Empowerment through Language...

Monday, February 21, 2011

The To-Do List...Where to Start?

Having been on the road for most of the past 6 weeks, there is a pile of mail on the dining room table to deal with, I have laundry, emails that have been on hold, vacuuming the hefty dust bunnies, and then there is the shoveling that is pressing since it has snowed at least 6 inches since I pulled into the driveway Friday evening and pulled the key from the ignition.

There is always a list! Book promotion events to orchestrate, Comstock Review deadlines that have passed and I need to catch up with, writing projects, thank-you notes for a myriad of reasons, plants to repot, finances to address and bills to pay, calls to return, course proposals to draft and submit, and this is just some of it all. I took the weekend as a retreat and got a lot of sleep, much needed and welcomed quiet time. Now to get busy with all that I need to accomplish before I head out on the highway once again.

Not the least, I want to work on some poems. The book is done, now to return to verse. There are at least four cycles of poems that have been very patient with me while I accomplish other goals but now to return. I feel a bit cranky about poetry I am not taking enough risk, not striving beyond my comfort zone. I want to say something of import, of value, so how to do that?! Oh gee...I am not really sure. I know that some of the first attempts at some work are long! Much longer than I have ever tended to write and this is intriguing. I have concern about the publishing aspect of the long poem, particularly since I have always gauged my poems to accommodate the needs of the typical poetry journal. For instance, Comstock Review asks for an average of 38 lines to give a poem a page. But I know poets who write long poems, where do they publish? I guess the real point is to just write. To be more concerned with the poem than the outcome. If I take that stance, who knows what I will discover? I have found that I am rather bored with my poetic voice as I flip through the binder of work that is on hold. I know that Joy the Agnostic wants to be a bad-ass and is tired of sitting idly while the world is going crazy. The Twins are wondering about their fate and all the letter poems are asking to be honed like carbon steel to a fine edge.

I also know that I find a great deal of creativity in crafting a lesson plan and there are several that need to be transcribed as well. I will get to some of this list but first...finish the cappuccino and start the laundry!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday and I've Almost Caught Up on My Sleep

It feels good to be home. I have slept so much the past 2 nights. It also feels good to have some time to myself. I have been rippin' and runnin' for weeks but I have 2 weeks ahead of me to reground, clean some of the chaos of my home, finish up some pending projects, reconnect with friends, and just not be so much on the fly.

I also have the processing of all of the experiences since January started. I continue to marvel at the miracles each time I step into a learning situation. My favorite part of any learning group is the exchange, the way ideas can breed response and connection, if the participants are open and willing. Sometimes it takes a little urging to reach that point, sometimes it is just there from the get-go.

The greatest revelation is that I love planning and/or discovering new lessons and themes for residencies. The act of formulating a new curriculum is a creative endeavor. I love it. It is as enthralling as working a new poem into its full identity. Discovering the connections between an outside prompt, a particular space or subject, and the expression of it all in poetry (either poems written by others or new creations by the students) is a puzzle that will fit together if one is open and patient in the search. It is a journey and sometimes it is driven by intuition first. 

This past week was a journey of discovery for both me and my classes but we charted territory that can be translated to many different environments, age groups, and course lines. I will transcribe it all this week. Now, it is time to work on the scrawled notes in my journal that are yearning to be shaped into a new poem. Happy Sunday...think Spring.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Saturday Morning after a Long Haul

The past few weeks have been a fabulous and exhausting flurry. After a January of teaching both middle and high school with just a few days off to process all that work had been, I headed to Washington, DC, with Jennifer Pashley for the annual AWP conference. Jennifer is a truly gifted fiction writer, author of a startling and wonderful collection, States. We were collaborating with several other colleagues for a booth at the AWP Book Fair, a dizzying rabbit warren of many hundreds of vendors, programs, journals, publishers, many offering delightful swag. Each year I look forward to trick-or-treating through the aisles as I collect the best buttons on my lanyard and search for cool toys. I have attended the past three AWP conferences, each year I experience the conference from a different perspective, and each year I travel with Jennifer. In Chicago two years ago, we were newbies. Last year, I was more prepared for the overwhelming swarm of the conference. This year, as both a participant in the Book Fair and member of two panels, I was committed to those duties so the only sessions I made it to were those on which I presented. But I saw a lot of friends, helped support the other colleagues of our booth (Rochester's Writers & Books, the Downtown Writer's Center of Syracuse, arts journal Stone Canoe, Tiger Bark Press, and I was there for Comstock Review), and the two panels were great conversations.

