Monday, April 24, 2006

Inspiring students, students inspiring

Driving across the Buckman Bridge last week, I listened to one of my favorite songs on the radio. My husband plays the song on the guitar, so I know most of the words. Josh Turner’s song “Your Man“ is a ragtime sort of tune. I viewed it as a positive sign, hearing my favorite song and being uplifted as I went to a place where I hoped to do some uplifting myself.

As I drove across the bridge—it took me months to adjust to driving over 3 miles of water with a very low concrete wall on either side—I wondered what sort of class I’d be doing poetry with.

The J.E.B. Stuart Middle School students I met are in 8th grade advanced language arts—Joe Cramer is the teacher. The first thing I noticed about them was how they paid attention to the teacher. Joe introduced me and I began my presentation, asking them questions about poetry. Suddenly, a very big WONK WONK sound erupted.

Someone yelled, “Fire Drill,” and we proceeded outside. I worried a little because once you interrupt a presentation, the audience may lose interest, especially when it is a smack dab perfect April day, with a temperate breeze and enough spring fever to fill a hospital.

I needn’t have worried. Once we returned, we dialogued about poetry together and I read a few pieces from my new collection. I deliberately selected poems for all ages for my 2007 book Notes from a Florida Village. I peppered my talk with comments about my childhood, my desire to be a writer, and how I overcame a difficult upbringing to do what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted them to know they can do the same; this school is not in a well-heeled area.

They asked a number of questions—When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Do you ever write about your children? Do you write about your childhood? Do you ever have writer’s block?

The most amazing thing was the attention span. The class is full, and every student in the room gave me undivided attention. That’s a first. There was an exciting current of kinship in the room. These kids are in the 8th grade, and they know what a sonnet is, what a cinquain is, and they know their poets well. We talked about Emily Dickinson, Sharon Olds, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walt Whitman, and many more writers.

Joe Cramer is one incredible teacher. One of the projects they worked on is making a poetry anthology, not of their own work but of work by other poets. They type the poems, lay out the book and design it themselves. One book I looked at had the quality of a professional artist, and included both classical poets and modern ones.

I’ve extended an invitation to Joe to select two of his students for our Florida State Poetry Reading in Washington. I invited Joe to read too; he is a master writer of sonnets. Joe is one of the most dedicated teachers I’ve ever met where poetry and writing are concerned.

I went to J.E.B. Stuart to inspire. I came away inspired.

Link of the week: Winning Writers; Why? Free newsletter. Admission to full site requires subscription for a small price and a mountain of good information.

Reminder of the week: Enter your poem in Poetry Spotlight 2 at The Writer online.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Confessions of an addict

Some of us can’t imagine a life without poetry. My own love for it began when I was very young. My mother didn’t have a formal education, but her reading to us is one of the first early memories I have. One of my favorite books was A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. One of my favorite poems was Lochinvar by Sir Walter Scott. I discovered Walt Whitman and many others when my Aunt Cornelia, a woman known for her beauty and genteel nature, gave me an anthology of poems. The name of that book escapes me, but I read it until it fell apart.

I carried my passion into adulthood. I read poetry to both my daughters from the moment they breathed on their own. Now that they’re older, we’ve shared many “poetry moments” together, often when I come across a poem that stops me on the tracks of a busy day, like a train. I am probably one of the only people I know who doesn’t mind the interruption of a train on a city street; I like to watch the box cars and read what people write on them. I like to imagine what’s inside them, where they’ve been, where they’re going. And that’s how I feel about poems.

I read such a poem yesterday. Vince Gotera, in an article about imagery, cites a haiku written in the 1700s by Taniguchi Buson. Gotera teaches a course on the Craft of Poetry at the University of Northern Iowa. His site is an act of generosity for both writers and readers.

Gotera uses this poem in the context of an instructional article about imagery in poetry, citing Pound’s In a station of the metro as well. I was so taken by Buson’s lines that I called my 16-year-old into the office and read it to her. She listened, then smiled at me and said, “Wow!” Here’s the haiku, borrowed from Buson’s site (in the interest of poetry instruction):

The piercing chill I feel:
my dead wife's comb, in our bedroom,
under my heel . . .

