Empowerment through Language...

Friday, December 30, 2011

Goodbye 2011 - It's Been Good to Know Ya!

Every year, I find the transition from one year to the next unsettling. Perspectives change just in the passage of a day into another year. It is odd. This year, Samoa is losing a whole day as they switch to a time zone that is more in keeping with their primary trade partners. That is how elusive and malleable time is, because it is an arbitrary construct that suits the mood of humanity more than the cycles of the moon or the turn of the seasons. Time makes things convenient and provides agreement among our species, as well as conflict and guilt. This is proven every time we are late for any appointment.

The end of the year is the review time for many of us. I enter every year saying, "Next year is my turnaround time...the challenges will ease...I will make my breakthrough to stability..." Then, each year gives me many blessings and a wrath of challenges to adjust to as I journey through the calendar.

As I entered 2011, I was extremely optimistic. I knew it was the year that Our Difficult Sunlight was going to be released, after 3 years in the making. I appreciate Teachers & Writers Collaborative for publishing the book, taking the risk on our proposal. 

This book was going to open many doors and further my career, as well as provide new opportunities for my coauthor, Quraysh Ali Lansana. Somehow and with many bumps and trials, the book was made manifest, starting as a thought and a list of ideas nearly 6 years ago. It is a remarkable accomplishment. What I did not anticipate was that promoting it was going to be so dependent on the efforts of Q and myself. But we know how to do that. We have been promoting our own books of poetry for years. So we rolled up our sleeves and got busy. Most of our promotional efforts is through personal contacts and the internet; we are building our market and the books are getting into the hands of those who benefit from our pedagogy, even if at a slower pace than we anticipated. 

I have lost one of my major contracts in the 2011-12 school year due to the impact of the economy on school districts. It is a travesty what our leaders is permitting and actually orchestrating in the realm of American education. I could go on for a long time about this issue. I Tweet about it regularly. And now it affects me directly.

With the rug pulled out from under me again, I have been scraping together what I can to get through these past 6 months until I could redefine my work profile and recreate the sources of income to replace that work now gone. I have been in a dark place in all of this but I have also responded by stretching beyond the boundaries I have previously recognized or created. What has come of that is a confidence in my work and capacity that I did not possess before this. I see myself as a mature artist with a body of work as a foundation that gives me pride and a hope for all the new work that is lined up in my brain and in various files on my computer like planes on the tarmac at O'Hare.

I am 2 months behind on almost all of my bills. I am shuffling funds to meet the most crucial need any given day and sometimes arguing with bill collectors as to why I cannot agree to their suggestions for the payments they want at that moment. I have found that if the employees on the other end of the line are American, they almost always understand my frustrations. They live here and they are talking to hundreds of people like me every week. I will get through. I know this. When I am most frightened, I remind myself that I will get through because I am resourceful, resilient, and relentless. And because I always have...why would it change now?

I have a wonderful part-time job working at the Downtown Writer's Center as workshop coordinator. I follow in the footsteps of Jennifer Pashley in this role and hold a hearty commitment to this organization, now in its 11th year. I have taught there since the beginning and now we are planning for new programs that will continue to build that community of writers in the Central NY region. I also continue to teach there, which is a delightful experience in supporting other writers achieve their own capacity. After all, we teach what we want to learn!

Quraysh and I developed a number of trainings throughout 2011 that were exhilarating as they unfolded, including a day with educators at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum last winter. We attended several conferences to offer panels and workshops, all of them a tremendous success. We met many teachers and teaching artists who are striving to connect with our nation's youth throughout the country and in spite of the many limitations. We celebrate them all for their efforts.

We both visited colleges and universities to share the book and our own creative work as poets. I look forward to many more opportunities in the realm of higher education. But I am very grateful for those thus far, especially our trip to the University of New Haven, and my visit to Waynesburg University this fall.

We have applied for a nomination for an NAACP Image Award. We have so many to thank for this past year for welcoming us and helping promote our book. We are hoping for much recognition and continued support of our book to develop and grow its market, now that the snowball has started its roll down from the mountaintop. We will endeavor to find ways of sharing our pedagogy, as presented in ODS and, hopefully, we will realize great success for the efforts.

I am personally hoping for several other opportunities for which I have made application. I am often reminded by my dear friend, Dale Davis, of the advice of the great Al Poulin, founder of BOA Editions, Ltd.; she tells me that Al would often say that you have to launch many balloons into the air. At some point, the more options one pursues, the more likely success will unfold. Then we must also remember: it is a waiting game as well. To wait with optimism and accepting that I am of the caliber of candidate for any grant, fellowship, consulting gig, or other career opportunity but without attachment to the outcome in the waiting. This is the most difficult aspect of facing the future. 

School projects start in a couple of weeks. I will return to one of my favorite schools, the Watkins Glen Middle School. I will also be introduced to two new schools in Horseheads, NY, in a collaborative arts-in-ed project with the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, NY. This is a gem of a cultural experience in a small city, a surprise and a treasure trove of art.

I am also creating programming with the Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center in Auburn, NY, another fabulous museum and arts community in another small city. Art is everywhere and often undervalued, but, like school reform, another lengthy and emotional discussion.

I also continue with my efforts as managing editor of the Comstock Review. I have been very tardy in the publishing schedule as I learn how to integrate this important job into my life but we have come through our 25th anniversary and I am planning for the future while I catch up on the backlog. I only hope that all the poets will continue to be patient and forgive for the delays. I also anticipate that the quality of the issues will be satisfaction enough. I am proud of our journal and it is an honor to facilitate the publication of so many talented writers. Here's to many more years but that, again, is a lengthy discussion regarding building that future and all that it involves. 

I have other projects that are brewing, other potential sources of income and career development. I will repeat my New Year's rituals of meditation in the 30 minutes leading up to the turn at midnight from one reality to the next. I will ring the bell 108 times, as I have been doing since I first visited the West Coast and sat in the zendo at the Hartford Street Zen Center in the late 1980s. Then I will take all of the little prayer requests I have written and placed in a special receptacle throughout the year and burn them in my chiminea with some lavender and rosemary. I will release my fears and disappointments and petition the universe to move me forward and answer my prayers. I will wake later that morning feeling refreshed and I will continue to put one foot in front of the next as I progress through the year. Here's fingers are crossed...