I presented in one of the many panels sponsored by the Writers in the Schools Alliance, on the topic of teaching in settings other than the classroom. There are so many ways, so many environments in which the creative response and the sense of self blend to create opportunity. The second panel was the discussion that my co-author Quraysh Ali Lansana and I proposed on the topic of poetry and social justice in the classroom. With Nandi Comer, Randall Horton, and Toni Asante Lightfoot joining us, this was a spirited, even passionate conversation among the panelists and with those attending the session.

Quraysh was also able to bring nearly 25 copies of Our Difficult Sunlight, most of which we sold after the panel and as we each encountered friends and colleagues. What a thrill to hold the book in hand! I am still not used to it but what an affirmation it proves to be. Years of work, the sum of even more years of experience, and now all that thought, all those words, each conversation and transcription distilled into 200 pages wrapped in a cover that glows with the perfect visual metaphor for the work by Chicago artist, Joyce Owens. Astounding achievement. I am grateful to Q for the partnership.

After just two days home to recuperate from AWP, I flew to Chicago for the first launch events for ODS. Sponsored by the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, with support from the Public Square at the Illinois Humanities Council, the launch was two-fold. On Thursday evening, February 10th, we presented the book publically with an evening's reception and program that was emceed by Toni Asante Lightfoot, with comments from Dr. Haki Madhubuti and a featured performance by the young poets of "Purpose of Life Poetry Ensemble," then comments from both Q and myself. There was a wonderful turnout of well over 70. The Hull-House Museum staff was so gracious and we are very grateful to Lisa Yun Lee, Director of the Museum, for all she did to make both the evening's event and the in-service workshop the next day stellar.

On Friday afternoon, we worked with approximately 45 teachers, program and academic directors, and teaching artists to develop teaching approaches that would use the Museum as a focus and teaching tool, as well as incorporating poetry into the Museum experience as well as generally more an organic part of the teaching day. Participants wrote collaborative poems based on their exploration of the Museum and the work groups created some initial concepts for comprehensive lesson plans that addressed each of the core content subject areas as well. The room was alive with creativity and learning in a similar spirit as that of the history of Hull House. In fact, both events were held in the historical landmark, the Residents' Dining Hall, where the likes of Jane Addams herself, W.E.B. DuBois, and Eleanor Roosevelt were just a few of those many who have dined in that very room. At one moment, after screening the short documentary about the Hull House Settlement and its ongoing mission, we took a few moments in silence to honor the ancestors of that space and work that has, in some ways, defined the American experience and commitment to social justice. It was humbling.

After the flush and hustle of the Chicago visit, I flew home to host Randall Horton's visit to accept the Bea Gonzalez Prize from this year's edition of Stone Canoe. The next morning, after Randall headed back to New Haven, I packed and prepared to drive to Middletown for a week at Twin Towers Middle School. It was a great week and I posted some of the classwork in my previous entry. Spring teased us a bit during the week, especially yesterday, when I walked out of school at 2:30, the schoolyard full of students eager for this upcoming week's vacation, the teachers urging those lagging behind out the doors so they could also start their break. It was 67 degrees and the sun was glorious. I drove along NY Route 17 through the southern part of the state looking for more encouragement that Spring was in fact on its way, then up Route 81 to home. The temperature dropped 15 degrees and the clouds started to appear, the closer I got to my driveway.

