities as writers and performers.

"I hope that my work helps young people and old people realize that they have the tools for their own empowerment," he concludes. "I hope they realize that they can sharpen their voice and choose the right words, and that they empower themselves. That's my ultimate goal."

A poem by Henze:

For Those Who Love Fast, Loud Things

This poem is for the track folk who
 just love the smell of Ethanol.

For the Carb Day cut sleeve sporters, the Snake Pit dancers,
and Coke Lot campers with bald eagle bandanas.

This is an anthem for the hearts that've surged at the scope of the Pagoda.
For the hands that know the feeling of slapping the North Vista tunnel ceiling.
For the lips that whisper along with Florence Henderson when she sings,
yes. This poem is for the 500 fans who love fast, loud things.

The hot dog chompers and buttermilk sippers, and
granddads with ledger pads in suede cases and locked zippers.

This is for every kid that's stood along the stretch — with toes
on top of a cooler and their fingers gripping the fence.

For the open-wheel gear heads, parade wavers, and Legends Day fans.
For the moms smeared with baby sunscreen changing diapers in the stands.

This poem is for the Brickyard pickers, marching band clappers, the bucket drummers and gasoline alley cats.
This is for the pit crews, the announcers, the flyby pilots in the sky.
For the girl who'd never seen her dad cry until the day Dan Wheldon died.

This poem is for the Andy Griffith neighbors, the binocular
watchers, and the concession yellers hawking cold brews.
This poem is for every shoulder with a Memorial Day tattoo.

This is for the drivers willing to go bumper to bumper, for the flag
flappers, and the earbud- in-clutched palm fist pumpers.

This is your poem Indianapolis, taking the turn with direct injection. Race fans,
thank you for being the sparks that start the engines.

Dedicated to Evan, and all IndyCar fans, 2016

— Adam Henze, Bloomington, IN


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