I am filled with gratitude for the countless blessings of this year, too many to cite here but clearly cataloged in my gratitude journal and etched on my heart. This miracle of life, even at its darkest, astounds me.

Thanks for reading my blog throughout this year and I hope you will continue to return. Please share my link with friends. Consider purchasing Our Difficult Sunlight, either for yourself or for a friend who teaches. I am entrenched in the progressive education reform tweeting world. Find me on Twitter if you do that sort of thing: @gappoet. It is always a spirited exchange!

Have a happy and safe New Year. Be well in all ways. Have a happy and safe New Year. I will see you in 2012. Proceed and be bold. I will see you in 2012.

Friday, December 23, 2011

My First Airplane Ride - Memories of Christmas

Here's where my life on the road began: at five, my mother took me to Hancock Airport in Syracuse, NY, and put me on a plane to MacArthur Field on Long Island. The plane was impressive, like a giant tin toy. My little legs climbed the stairs in the cold night air, then I entered the tube of the plane, where a stewardess in a trim uniform and bright lipstick smiled wide as a lazy moon. She took me to a seat. The plane's engines started up and the propellers whirred and rattled. I was the only child aboard.

During the flight, the stewardess took me to the cockpit. It was magical, the view through the windshield, the reflection of all the lights and dials glowing the data twice, the handsome pilots in starched white and sturdy caps. I think they gave me wings. 

When we arrived back on earth, I walked down the stairs to the tarmac and towards the small terminal with the stewardess, where I was met by my birth father. I was there to fulfill his visitation rights. I don't remember how long I stayed before I did the trip in reverse, minus the tour of the cockpit, and returned to my home, my mother, my stepdad, and my baby sister, my life.

This was the only time I made the journey by plane until I was 16, again flying to put in time with my father of origin. 

By the time I was seven, it had been agreed that I was to spend every other holiday with my father; biannual Christmas visits and in the off years for that holiday, I was shipped to him for Thanksgiving and Easter. I also had several weekends during the school year that I made the journey, and two weeks each summer.

To save money, always the case with my father, I started traveling on the New York Central to Grand Central Station. The tracks were so close to the Hudson that, in the winter, I feared the train would slip the rails and we would pummel into the cold water. I didn't know how to swim. I worried I would die. I moved away from the window. I was alone, the rhythm of the train rocking me out of my worry.

By this time, my father had remarried. I had to assimilate into a new family, his in-laws. I had grown a new family with my mom and stepdad, who will be known as Daddy from now on. My birth father will always be only that. I was four when Mommy married Daddy. My first sister came not long after that. With that marriage, I gained new aunts, uncles, cousins, my wacky Grandpa Chris, and my beloved Grandma Anna. And now, my new stepmother's clan was to be mine, or so was the expectation. I hardly knew her but I was supposed to adjust immediately to her family tree.

The first Christmas with that stepmother seemed sparkly. My stocking was huge, I got a giant doll that later came to spook me at night during my summer visit. She was just too close to my size and her eyes were always open.

That marriage failed a couple of years later. But not before the winter that stepmother #1 taught me to knit, or so she thought. I was thrilled. I stepped back onto the train to return home with a ball of white yarn and a pair of blue aluminum knitting needles, probably size 8, same as my age. A row of stitches was cast onto one of them. I slid the stitches back and forth, confident in my skill and fully engaged for a long time. I remember showing the conductor I was knitting, very proud of myself. We rode up the Hudson and along the Mohawk; I slid the little white loops back and forth with precision, but never looping the yard to add a row. I forgot that part of the process. It didn't even dawn on me until what seems like hours later, when I realized that my project was not any longer than when the train pulled out of Manhattan. My mother, a skilled knitter herself, showed me again and I have been knitting ever since. I still love counting the stitches over and over, as the one long strand loops into a sweater or a tea cozy, the yard wrapping through my fingers, the consistent click and swoosh of needles against each other.

Eventually, my father married a third wife, a woman I just love. She was from a huge family, her parents Italian immigrants. It was overwhelming and joyous. A remarkable number of names to learn. I also had to reacquaint myself with all the aunts, uncles, and cousins on my father's side each holiday. I never really felt like I belonged in any of these families. I was always painfully disconnected in those gatherings and so very far from what my siblings and parents were doing.

By this time, I was riding Greyhound, the cheapest option yet. That suited my father even more. At least an 8-hour trip into the Port Authority, if weather permitted. It was torture, especially the one year it snowed so hard the trip took 11 hours and the drunk sitting next to me passed out and slept all the way to Albany with his head on my shoulder. I pressed my face against the freezing, wet window just to try to pull away from his stale breath. I was 10.

It was even worse after my mother died. Being away from my brother and sisters was horrid. I don't know if they even remember that I was not there half of our holidays each year. I don't know why any of this was ever permitted, actually, but that can never be answered. Suffice it to say, it was another time, things were different.

When in I was in high school, life changed dramatically again, when Daddy fell in love. Finally healed from my mother's death, he met the woman who would become his second wife (my third stepmother). She came into our lives with another family, another tradition to uphold, a whole new circumstance to learn.

I have been immersed in blended families for decades before the term was ever coined. I have been looking for the context of family my whole life. I believe myself to be among family but the constructs of the relationship always change for me, even as an adult. As the unmarried one in the family, I used to spin circles to visit all the different houses of my family members, and then sometimes those of the families of the men I might be dating.  When I bought my house, I stopped traveling on Christmas. No public transportation. No being in a corner of the room with people I know but am not always sure that I fit in. I spend Christmas in my own home and others are welcomed to visit me. Here, I am at peace, with my gleaming Christmas tree, and my knitting needles in hand. Maybe next year, I will buy an airplane ornament to nestle into the branches.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Teachers Foster the Future

When I was a child, I knew I wanted to write and I wanted to be a teacher. Little did I know the convoluted journey my life would become and the unconventional ways I would meet both of these aspirations. 