I was asleep by 10 p.m.! The winds were fierce with gusts of 40 - 50 mph all night. This morning, I woke to the drop and scrape of my plow guy's blade, AGAIN! There are 4 inches of new snow, the lake effect is still blowing sideways, and I need to get ready to go up to Thornden Park, where we will celebrate the annual Chili Fest. I am reluctant to go out the door but we will be gathering lines for a collaborative poem about the park and I will laugh with neighbors, so it will be a good welcoming home. I have two weeks to anchor into my home and what better way to start than to see friends and share "I can't wait for Spring" tales as we sample hot chili together while the last of the winter winds howl through the park that will soon explode with blossom and leaf?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Learning on the Fly: The Fine Art of Revising the Lesson Plan In the Moment

Today is the last day of a 5-day middle school residency that has been a total delight. I have been with two 7th grade Literacy classes, two 8th grade English classes, and two self-contained classes with students with Autism and other special needs (these two classes had widely varied skills between the two groups and even among the students). The teachers who invite me into their classes put their curriculum on hold for the week so I can bring something different to their students. For this reason, I attempt to tie my lessons and my week's scope and sequence to enforce what the teachers are responsible to impart on their young people in order to meet the needs of the grade level and, yes, the assessments.

These last two days we are working on reading poems and staging them as performance in a collaborative effort. I began yesterday with the activity that I learned from Quraysh Ali Lansana from his days in the mid-90s when he toured with Poetry Alive! and worked with Asheville poet and educator, Allan Wolf. This exercise involves a small group performance of Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool," a poem just a pertinent today as it was when she first wrote it in the early 1950s. Quraysh has shared this experience in both of the professional development workshops we have presented together in the past month and two of the teachers I am working with this week were participants in one of those sessions so now they are teaching the same activity as well as seeing me model it once again.

After yesterday's classes when we worked at making the poem real and alive, today I selected four poems of similar length: "I, Too, Sing America" by Langston Hughes, "To a Poor Old Woman" by William Carlos Williams, Nikki Giovanni's gem "Knoxville, Tennessee," and an ekphrastic poem by my friend and colleague Phil Memmer called "Seven a.m.," written to Edward Hopper's mysterious painting of the same name.

The students are asked to count off to create three or four work groups, then a copy of the poem has been distributed to each group to share, listen to, read, discuss, and then stage for the rest of the class. After the performances, the audience is to offer what Ryfkah Horwitz, my dear friend, sister poet, and supreme classroom teacher has taught me as sandwich critique (a positive statment, a suggestion for improvement, and another positive statement).

So the first period I discovered that I need multiple copies for each group, as they took too much time passing the poem around and then they wrote on the poem in the blocking and staging process (although they were kind enough to use pencil so I could erase notes until where it was in the building that the additional copies printed to when I had a chance to run them!).

Some of the groups decided to create props and that was great. It was also an assessment of engagement for both me and the teachers. The students were making plums and corncobs; some students were blocking entrances from the hallway to illustrate Langston's "...when company comes," and some were developing southern or more formal accents to share their poems. Some students were assigning specific lines or stanzas. Other groups worked on choral recitations and discovered elegance and eloquence in the process.

I figured out the second go-through that it would be advantageous to have the poem projected on the Smartboard for both the performers and the audience. Revision #2 on the fly.

I also used the activity to point out some elements of poetry, such as the importance of the title. The title is the welcome mat to the poem and, as with the WCW poem, it can serve as the first line so the poem is a bit out of context without inclusion in the overall recitation. We looked at the line ends and what happens if you pause at the end when it is not the end of the sentence but also how the end words gain extra capital in the split second that it takes the eye to move from the end of one line to the start of another.

Revision #3...sometimes when you have students count out 1...2..3..4...all the class clowns wind up in the same group! Rely on the teacher to determine if there is a rough mix!

There were other moments of tweaking that my host teachers and I each added to our lessons thus far. There will be more tweaking I will do over the weekend so I may continue to use this as another building block of my practice. And I will think of 10 young men, all students with Autism, sharing the lovely list of the best parts of a southern summer day, articulately, enthusiastically, and with profound collaboration.

