For poetry’s sake

So, I had this dream last night…hang in there with me…it is a little fuzzy as remembered dreams tend to be. I was seated at some event with some of my favorite authors (I can’t recall who precisely; I didn’t really see them, I just knew they were there). We were in conversation and it was as though I belonged there…as though I was an equal. Then, suddenly the person seated just a few chairs down from me turns and shares details about a poetry anthology that is about to be released.

It was Maya Angelou.

In my dream, this person speaking directly to me, was Maya Angelou. I immediately, without intimidation or reticence and as though I were speaking to a friend, replied with enthusiasm for this text and began my sad story about how I have all these things to say about poetry and no voice or platform to share them more effectively. And this is where I know my sub-conscious was really trying to nudge me…Ms. Angelou looks me directly in the eyes and says, “You have a voice. You are just choosing to put other things first. Free your heart, the words will follow. Give them the time they deserve.”  I’m certain if this had truly been Maya Angelou, she would have expressed this far more profoundly, however, she was limited by the confines of my sleepy brain. Regardless, this truth-baring reprimand was enough to get me writing again…and the words below are my heart set free (well, when it comes to poetry anyway…especially the necessity of poetry in the lives of our students…).

What feels like a million years ago now when I was still young and smart, I spent my last two years of undergrad researching and composing my honors thesis on Dante’s Divine Comedy. This project was a passion of mine–I began taking Italian so I could read the poem in the original language…I read Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso each more than once…I read texts that inspired the allusions within Dante’s work…I read criticism…I wrote about all of this and then wrote some more and some more after that. It fueled my brain and felt like the most intriguing puzzle ever set before me.

When I finally narrowed my focus, I was surprised that I landed in the beauty of Paradiso rather than the glorious and righteously (and maybe vindictively) bestowed agony of Inferno. I never saw that coming, the Inferno always seemed far more deliciously awful and enjoyable. But somewhere along the way I discovered a pattern in one of the cantos of the Paradiso and my brain said, “Yes, thank you! We will park ourselves here and think some more.”

Honestly, as nerdy as this will sound, working through this text and the sometimes terror…sometimes frustration…sometimes exuberance of writing about it and about my findings was legitimately fun and some of the most gratifying work I have done in my life.

With all of that in mind…I bring you to the day of my defense. One of my favorite humanities/comparative lit professors had offered to be one of my readers, and I honestly couldn’t wait to hear the praise and accolades he would lavish. And while there was some of that, there was also something else…something that in all these 20 or so years, I have never forgotten. With a look of true disappointment, he revealed that while my academic work was excellent and my dissection of the poem important, I had lost the beauty of the words along the way…that I had completely sacrificed the magnificence of the aesthetic created by the poet in order to deconstruct the work for deeper understanding. I mean, look, my defenses went way up because the aesthetic wasn’t my focus or my purpose. But the fact that the sting of that statement still lingers, points me toward the fact that there was enough truth in what he observed that he was right.

Which brings me to the point of this first blog in a new series of blogs (well, I’m hoping it becomes a series of blogs anyway!). I’ve been advocating for years that the reason students (high school students especially) need to be studying poetry in the classroom is because it will impact them as writers in deep and meaningful ways. I know this to be true and so do so many other teachers I admire. Poetry, in its brevity and precision, offers a microcosm of what happens in prose–each word, each piece of punctuation, a deliberate and intentional act on the page–each poem, approachable for study even when it will take work to navigate because the page isn’t so overwhelmingly full.

This (in greater detail) has been my plea for the last 5 years:

Teach the poetry and your young writers will better their craft.

Something in this poetic passion project always felt hollow, false, lacking. I could never put my finger on it until the other day when I woke up from my Maya Angelou dream a little unnerved and suddenly thinking about my thesis defense. And then a more complete truth settled upon me.

In all of my research and in all of my speaking and writing on this subject, I have been too focused on the academic outcome and less focused on the human need for and the value of the aesthetic, of the emotion, of the truths contained in the beauty (albeit sometimes raw rather than rapturous) of poetry…the value of students finding themselves in a poem, finding comfort, finding joy…the value of students finding the truths of others in these brief texts…the value of the outlet of poetic composition when a student is anxious, overwhelmed, in crisis, happy, in love (and yep, teenage love counts you guys–perception is reality, so guess what…that perceived love is their reality)…

In all of my efforts to feel and sound credible, I lost sight of sharing the importance of the empathic weight of poetry and what that delivers to the human beings in our classrooms, seated before us. I ignored the truth that sometimes what we read–especially poetry–doesn’t have to be an academic pursuit, rather it can be a soulful one, a healing one, a rejuvenating one, an exploratory one–one that isn’t followed by analysis and essay, rather causes us to look carefully inward. And just because we have demands placed on us as teachers that sometimes restrict what it is that we do in our classrooms and how we do it, does not mean we cannot make the space for poetry and for allowing our students to be human beings rather than simply learning machines…for allowing them to be frail and vulnerable and to interact with a text that will foster connection and allow them to feel seen, heard, understood…for granting them time to appreciate the beauty of the words and not have to peel back layers in search of some purified explication. After all, if we are truly teaching the whole child and respecting them as individuals who deserve to be seen, doesn’t all of this fit…doesn’t all of this become required curriculum?