I did not pursue the traditional teacher’s route but worked in any different aspects of business throughout my 20s and 30s, elements of which I have applied throughout my career since. Being involved in business from the bottom up, including being part of a team that built and managed an arts-in-education nonprofit agency, has taught me a great deal of the nuts and bolts of an organization and building a constituency, as well as serving those people who benefit.

As an independent artist educator for the past 12 years, I have been in countless classrooms at every grade level. Over the past 6 years, I have been writer-in-residence in the Middletown Extended Central School District in Orange County, NY, serving two elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school as an element of their district-wide literacy initiative. In addition, I have been in residence in two to five other districts annually for nearly 10 years. I have averaged a teaching practice of nearly 2,000 students and 70 teachers and teaching assistants in K-12 environments annually since 2006. I have also been active in designing and implementing school day and after school programming, as well as a considerable amount of professional development for educators, both within the duties with my agency as a program director and as an independent consultant to school districts and community-based organizations.

I have been listening to teachers copiously. Teachers are the key to student success but now teachers are expected to perform many duties well beyond their expectation when they graduate from a school of education. The climate is challenging and the demands are tremendous. But teachers are passionate about their students and the process of learning. Teachers also model life-long learning.

If we are expecting our students to succeed, we need to fully support their teachers with the resources and tools to meet that expectation. Quality workshops, comprehensive accessibility to new methods, media innovations, peer mentoring, a way to gauge and assess one’s own practice and learn from others are all essential. Additionally, the way a teacher develops his/her teaching practice is best supported by the mentoring of those with experience and demonstrated success of their own. The seasoned teacher shares and supports those new to the field and the new teachers bring an enthusiasm that can be a “booster shot” for the educator with many years in the classroom, along with new developments in the field.

We are also faced with a change of the classroom environment that is the result of the technological/digital evolution of the past 10 – 15 years. Proficiency in core content is necessary but how we deliver the lessons has changed in many ways. The need to train and support teachers, even those who are fully confident with all aspects of digital media, so that teachers are able to guide and prepare our youth for the world they encounter on the other side of the wall is vital to success as well.

In addition, with the current rhetoric in community and the political arena, community engagement in our schools has never been more crucial. Funding sources beyond the local, state, and federal funding for schools must be identified and maximized. Allies among the citizens of our communities must be fostered to protect our schools and their purpose, which is to develop our children into competent, informed, critical thinkers, citizens who will steer our communities in the years ahead, who will build and this nation as we move forward. It is more than the scope and sequence of learning, it is the wonder of discovery that teachers seed in their students. We need to also support that wonder and thirst in our teachers so they have the fuel they need to continue entering their classrooms with the enthusiasm than is transmitted to the young ones before them daily. The future sits in those desks. The future deserves the best and teachers deserve the ability to realize their own full capability as the foundation for that future.

Our nation needs to return to trusting that teachers are actually the best gauges of learning in their classrooms and that they are trained professionals who deserve respect for their career choices. Teachers know how to teach and are successful when consistently supported with adequate funding, resources, environments, and professional development. Changing the rules every few years, imposing testing schedules that seriously limit instruction time, and limiting creative inquiry in the classroom create tension in both students and teachers, which I believe is at the heart of the perceived failure of our schools, not the tenure process. It is short-sighted to think that the current national movement is an adequate solution to the problem and that teachers are the cause. Not enough of the decision makers in public education or the politicians have the experience of teaching within the constraints they create and legislate, nor do they understand the pressures in today's classrooms and/or what a child at any age may bring in with them from the home and the outer world. We must provide teachers the scaffold they need to shine and, in turn, for their students to do so. It takes each and every one of us to accomplish this lofty goal but I believe it is possible.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Another friend of mine from high school has recently connected with me via Facebook. For several days we have been sending let's catch up on the past four decades notes back and forth. It turns out that, after all this time, my friend has been living just 2 hours further west on I-90. Who knew?!

He asked a curious question about my work in the latest note: How old are the kids you teach writing? They are so all wired into their phones and texting. Is it hard to get past this? 

My response: I tell them that I ask them to put the media away, especially the phones, because my thumbs start to itch when I see them texting and my phone is off. I text a lot. It is convenient and often efficient. Generally the students are quite surprised that I text. Ms. Popoff!!! You really text?! 

It's true. In spite of my age and obvious corniness, I am a relentless texter. Students are extremely dependent on their phones and IPods. Instead of passing notes, they text. They also think we adults don't see what they are doing or are too old to understand. I like breaking their presumption with my reality. And then, sometimes the best way to engage the students in the poem is to ask them to "translate" it into text language. There is a different code for our kids to use to individualize and keep us out of their business. I guess mine was Pig Latin, though I never knew why it was called that.

Kids have to have their own code, their own connection, in all things, language, art, music, clothing, hair styles. Most outgrow rebellion, although I don't know that I have done so very well.

I can understand middle and high schoolers being self-focused but I often wonder why my college students are not more involved in politics. I think my peers' awareness has just a little bit to do with the fact that my generation, including my friend with whom I have been reunited, sat in front of a television to endure the Draft Lottery that would seal the fate of so many. It could literally be the difference between life and death. Sometimes I tell the story of the first Lottery and what it meant to all of my generation, as well as our parents. Perhaps it is that the Civil Rights era now seems like a successful mission to many who want to believe the myth of Post-Racial America. Perhaps I just ran with a unique crowd.

As I stated to my friend, we were unusual young people. The majority of our crew were artists in some medium or another and continued that journey into adulthood. Some of us are also educators in some capacity. We were movie addicts, we made art, we attended a lot of music events, we spent afternoons voluntarily at the Everson Museum of Art in downtown Syracuse. We had long hair then, both genders. Some of us still do.

And we are the first of the electronic age that morphed from television. We have cell phones and computers. We tweet. And we reunite on Facebook to look back at another generation that wants so much to be relevant and connect. A poem is no obstacle to me in that... 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Another year...another cause for gratitude and reflection...