Another wonderful week and after two more class periods, I get to drive through this tease of spring to my home, where rumor has it the oppressive snowbanks in my back yard are melting, where I presume the blades of iris leaves and primroses are trying to reach through to the warm sun, and to sleep in my own bed for 2 whole weeks before I hit the road again. If it is clear, I may even be treated with the spectacle of the Northern Lights since this week was honored with a major solar flare. I can only hope. It is the perfect allegory of my life.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Afterglow of a Dream Made Manifest

What a whirlwind few weeks. January was a full month of teaching in both Middletown and Watkins Glen. When I move from district to district, I also get to look at differences that geography and community culture create. The types of references and allusions that I am able to draw upon change from one demographic to another.

For instance, I find that students in a smaller rural town such as Watkins Glen have a stronger connection to the natural world and, in a way, the the cycles of life in a wider expression that just human. I can make reference to the way a hawk rides the thermals or the color of soil when it is turned over in spring as another shade of brown. Brown may be very different in a city environment.

I am also conscious of how city youth and rural youth are familiar with gun culture but in much different ways. Guns are common in rural homes but it has more to do with hunting and food. These young people use guns with training and witness death in tangible, unglorified ways. They have their hands in death and the purpose of hunting for not just the sport but the practical aspect of sustenance. We are also not talking about semi-automatic weapons with this but shotguns. Big difference that many legislators and Supreme Court Justices do not grasp.

In the homeroom sharing circle one morning just after the Christmas holiday vacation, the 6th graders were telling what they received as gifts and what resolutions they had made. One rosy-faced girl cherrily proclaimed that she had received just what she wanted, a pink BB gun. Wow...that was a surprise to me and I said so. She beamed, "Yeah! It's great!" Another girl said, "I have a blue one!" And they know how to use them well. It reminded me that I admired the fact that my friend's older brother had a BB gun when we were all kids. I was amazed and mesmorized, and terrified.

In the city, we are usually talking about handguns, which, to my thinking, have a singular purpose: to kill other humans. And there are a lot of incidents of this being the case. One young man in my hometown last summer shot a man on the street as they passed each other, strangers both. His reason, to the police: "I didn't like how he was looking at me."

Have we come to this as our way? Dehumanized to the point that a life is worthless in the perceived slight of another? I have thought that a way to deglamorize the whole world of handguns is to afford urban youth who are very isolated from the natural cycles opportunites to work on farms. To tend animals through births and slaughter, to collect eggs, to plant in spring and harvest in summer, and to hunt. To learn about the power of firearms and potential lethal aspects. To slog into the woods and take down a turkey or a deer, and then to clean them for butchering as well. Get a young person intimately involved in the life cycle this way and perhaps they will not be as cavalier with their own lives or the lives of others.

I had friend in college who was studying to be a gunsmith. He went everywhere with his rifle prominently positioned on his lap, across the table, etc. I would object to bringing a gun into my home and that spawned some animated conversations. One day he asked, "Are you afraid of gums?" I stated that I was. He challenged me to give him a tangible reason, additionally saying that guns are not the problem, humans are, in that they do not respect the power of a gun and life itself. He said, "I want to take you shooting. If you are going to be opposed to guns, I want you to understand why."

So we went out into the country with his rifle and his handgun and I shot both. The rifle was a replica of an 1863 Springfield (if I remember correctly), a buffalo gun intended to take down the steam engine of a bovine. It was the gun that Custer's troops used to kill Native children and women. It had an explosive power that would pulverize a human body. Its kickback left a deep purple/black bruise the size of a grapefruit on my arm and my shoulder ached for a long time. The handgun was a 44 with a trigger that needed to be pulled hard. Then I sort of blacked out for about 30 seconds and my ears were tainted with the assault of firing at close range. A huge chunk of the tree blasted away and I was dumbstruck. I had enough information as to why I am leery of guns. It is not the guns, is true, it is the person behind them and the intention. And the training...or lack of. How many 15 year olds who get their hands on a glok know how to handle it, much less truly respect the weight of its import or potential?

Just a always...

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Chicago Book Launch and In-Service This Week

I am in my busiest season, the world is under the pressing thumb of winter, and I need a clone! Tomorrow I head to Chicago after a couple of days of catch-up from AWP and sleep in my own bed. It is so exciting to be finally on the road with Our Difficult Sunlight, sharing the book and all that it has to offer.