In the coming days and weeks, this blog will be filled with stories and moments and ideas that validate the use of poetry in the high school classroom (okay, and really in all of our lives…just saying…) and not for any other purpose than allowing our kids to feel and to wade into and to soak up the beauty of the language, its function, its artistry, its ability–for in allowing them to do that, we will empower them to harness their own emotion, to develop their own voice, to know who they are and to speak their own truths. In a world where the college admissions process has become debilitating and where our students often feel othered, unheard and ignored, how can we discount poetry when it can work against the injustices they feel and face?

Threshold

When I was in 7th grade, my family moved into a house that possessed a singular identifiable feature. This little house stood in a row of other little houses that looked blandly alike. Yet this gem announced its presence just a bit differently than the others and gained small scale recognition and notoriety simply because it wore its difference proudly.

A door. A commonplace item. An entry point. A way in…should it be opened to you.

In the days before Siri would announce that a destination had been reached, everyone who came to visit us knew to look for this unique detail. At the front of the house, tucked at the end of a small front porch, stood a large red door…with a silver doorknob decorating the center of it. It was one thing to live in a house with a giant, solid red door…but the doorknob in the middle added another level of oddity to it that my 12 year old self wasn’t so certain of. In order to open the door from the inside required a certain secret knowledge and deft ability to turn the knob and pull sturdily on the handle simultaneously.

A door. A commonplace item. An entry point. A way in…should it be opened to you.

I am pretty sure I was embarrassed by this door for more than a little while. Pretty sure that I wished we had a door like everyone else…and that our house didn’t stand out in this way. I didn’t need it to be pretty or fancy–just “normal”. But at some point along the way, all of this angsty humiliation shifted and I came to treasure its presence. Came to love that thing that allowed our house to stand out a bit from the rest. Came to own the uniqueness as a gift rather than an embarrassment. Came to identify that door with what it opened into–a house full of warmth, family, joy and love.

A door. A commonplace item. An entry point. A way in…should it be opened to you.

Writing this blog during this 59 day challenge required more stamina than I realized it would and also required me to open myself a bit more than initially felt comfortable. I am very much at ease being vulnerable, admitting fault, telling stories…and, yet, somehow having to tell them more quickly than I wanted because I had to meet the deadline of the daily post made me question the decision and waver on whether to continue. I preferred to refine my writing and to take time to have it reflect the truth of what I am capable of crafting. But at some point, I had to release that ambition and frustration and accept that the importance of the task resided in the act of writing each day…in the sharing of it with an unknown audience regardless of how I felt about it…in the building of my confidence…in the ownership of a writer’s identity…in the recognition that sharing this gift is not a reflection of ego but a desire of the soul. The importance resided in opening the door that so clearly identifies as my passion without fear of what is on the other side…resided in the ritual of walking through it daily and coming to treasure it as a homecoming.

A door. A commonplace item. An entry point. A way in…should you accept the invitation 

“Doors” by Carl Sandburg

(Day 59–Mardi Gras Day–King Cake day!!!–The blog will continue of course…just maybe once a week:) If you’ve kept up with me, you have no idea of my gratitude!! If you’ve stopped to say something encouraging along the way, words can’t express how that helped me to continue writing. I sort of can’t believe I’ve finally written the last one!)

 

perseverance

Over the weekend I sort of accidentally came across the Guy Raz podcast “How I Built This” on NPR. In this particular installment, he was interviewing Bobbi Brown and I found myself captivated. Now, if you know anything about me, you know that makeup is not something I would claim to know a lot about or even to have a keen interest in. I see its purpose, I’m sure it’s great, but I’ve just never taken the time (or spent the money) to really figure it out. Honestly, I think most people assume that I wear no makeup at all (and not in that “Oh wow! Her makeup looks so natural” way). Given this set of circumstances, my fascination with this podcast came as a surprise. At first I listened only because I felt positive that my sister would enjoy it and I wanted to be able to recommend it to her with some credibility…to be able to tell her something about it. I stayed with it, because it was about so much more than makeup.

The substance of the show weighted itself in ingenuity, perseverance, knowledge of self–all of which are critical parts of any successful creative process. Her story begins in childhood enchantment with makeup, travels through finding the right collegiate experience after recognizing that the traditional college program scratched uncomfortably at her being, then treks through her career (both her work as a make up artist and in developing her own brand). At every stage of this story, her humanity was palpable which made her experience relatable. I am never going to build a multi-million dollar make-up brand, but her trajectory offered me some critical reminders about what it means to be creative.