Dear friends, family, colleagues...

I am not sure how many years I have maintained this birthday ritual but I believe it is at least 10. I have not saved all the letters, though I wish I had, but for at least a decade, I start my year by sipping a cup of perked coffee and writing to those who make my life worth living, before I step into the world or out of my jammies. I am almost superstitious about it. I must offer my gratitude for another year of experience, laughter, growth, expansion, and success in facing darkness, and the biggest of all, love.

This year has been the usual roller coaster. I have looked back and see that I have a life pattern of the rug being pulled out from under me on an average of every 3 years. Three years ago when I sent out my birthday missive, I had been laid off from Partners from Arts Education and had made the decision to pursue my career as an independent teaching artist, for which I had been building for the previous 8 or 9 years. It was about the Work more than a job. It was just months after the release of my second book, The Doom Weaver. I was eager for the growth of my career and optimistic regarding so many things and then it changed in the course of one sentence. At the time, Jerome Duerr said to me, "That book is very courageous. If you can write that book, you can do anything." He advised me that many people discouraged him from starting his studio and pursuing his passion and true artist self. He said, "This is America. What's the worst that could get another job." Jerome encouraged me to be authentic and true to myself and indicated that he, who does not know me as well as some of you, believed that I can manifest my highest good.

I made it through these 3 years as I have most of my life, sometimes with sweat and others with the help of those close and understanding, but I pursued the path that I had created and, in the process, did good work in schools and with those I share my knowledge. This year, I complete my solar return with the rug yanked again due to the economy but my commitment to this career, albeit unconventional, is true. This work in education, this work with language and all its power, is what I know I was born to offer. I get so frustrated along the way but I know that I have value to offer and I am nothing if not persistent. I pray that the outcomes I have dreamed continue to unfold and that not only do I "just keep doing the good work" (as Sue Stonecash tells me year after year) but that the potential for stability and security finally unfolds.

This past year has given me many blessings, as is always the case. The most prominent achievement is the publication of Our Difficult Sunlight. This is the effort for which I am most proud in this life thus far. I love the two collections of poetry I have published and am eagerly preparing for more books of the poems I have inside me. But the purpose of ODS, what it offers to others so they can strive for greater success in their own work, this is my true intention and I hope that this book reaches many of those who will benefit. I am particularly grateful to my collaborator, Quraysh Ali Lansana, in this journey. We are both highly invested in this project and its opportunity and now endeavor to bring it to the attention of every teacher, every artist educator, anyone who can use it and gain ways of engaging in our art form as well as helping others to read, to connect, to learn and grow as humans. Lofty ambitions but I am always a bit in the clouds. I believe in both altitude and dreams.

I must also say I am grateful to all of the publishers who have believed in my work to include me as one of their authors: Hale Mary Press, Main Street Rag Publishers, Puddinghouse/Kattywompus, and Teachers & Writers Collaborative. What else can I say but thank you.

This past year has also returned some key people to my life after many many years, particularly my dear friend and lifeline when I was a teen, Barbara Wright, and my long lost cousin Christine Kelly. There have been other reunions as well but these two have given me back a piece of myself that is difficult to explain in mere words. Thank you both...and thanks to the others who I have been able to share time and laughter, including Deb Rahalski, other Nottingham 40th reunion friends, to name just a few. 

I know that when I reveal my fears, it freaks some out so I will just say I have been given pause to question a great deal this summer. I have been somber these past few weeks leading up to my birthday. Something about 58 is unsettling. Time is flying at a velocity that is confusing. I see the horizon of my elder years and there is so very much to do. I have three children's books in stages of development. I have two collections of poetry unwrapping themselves. I have the food memoir collaboration with my dear Linda Moore rejuvenating. And I have been very committed to my blog. ODS taught me that I enjoy the personal essay, writing in prose. I have been guided by my friend and mentor Dale Davis to look at how that is presenting as the foundation for another book. And I journal regularly. I am feeling an urgency to complete these works, to keep moving forward, to proceed and be bold, as Phil Alexander advised a few years ago, a fine mantra that I share often.

My community of friends and family have had hardship as well as delight. There have been weddings to celebrate and losses to mourn. We have welcomed new lives, we have lost dear friends. I have a beautiful fish tank that was Bob Gibbons' and now I tend the water community in honor of the life he lived. There has been illness and there has been laughter. I have witnessed friends make changes that will keep them closer to their own missions and intentions and I celebrate them. I have seen my close ones and colleagues rise beyond pain, fear, loss, the economy to live with integrity and honesty, to heal themselves and be forces of healing and joy for others. I am grateful for you and the models you present. I hope to be a person in whom you can confide and upon whom you can rely.

This is a deeply troubled time in our nation. No matter what your personal politics, it is undeniable. I harken back to my teens and the climate feels the same. The discord, the fear, the frustration, the marches. I feel we all must pay attention and strive to know the full story of what is happening. We must vote, we must be informed, and we must talk to others, even those who disagree with us. Too much is at stake for complacency. Nuff said here...

I am in the sixth decade in this body consciousness. I pray for continued good health. I pray for the wellness of my brain also. I pray for my community and my beloveds, all of you. I miss those whom I have lost throughout the years and I light candles in their honor. The list is long and it is sobering that I have exceeded the lifespan of two parents and one brother. But it is what it is and I live each day for them as well. I especially beam light on behalf of the next generation of nieces and nephews, both of my immediate family and those whom I have adopted and have adopted me. My Anna and her brother James, the Goodnough girls, my Maxwell and my Joseph, Adelle (my Delly Bell), the Gainer/Bradford crew, Ms. Maddie and her new brother Karson, the Pashley brothers, Team Lansana, Juliette and Brittany, the three beautiful Horwitz sisters on the west coast, Rosatis, Curdts, Missy, the Wentworth sisters, Kristen, Natalie, and Jonathan Crawford, Dylan and Jesse (and now Jesse's son) and every single child or teen I have ever been blessed with the chance to teach and offer poetry, may your way be golden with light, may you know yourselves well and may the universe support you in your dreams. And mostly, may I be blessed to witness it for many more years, decades...this is a miracle, this opportunity of life. We have no way of truly explaining any of it but by some Grace, we are here to live it. Let us not waste a moment.