When you consider the sound implied, not only literally but in the context of history, the poem unfolds even more. Combs of that period wouldn’t have been made of plastic; this comb would have been created from bone or tortoise shell or a material that surely would have produced a high crackle. The poem is amazing.

As someone addicted to poetry, all kinds of poetry in its many manifestations, I don’t think I could enjoy life as much without it. I think most poets would agree with me. We may battle like barbarians over style and technique and aesthetics, but on the matter of the importance of poetry, I am certain we all concur.

First recommended link of the week: Poetry Magazine, the essay I Go to AWP by Kay Ryan in particular. Brilliant poet, brilliant essayist. I suppose I identify so passionately with the essay because like Ryan, I can’t imagine teaching and writing at the same time.

Second recommended link of the week: W_O_M_B Poetry, a new site offering promises of good poetry to come.

Tease of the week: Watch The Writer Magazine online for an upcoming article of interest to poets.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

A National Poetry Month Stroll

April inspires a good stroll, at least in Northeast Florida. If weather can be perfect, we’ve got it. Moderate temperatures, lots of sunshine, and the ever-present breeze that makes this such a comfortable place to live. With the idea of a stroll in mind, I’d like to invite you to take a poetry stroll, but instead of watching children play, dogs chase Frisbees, and gardening enthusiasts put in their petunias, we’ll gaze at a few poetry sites.

Nicki Leone hails from North Carolina. I first met her when I read at a booksellers’ retreat sponsored by the Southeast Independent Booksellers Association. Nicki comes off as a low key, gentle sort. I remember thinking to myself she looked like a writer; at the time, she had a management position with a large independent bookstore. I was delighted to learn last week that Nicki Leone has had her first poem published, and in a major daily newspaper no less. Intersection is one of those haunting poems that stays with you; the title struck me as perfect, because it works on several levels, among them the intersecting of the poet's with the reader’s own experiences. I’m sure we’ll see more fine verse by this young poet who I am certain will blush when she sees herself mentioned here.

The villanelle is one of our language’s most difficult forms. I’ve been working on a lot of poetry information for The Writer magazine’s online site. A few days ago, I scrolled through the general poetry forum there and found a villanelle that made me want to try the form again. The poem, “Lament for the Absence of Content” written by a grad student named Christina, is on the Poetry Thread. The winning poem in Poetry Spotlight I, “My Muse” by Mary Rose Betten, is on a special thread at the top of the page; it’s in free verse. Please do visit the pages and comment on the Poetry Spotlight poems. Comments by Kim Addonizio, Alfred Nicol, and Dr. Claudia Grinnell are on the winner’s thread; Spotlight 2 winner will be critiqued by Patricia Gray, David Wright, and Shoshauna Shy. Articles on the site include a roundup of comments from award-winning poets (“What makes a poem rise above the ordinary?”), and a sneak preview of upcoming guidelines for poets who’d like to read at the Library of Congress for Poetry at Noon.

I discovered a site by a fellow Floridian G. Michael Palmer and co-founder Orson Scott Card. Strong Verse has some interesting work, a forum, and an open submissions policy. Guidelines suggest a preference for accessible poetry.

Jacksonville is home to a number of publications, and at the top of the literary category is Mudlark, edited by William Slaughter. I hope to meet him when I return to college this fall—I’ll be taking courses at the University of North Florida.

There’s an interesting article at Newsday, Plotting a course back to Long Island about one of my favorite novelists Carol Goodman, whose latest book THE GHOST ORCHID I’ve highly recommended in a previous column. What does this have to do with poetry? Goodman’s latest book includes some incredible poetry by her husband Lee Slonimsky whose work I wouldn’t have likely discovered had I not been a fan of hers. I highly recommend reading both novelist and poet. I plan to pick up Slonimsky’s book when it’s released by Ochises Press. I hope both of these talented writers see their work gain a broad audience.

Do visit Creative Writer US for news about writing, contest announcements, book reviews, essays and just about everything related to writing. We’ve just posted a National Poetry Month tip page for teachers and poetry enthusiasts.

If we go any further, we’d have to call it a run rather than a stroll. I hope you enjoy the sites I’ve pointed out—and please do read poetry, lots of it. We’re having a special month!

Recommended poetry link of the week: The Writer magazine online.
Why? For going beyond the call of duty for poets.