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Students + Poetry = Beauty

My journey as Howard County Maryland Poetry & Literature Society’s Poet-in-Residence continued today at two Howard County high schools. This morning, we had a terrific workshop at the Homewood Center and this afternoon we engaged a very different but vibrant reading and discussion at Long Reach High School. Kathy, my high school liaison, accompanied me. Thankfully, she beautifully handles all the details of setting up the readings and workshops.

I knew that poets and friends Derrick Weston Brown, Truth Thomas, and Regie Cabico had been involved at Homewood over the last few years so there had to be some good poetry mojo going on there. I was right. Homewood is the alternative high school for Howard County Schools. The students there have, for one reason or another, not succeeded at the traditional high schools. Homewood has a different feel,  a more open, less institutional feel than the typical high school. We arrived in the media center and were soon gathering a group of about 15 students, all of whom chose to participate. I decided to make this more a writing workshop than a reading and I’m glad I did.

We started with Emily Dickinson’s “This is my letter to the world / that never wrote to me.” We talked about being heard and not being heard– being seen and not being seen. I read them “Cool Disco Dan 1” and “Cool Disco Dan 2” which speak of Dickinson’s theme of invisibility. We discussed why a graffiti artist like Cool “Disco” Dan might get up in the middle of the night to write his name in 5 foot letters. Does this emerge from feeling invisible to the world? I think it might. We also discussed a frequent purpose of graffiti artists: to memorialize. Then I asked them if they might write their “letter to the world.” What did they have to say? If, metaphorically, they wrote something in 5 foot letters for the world to see, what would it say?

We took about 15 minutes and I walked around looking over their shoulders. They wrote some amazing words. One young woman wrote of a friend who had died; she wrote about wanting her words to make up for her friend’s “lost voice.” Another wrote about the artist Banksy and his essential “splash of anarchy” offered to the world. Another young woman wrote a poem with the repeated line “This is not a poem,” yet proving in her passion and word choices that it was. One young man wrote of trying to be heard in a world that ignores young people. Another wrote of the colors he associated with a lost friend, colors he couldn’t recall but were just “on the tip of his tongue.” These young people were doing just what Emily Dickinson did in her poem. They were asking to be seen and heard, “tenderly.”

I left the Homewood Center aware that previous poets had planted the seeds for what I encountered today. While these young people had been through some difficult times, they used poetry to name their sadnesses and to face them. This is what the power of poetry looks like.

Then we made our way to Long Reach High School, a very large, more traditional high school. We didn’t know how many classes we’d meet. All we knew was that we’d be in the auditorium. Soon, the front rows of the huge auditorium were filling with 9th, 10th, and 12th graders, mostly from English classes, about 60 in all. This was the most diverse group I’d met yet and I was glad to see them. I wondered how interested or attentive 9th and 10th graders might be during their final period of the day. I needn’t have worried. They were totally engaged. I asked them to recall a poem that mattered to them. They mentioned a few Edgar Allan Poe poems they’d recently studied. I introduced them to Cool “Disco” Dan and read two poems from that series. They had lots of questions and observations about those poems. One young man asked about my line describing “mortal knowledge.” We talked over that one for a while. Then I read “George Zimmerman’s Options.” Their silence during this poem almost worried me. But when I finished, they had many questions. The 9th and 10th grade boys especially engaged this conversation. They asked why I imagined options for Zimmerman? What did I think of his trial? Was it hard to begin each line with a different verb? We talked about the power of choices in our lives, the fact that we won’t all live forever. I had been worried that this mixed group of 9th, 10th, and 12th graders, who probably didn’t know each other, wouldn’t speak up. Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong. They let the poetry speak to them and they joined the conversation wholeheartedly. I finished by reading “Before My Father Was My Father,” a poem about a story my father told me, recounting his time in World War 2.

Lucille Clifton, the first Poet-in-Residence from Howard County noted that “Poetry saves lives from the inside out.” I don’t know if we saved any lives today, but the students sure let the poems do what they can do– provoke reflection, thought, and questions. Students need poetry. They need poetry they can relate to and feel. Once again, I was grateful to be part of this encounter between poetry and students. It’s a very good combination.

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