It is time to wrap this up and send it out. This is also the first year I will use social media to share my thoughts, so I am sure to reach every person for whom I am grateful and by whom I am supported and blessed. My phone is ringing with texts from loved ones sending birthdaygrams. I have to get to the Zen Center to write a poem about fall trees with the children. Then maybe to dig in my garden and spread some of my birthday mulch from Linda M. So I offer my wish for all of you, may you have a blessed day and may your path be cleared of obstacles, illuminated with wisdom and opportunity.

With love and a heart full of gratitude, I thank each of you for making my life worthwhile and joyous. I may know you just a little bit. I may have walked parallel with you for ages. You all matter to me and create the substance of my existence. As Ms. Lucille Clifton advised me, "I choose Joy because I am capable of it, and there are those who are not."

Namaste and ASE,

Friday, October 14, 2011

Dumbing Down the Conversation

We don't have to search long for a mirror to reflect the trickle-up effect of what has been happening in our educational system in the past 10 years; ask a professor. They can tell you.

Over the past few years, I have spoken with a number of colleagues teaching at the university level about the current academic capacity of students. Those who have been teaching for a number of years recognize a student body far less able to meet the standards of just 10 years ago. The textbook count that can be assigned has decreased. Literacy skills have diminished. This is not just among students who come from disadvantaged environments, this is across the board. They also believe that discipline and personal responsibility is lower in many students (in fact, one of my friends, now retired, told me of a student who explained that she was consistently late for class because her mother hadn't been calling to wake her up).

The evidence of diminished capacity is most apparent, I believe, in student writing. The failure to master basic composition skills presents well before college. On many occasions, I have not been able to get a satisfactory answer from 9th and 10th graders to the question, "What is a noun?" It is sobering. At the college level, when students cannot manage tense agreement, do not know how to punctuate or spell, one must question who failed them? Although I am an ardent advocate for teachers, we cannot deny that there is a problem. Actually, teachers are the first to recognize it. There is a progression in which teachers at one level have to instruct students who have been passed forward from lower grades with deficits that impede success as they advance along the chain. The bigger problem is that they will be judged for the response to the assessments that these students must take. There is a great deal of anxiety in schools in the current climate.

One of my colleagues teaches at a state university in another part of the country. He was assigned a sophomore composition class in his fall semester load. Nearly 2 months into the school year, after offering students the ability to rewrite one assignment because their papers were so terrible, then still not being able to grade above a C on any of the revisions and many not even achieving that, he announced that he was going to abandon the syllabus they had been following, effective immediately.

He told his class that they would use the remainder of the semester to learn basic writing skills that somehow they had never developed. I asked how they responded and he replied first with the word "somber;" then he told me that many of the students seemed grateful, even relieved. I imagine that the tension had been palpable until this bold response to the immediate need.

He also needed to discuss this decision with his department chair. He was concerned, unsure whether he would be supported in electing to embrace the immediate need or would be required to tow the line of the administration's expectation for the course offering. He was choosing to honor the students and stop ignoring the obvious. They are unprepared for the work being asked of them. If he does not intervene on their behalf, they will be unprepared for success in both academia and business going forward. He has the ability to turn that tide and will do what he can to share his knowledge.

This is the kind of bold choice our educators have to make every day, from pre-K through graduate school. I know teachers at all grades who shut their doors and teach the way they know students need and from which they will benefit. Sometimes they fear reprisal, but they would rather educate than drill. These teachers' students often manage to accommodate the pressures of the assessment system. And then there are many good teachers who are hamstringed, who have been disempowered by administrations and district requirements, unable to adequately impart the scholastic knowledge as well as life skills that they know their charges need, often demanded to deliver scripted units of study from one educational program or another in which their district has invested.

I teach one wacky little single-credit course at a local university every fall, sort of an arts enrichment seminar for honors students. Even with these students, frequently quite driven, I often find the quality of writing lower than my expectation. It is surprising. In fact, one year my evaluations reflected that my students thought I was asking for too much in my writing assignments. This course has no required reading, no research, just a weekly personal reflection of up to two double-spaced pages, one report on an informational interview of at least five pages, and a final personal reflection, five-page minimum. I had to adjust.

But, in defense of young people and their teachers, I also see work by poets who do not know the difference between  it's and its, or lightening and the marvel of a summer night, lightning. These are writers who pride themselves in their skill with language. And don't get me started on the typos and sloppy grammar on web-based news outlets or on news squawk network trailers and headers, much less television series' scripts. It is so much important that they beat everyone to the consumer with the headline that there is no consciousness in or even time for adequate proofreading. It is insulting to me but then I wonder who else besides me even notices? Who notices when some celebrity or newscaster says "Her and I were..." either?

I keep thinking that 21st century American life has become a sequel combination of three films: The Truman Show, The Candidate, and Idiocracy. Frankly, I find it not only rather sad but also embarrassing. The most pathetic thing is that not enough of our politicians care deeply or take a stand for education. Others are fully sold on reform policy that is not good education. We are in trouble. If language is power, as I truly believe, we are rapidly becoming a nation of wimps.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

It has been 12 years since I created an exit strategy from my job as office administrator with an environmental engineering consulting team to become a teaching artist, to dedicate my life to my passion and identity as Poet.

I started out in afterschool programs, although I did have some teaching experience with adults and a few forays into working with school-aged children. Afterschool is where most of us cut our teeth as artist educators. It is definitely the "school of hard knocks." I made a ton of mistakes but I know I did a lot that was right too. Some of those students are now in their senior year, if not graduated. At least, I pray they graduated. I cannot be certain.

I also coached for the local chapter of the NAACP ACT-SO program throughout the 90s. Many of those young poets I mentored are now 30. They are adults with meaningful lives and I am so very proud of them all. Some are teachers, some are entrepreneurs, one is a lawyer, some are parents themselves, and some still write, have a love of poetry. This is heartwarming.