There are two events in the Second City this week, both hosted at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. Thursday night is the reception and launch program, featuring Dr. Haki  R. Madhubuti, Dr. Carol D. Lee (Safisha Madhubuti), the young poets of the Purpose of Life Poetry Ensemble, my co-author, Quraysh Ali Lansana and myself, and the evening's emcee, Toni Asanti Lightfoot. It promises to be a fabulous evening and there is still time to RSVP (contact info available on the Hull-House Museum link).

Friday, Quraysh and I are facilitating an in-service for Chicago-area teachers and teaching artists who work in school and afterschool programs. The training is from noon to 4 PM at the Museum, is free of charge and includes lunch. RSVP to the Hull-House Museum as well.

We are grateful for this opportunity to be affiliated with the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum as we present our book to the world. Director Lisa Yun Lee and Project Director Kelly Saulsberry have offered a tremendous gift to us in all that they have done to make these events extraordinary. We hope to see some of you there!

Monday, February 07, 2011

Bringing Our Difficult Sunlight into the World

This past week, thousands of writers and educators who teach writing met at the annual AWP conference in Washington, DC to share practices, pedagogy, readings, meals, beverages of varied tastes, and many hugs. It was my third AWP conference and this time I sat on two panels, was an exhibitor on behalf of Comstock Review, and by some miracle of the universe, Quraysh and I were able to distribute approximately 20 copies of Our Difficult Sunlight!

The snows had buried Chicago yet the books managed to be delivered to the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (our hosts for the first of a series of book launches this spring) on Wednesday. My co-author, Quraysh Ali Lansana, was scheduled to fly to DC Thursday so he slogged through the slush and snowbanks to retrieve copies for each of us to hold with delight and the rest to sell. And sell we did! It was amazing to receive the enthusiastic support from colleagues and those who attended our panel on Saturday.

I sat on one panel sponsored by the national Writers in the Schools Alliance on Thursday while we discussed teaching writing in settings other than the classroom. The possibilities are unlimited when we engage students in new environments and the conversation was inspiring and well received. 

Saturday afternoon's panel on poetry and social justice was quite remarkable. The room was nearly full, something I had been concerned about since it was the last afternoon of the conference and I was not sure how many people would be experiencing burn-out or would have already left for home. We had lost a couple of panelists, as many had with the weather and budgetary concerns everyone is experiencing. Fortunately we were able to enlist Toni Asante Lightfoot of Young Chicago Authors and University of New Haven's Randall Horton to join us in the eleventh hour and what brilliance they brought to the session. 

As moderator, Quraysh read a brief excerpt from the book before introducing  each of the speakers, starting with our original panelist, Nandi Comer (now an MFA candidate at Indiana University and former program director at InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit). Nandi started the conversation with wise and well-thought out comments on the programming she has been a part of over her years in Detroit community efforts. Randall spoke to working with incarcerated writers with a depth of knowledge that was profound and highly respectful of those who are living in the American prison system. Randall reminded all of us that sometimes a poor choice is just that and humans have the power to turn their own course of life to positive outcomes. Toni Asante Lightfoot took the tenor of her years in urban writing programming to remind us all that we have troubles in our schools and it is a collective effort to reach out to perhaps save our youth but surely to remind them that they have voice that is valuable to us all.

The questions and comments after our presentations were remarkable. One woman spoke of her year with young women writers in South Africa, others addressed working with young people with Autism, the marginalization of students in countless ways, the pressures on teachers, among other concerns.

The most poignant moment of all was the last comment from the audience. A tall young man, trim in a tailored raincoat, short crew cut, and wide, bright face thanked us for offering this discussion. He elaborated by saying that as a teen, he was headed the wrong way on the life road, attracted to the world glorified by media and MTV. He said it was poetry that saved his life and he meant it quite literally. He was attracted to gang life and the world of the street but he had someone who introduced him to the pen and he said, "Without it, I would probably not have been here now..." 

We often never know the impact of our work. We can only hope and keep doing. Sometimes, someone shares that there is value beyond our expectation. I was one of those for whom poetry has been my lifeline. It continues to be this day, in which I celebrate my third book, the one for which I am most proud.