In this society of immediacy that we live in where information is always at our finger tips and measures are always being taken to curtail waiting, we become forgetful of the fact that success isn’t always instantaneous. Generating a clever idea does not promise progress, does not assign accomplishment. We meet with achievement when we possess the dedication it takes to not only see the idea through, but also when we are willing to own when alterations are required and further, when we have the vision to make them effectively. Bobbi Brown’s brand’s initial spark ignited during an almost accidental conversation with a chemist and then through devotion to herself and her product, progressed from a really ingenious idea to a concrete reality. Success. After years of hard work and patience. After years of nurturing a notion.

I’ve also heard writers speak before about how some projects take years to craft, and something inside of me wonders if I possess that kind of patience and dedication required to write anything of true significance. Will I just dawdle my days through a hobby? Or will I finally pay it the attention it deserves to actually attempt to move it forward? Do I really lack the dedication or have I just not conceived the right project yet? I really thought after 51 days of blogging I would know better what it is I want to write, how to direct my attention. I really thought I would at least have figured out what kind of blog this is! But after listening to this podcast and others who have lived through this process, I realize that 51 days might not be enough….it might only be the beginning. Maybe I have more writing to do if I really want to figure that out. And it may not lead to anything at all, but at least I will know that I gave it everything I had…that I didn’t just extinguish the dream before it had a chance to become something more. That I didn’t abandon something I love simply because it might not take me anywhere. Actually, staying true to that part of myself, might be the best possible outcome anyway.

Some poems about dreams felt appropriate…

Harlem” and “Dreams” by Langston Hughes

My Little Dreams” by Georgia Douglas Johnson

“(“dive for dreams…”)” by E.E. Cummings

(Day 51!! I ordered my gluten free king cake today and it will be ready to be picked up next Monday–the hardest part will be waiting until I’ve written Tuesday’s blog to eat it!)

creative process

When I was a kid, the Academy Awards were held on a Monday night, and in my house, this was a big deal. I completed my homework as soon as I got home from school in order to avoid missing any part of the broadcast (these were the days before the DVR allowed pausing and rewinding…before YouTube and the internet in general…if I missed it because of spelling homework, I just missed it outright). My mom would cook a special meal and my grandmother would come over (which was really the best part, because her cuttingly honest commentary on fashion and appearance rivaled the pithiest of television hosts). It was an occasion. I never questioned that, really. It was just what we did and I loved it, still do.

Being older now, I’ve spent some time wondering what exactly it is that draws me to not only this awards show, but just about any awards show. As it turns out, my rationale is relatively convoluted (no real surprise here) and I’m not sure it will make sense outside of my brain and on this page, but I’m going to try. Most obviously, I am drawn to story, so programs that honor the artists who bring those stories to life just make sense to me. Less obviously is this (hang in there with me…I will venture away in order to return). A few years ago, I was watching 60 Minutes and a story about Lin Manuel Miranda came on. This story aired as the Hamilton fever was just catching…before it escalated to an epidemic of passion and excitement of sweeping significance. In that episode, Miranda explained the genesis of the musical. He was on vacation, read a book, and was compelled to create. His zeal in speaking about his creation resonated with me and drew me to the musical itself. I had read articles and heard rumblings about the impact it was certain to imprint, but it wasn’t until this moment of witnessing the creator divulging his process that I turned to the musical itself. (as an aside within an aside, that kind of engagement is what I hope for every student who enters my classroom–to be so moved by a text, any text, that they are driven to create)

Based on this, I think it is fair to say that the creative process intrigues me, captivates my attention, draws me in. As a result, programs, like the Academy Awards, that allow further insight into that process, that testify to the brilliance found in collaboration, that honor what can happen when a human being recognizes what they are meant to be doing in this world and then they work hard to develop that and to live into it, delight me. Sure, some proclaim these shows to be pretentious…why would we want to see these rich and beautiful people awarding each other…of all the vain, empty endeavors…except, maybe not…except, maybe that is all perception? And honestly, what is wrong with rewarding each other for what we do well? Maybe that could go a long way, right? Maybe if I thanked the people in my life more regularly for the things they do for me, for jobs well done, for embracing a challenge and seeing it through–maybe if we all did this…made the seemingly unseen-seen…projected the light away from ourselves and onto each other…looked for the good…recognized the joy in being what you were always meant to be, this world that allows us occupancy could become a far better place to inhabit

I’m not sure any of this follows coherently…I am writing and viewing the broadcast simultaneously after all (no time to get my homework done before the show tonight…). But I find myself inspired in new ways, ever mindful of that fact that the creative journey was never supposed to be easy and others’ paths are far trickier than mine. I find myself ready to recognize those around me and to recognize the good within myself. I’m sure this sounds like a ludicrous response to an awards show, but evidently, it is possible.

(Day 50–what?!–that baffles me! King cake is so close!! Ordering it in the morning to be sure to have my favorite gluten free king cake after my last challenge blog on Mardi Gras day!)