As for those young writers I met in Hillbrook Detention Center over the three or four summers I taught there, I have not the same optimism but I can pray some of those teens made a change in their lives. One is dead. I think of him frequently. I know several others had additional run-ins with the justice system.

I do not teach for sweeping outcomes. I teach for the moment and with a hope to sow seeds. If I am successful, I will affect some sort of change, even if for an hour.

Approximately 10 years ago, I had the great fortune of connecting with the arts-in-education community fostered by the New York State Council on the Arts. This was in the glory days of NYSCA AIE. The statewide roundtable network was being built, the grant programs were well-funded and growing, the conversations were vital and charged with excitement. I discovered many people such as me who wanted to combine their art forms, their belief in our youth, and their own ability to connect, to bring something significant and supportive of teachers and students into classrooms. There were researchers, artists, seasoned educators, parents, cultural organization administrators all focused on the power of the arts in learning, all looking to further develop young minds.

This was a large community of educators of every ilk sharing, working, creating, building on 20+ years of foundation in developing a craft, a career path, and a professional field. It was where I had hoped I would land when I took that leap from the day job, among likeminded people from and with whom I could learn, create, and grow. 

There were powerful meetings, terrific initiatives, and a network within the practice of learning and teaching that was vital and inspiring. I met many who I admire greatly and I learned a great deal about many subjects and pedagogies. I made some lifelong friends. The network expanded to and connected with the national field where there was even more evidence of how the braid of learning and the arts could be expressed with success and enthusiasm.

I entered the AIE community at the beginning of this new NCLB was formulating and being passed. The waters soon rippled, early signs of the storm ahead. Like the Gulf when the spinning rage is still far off shore but the tides hint at what is coming.

Politics, funding slashes, the deterioration of so much eroded this movement. The network has been splintered and cast out. Arts councils have been defunded or significantly cut in many states. Key agencies and cultural organizations have been forced to abandon their programs and turn the keys in the locks. Some of us have landed in other nonprofits, others have started independent practices and consulting businesses. We have lost the core that created reasons to be together to plan and implement innovative educational programming and to spur each other with the shared knowledge.

Nationally we witness that our teachers are being demonized. Our children and teens are suffering. Higher education is recognizing the full impact of this erosion. The basic preparation our schools were providing for future generations to take on the task of living a life with stability and independence is no longer possible. Arts and cultural organizations throughout the nation have also withered.

The strength in numbers among creative, competent educators has been weakened by breaking up the network and splitting us off from each other. Dissent is being stirred up within the field of education by whomever is holding the power now (i.e., pitting public schools against charter schools, Race for the Top state-against-state competition for funding to support school districts, etc.).

It is only one part of the way we are failing as a nation and why I feel so much the way I did in 1968. The difference is that I am 58 rather than 15 so I am even more frustrated and horrified, especially because I have seen the costs before and do not understand why we are backsliding so steeply and rapidly. I understand my father's fear when he was in such conflict between his morals vs. his employment during the Viet Nam War. I share his distrust of the political climate. I see why he was threatening to move us all to Sweden in 1968 if George Wallace were to be elected; how he knew Nixon was a seriously bad choice as well. He saw the clouds accumulating along the horizon, the heat lightning, but he was also the son of a Marxist so he had been watching the weather for a long time.

Tonight the AFL-CIO is mobilizing even more humans to stand up against it all in Wall Street, to refuse the eviction. The Senate says NO to putting Americans to work. Peddlers of profit are masquerading as education reformers while they peddle books and charge huge fees for speaking engagements. Banks are moving into charging us for using the debit cards upon which they spent the last 20 years orchestrating our dependence. The news talking heads are squawkin' loud and sometimes sayin' nothin' while Herman Cain speaks for the Right (RIP James Brown...I'm glad you and my dad are both missing this).

I can find no logic in the current political agenda that continues to weaken our citizenry in the interests of profit and/or power but that is where we seem to be. We've been through this before. Complacency must not be accepted. We must be aware, we must continue to educate ourselves and others. We all depend on it.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

When Is It Too Soon to Tell the Truth?

Quraysh and I presented at the Urban Word NY annual Preemptive Education Conference last week. During our workshop, there were several moments in which the questions and conversation took us a bit off the agenda to support the teachable moment. Teaching is a performance art and the teachable moment is always the element that one must examine in the instant, assess, and respond quickly. Do we veer from the lesson plan for the engaged and pertinent discussion? And how do we get back to the focus?

This is always the case in authentic education. The teachable moment is that opportunity to maximize the engagement of the students and to fill out the lesson plan with vital responses to the learning as it happens. But if you have goals and need to fulfill the expectation for that unit of study, there is a dance of balance and truth.

In this instance at the conference, we were discussing the poem I love to teach to any age group, Nikki Giovanni's "Knoxville, Tennessee." 

As we discussed Ms. Giovanni's word choices, there were some fascinating comments. For instance, as the poem celebrates the luxury of going barefoot in summer, one participant who teaches in L.A. said that his students would not see that as a positive. He further explained that going barefoot would not only be unsafe and no child would do so willingly but if they were barefooted, it would be due to poverty and probably subject them to ridicule. It would be an embarrassment rather than a delight. This gave me another opportunity to see how geography alone will affect inference but also how poetry may provide alternative reflections on experience.

At the point that we were discussing the word "okra" from the early part of the poem, I shared a slightly truncated version of my narrative of the journey of okra through the Middle Passage to the North American continent. This story itself was initiated through a teachable moment 2 years ago, when a class of 6th grade students and I were discussing the poem and I was informing them about the vegetable. One student asked where it came from and the teacher started to research it from her computer as we worked. This is when we discovered the West African origins and my imagination took the reins. Since that cold January day, I have woven the tale and personalized the experience in a narrative that starts us out as members of a village on an ordinary day 400 years ago, and presupposes some brave person who was kidnapped from the garden chores with a pod of okra in hand. It is tender and horrible at the same time. But it is a tale of courage and fortitude that I believe must be imagined.

Often when I have the technology, I also have slides of okra, from plant to images of dishes that include okra (gumbo, jambalaya, fried okra, etc.). I also show images of the diagrams of the ships loaded with humans side by side, pictures of the slave castles of Ghana, the Door of No Return. I have since learned that there was a Door of No Return on the East African coast where enslaved humans were shipped to the Mideast for servitude as well. We often know only a portion of our global history.

There were two key questions during the conference workshop after the story: 1) what is the youngest age that this story may be shared, and 2) is it permissible for someone not of African descent to even do so?

My belief is that there is no age too early in the school setting to tell the story, but that it is important to tailor the story to the level of understanding and sensitivity. Telling the story to a 3rd grader demands a different tone than telling the story to a high schooler. But the rote understanding of the slave trade that is shrink wrapped for each February unit of study of Black History does little to drive home the horror of the Transatlantic Slave Trade or of the notion of slavery itself, particularly in view of the fact that slavery does still exist on the planet. I recently read a statistic that there is still an African slave trade that numbers 30,000+ annually. There are slaves in Asia, there are slaves in the U.S., and there are sex slaves in Dubai as well as worldwide. Women, in particular, understand that slavery is far from extinct.

So we have to be sensitive in the delivery but we must inform if we are to be true educators, especially if we keep a mission of social justice. I do not think we can withhold the truth and still be honest. But we can be honest in sharing the truth in ways that builds understanding and empathy; in this, we chip away at the divisive nature of racism and isolation.

The second question is a harder one to address. I have had a similar conversation with the poet Martha Collins regarding her book, Blue Front, which addresses lynchings in America is a stunning and stark manner. Her quandary (and even the objections of others at times) was did she have the agency as a White woman to address this topic, one that is so rooted in the African American experiences of racism and terrorism that results?

The person asking the question of me said that she did not feel she would have the right to tell the story, particularly not to turn it into a first person narrative, because she is White. I started the story out in second person plural, with a creative visualization prompt of "imagine we are all African, in our village on a warm sunny morning..." At some point, well into the journey, already on the plantation, for some unknown reason in the moment, I switched the pronoun to "I" when it came time to plan the okra seeds that had been clung to throughout the horrid transfer from one continent to another, during which each of us had lost our status and identities as human.

I don't know if I have done this before but I did last Saturday. It was about one person taking action to plant those small seeds that would provide the taste and sustenance of home, and remind us of and root us in a time when we were fully human, rather than diminished to chattel. A food that keeps the truth within our hearts.

But my points are these:

1) we have to remember that this history of slavery is not just for Black America, it is the history we all carry one way or another as a nation so we must be familiar with it, own it, take responsibility to change the course, especially now;

2) the only way to resolve the issues of racism is to create an understanding, an empathy in all people so that the actions that result from racism are no longer tolerable.

We must be able to internalize the horror to combat it. And it takes each of us to do so. If my taking the character to heart and sharing it means that the 6th grade blonde girl in Watkins Glen, NY, cries from the realization of the truth, then so be it. I have the agency to do so. And so it did happen one morning last January. That child may find it very difficult to tolerate racism much less commit acts that harken it in the future because she was able to picture herself within the shackles herself. I would do the same in sharing the horror of the Holocaust of Nazi Germany, had Anne Frank not done so already.

There may be some who do not agree, and I would not take a story that another has developed to use as my own, particularly of a cultural heritage outside of my own. You will not ever catch me attempting to do "Signifying Monkey," though I relish every moment I hear a storyteller or griot launch into it. But the story of okra is also a part of me, that descendent of North Carolinian farmers who did not own slaves but who discovered the delicate taste of a vegetable rooted in the Motherland of all humanity. So I will tell it and I will remember what courage is, a courage that I have not had to draw upon but I admire greatly. 

And I will continue to ask children to picture themselves in a West African village on a sunny day, feet warmed by the hot dust beneath them, that moment when everything was intact and serene, before the kidnappers...before we were forced to overstand brutality.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Maximizing Conference Time - The Task at Hand

This past weekend, my coauthor Quraysh Ali Lansana, and I presented a workshop based on some of the pedagogy in Our Difficult Sunlight at the Preemptive Education Conference in NYC. Thanks to Michael Cirelli and the Urban Word NY staff for the invitation and the event itself. And thanks to those who chose our session among the great offerings that day. We appreciated the talent and commitment of all who were in the circle.

During our workshop, we aimed to offer three different elements of our approach that could be adapted and used in the classroom by the participants upon their return. Quraysh opened with his sculpting activity of Gwendolyn Brooks' timeless statement, "We Real Cool." In this, seven volunteers work with him to quickly stage a performance of the poem of just 24 words that speaks volumes to the circumstance of drop-outs and losing one's way, one's motivation. The sad truth is that this poem is even more relevant now than when Ms. Brooks wrote it nearly 60 years ago.

I then replicated my poem-as-video-game method for investigating a poem in a tiered examination that reveals context and drives inference by repeated reading, listening, and discussing the language from different vantage points. This metaphor correlating the experience of a poem with the process of playing a video game has proven to be very successful in my own practice and it is a flexible method of inquiry that encourages engagement, as does the sculpting activity. Both of these can be adapted to any poem, any group of students, any age.

The third portion of our workshop involved Ms. Brooks' construct of verse journalism, the poetry of events and news items, leading to poetic statements of not just awareness but social justice, and Q's interpretation of his community awareness scaffold for creating a poem. In this, by taking conscious reflective steps to identify the smells, sounds, characters, physical elements, and personal connection to one's neighborhood and relying upon these elements for inspiration; the prompts encourage a student to look beyond the expected, beyond habit, to examine the details of his/her world, even to identify beauty and pride where others may see despair. It is quite powerful and yields personal statements that are often quite moving.

There are inherent flaws in the conference model but this was a good conference nonetheless. As is generally the case, there is never enough time to do everything on the agenda. The goal of getting as much as possible squeezed into a single session is daunting. But we did offer three opportunities: one, a kinesthetic connection to a poem; the second, a deliberate method of reading poetry in a way that breaks down the barriers of self doubt and comprehension to empower readers to trust their interpretations; and a third that provides a platform for a panoramic view of one's own world that is rich with imagery and sensory awareness.

Although Q and I know that there is so much more that each of these components could have been presented with much more depth if there had been more time, it is our hope that the individuals who selected our workshop over the others available to them in that session were fed well. We expect that the educators and teaching artists who attend any of our professional development sessions recognize the many opportunities for adaptation of our suggestions, rather than attempting a rote replication. We are only modeling potential based on our own experience and, often, our successes in the classroom. We give these prompts and activities to others so they can also witness success and keep the art of poetry alive.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Language as a Weapon...the Political Spin & the Skewing of "Entitlements"

Remember the harried call for "the moral majority?" How about the clarion for "family values?" Or how Spiro Agnew called the left "effete, intellectual snobs?" The tone of the rhetoric of the right for nearly 2 decades was to accuse the left of violating the values of the American Family.

I have been asking a question for a few months now: why is it not "family values" to expect and support a citizenry that is

  • Nourished;
  • Housed;
  • Healthy;
  • Educated;
  • Employed and able to earn a viable living; and/or
  • Protected in their elder years?

Why is asking that our citizens can expect that which was promised for the entire Baby Boom now the tool of politicians who are spending millions, and eventually billions, of dollars to be elected? Why is the language so skewed and that bias is to demonize Americans for desiring, expecting, and striving for the American Dream? I just do not understand.

Language is a tool...a weapon...a volatile premise. I often ask high school students to tell me names of famous people who have changed the world through the effective use of language. Their list is comprehensive. I believe that I blogged some responses in previous posts. They also understand that there are negative changes that have been wrought through effective language and skilled speech writers and orators.

We have a field of politicians waging verbal war and not addressing the very pressing issues of the day. One that really bugs me is the notion of "entitlements." The implication from the Right is that Americans are asking for something they do not deserve rather than being given title to the funds that they have deposited into the system since they first started working. And the press seizes that word and supports its usage from all sides of the fences. Just as the media supported the sanitized term "ethnic cleansing." Every election and every administration delivers at least one term, one word or phrase that then becomes the lexicon through media enforcement. Remember "weapons of mass destruction" that started with Clinton and ran rampant in the Bush years. How about "embolden?" When was the last time you used that word before it coming from the White House press room during the Iraq war that has helped bankrupt our nation? How about "Not on my watch?" These are now commonalities because the White House, at some point in time, spoke them and the media seized the moment and tattooed them into the public consciousness. How about "maverick?" And the bold claim of the "Silent Majority?"

Language is precious and beautiful. Language is brutal and damning. It is both a weapon and a tool, and it is a way to "embolden" as well as enslave.

Our nation is in a weakened state. We must be ever conscious of the tone and scope of our words. And we must regain our own legitimate self-respect and power as a society. I am not sure how. It seems insurmountable. But I know that the current rhetoric is not going to do it. I know that the bullying of the right and the left of each other will not accomplish it. Breaking the unions, vilifying teachers, attacking those who work in public services, and defunding the many valuable programs that have made the quality of life in our nation what it has been until very recently (and is currently highly threatened by "reform") will not achieve it.

I also know that being silent will be the worst option.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Reclaiming Self after Slipping through the Cracks

Last Friday, just one week ago, over a great looooong lunch at Sparkytown in my hometown with a new colleague/friend, Yvonne Murphy, I made a life-changing decision. I am going to finish my B.A.

I declare this publicly so I cannot back out.

I have been declaring it all week to friends and colleagues. I want this decision to be a part of my body consciousness and I want to move beyond the roadblock I have negotiated my entire adult life.
I recognize and own that I have also accepted and even created the roadblock. Other times I have contemplated returning to college and getting the degree and it has usually been lack of funds that I have allowed to stop me. It was partially that factor that caused me to leave school in the first place. But now, 3 weeks before I turn 58 (just 2 years shy of 60!), with the loss of my major contract and no solid work ahead (or so it seems this morning), unable to even place my hat in the ring for many jobs I know in which I could be fully effective due to this perceived deficit, I can no longer avoid this completion.

I have written before of why I am so committed to my students and to the work in schools, especially the disenfranchised, the overlooked, the undervalued and insecure; I am them. Care to see who some of those young people may be as I am. And honestly, it is so easy for educators, psychologists, sociologists, politicians, etc., to focus on the youth of color as the ones who are slipping through and away. So much of the discussion is focused on urban education and urban life as the cauldron of neglect. In fact, it is often. I overstand the plight of poverty and how it is statistically weighted in the Black citizenry of our nation, and fully recognize the struggles of Latino/Hispanic Americans as well. I must also point out that we rarely even see indigenous people represented on any PowerPoint pie chart of the poor and disenfranchised.  But that also becomes a marginalization and stereotype that people can use to keep their assumptions about people of color intact, to perpetuate the stereotypes, as well as continue to allow many others to be faceless and failing.

It is so easy to identify "these kids" as single-parent children, or children whose parents are negligent, abusive, drug users or drunks as well as other than White. Yet, some of those same traits also occur in cul-de-sacs of McMansions. Another consideration: there are caring parents who are poor as well. Sure, the incidents of broken homes and suffering families may be skewed toward people living in poverty but I see these same conditions in rural school districts of predominantly White students, as well as parents who are anything but present regarding their children in suburbia. I actually believe that most children are at risk in America. Look at the divorce rate. Look at the spread of addiction and substance abuse across all socio-economic strata. Look at the decimation of our system of education and the conversation in America today on the floors of Congress, at town hall meetings, and on the news squawks.

Teachers are often the first line of defense for a child in need. But then, can we place all that responsibility on them? And are they always able to manage recognizing the signs? Teachers did not see that I was a solitary child, that I felt completely outside of my peers, that I had tremendous responsibility for my siblings, and after my mother died, all that was magnified significantly. Guidance counselors and adults did not see that I was in a desperate depression. College professors did not see I was at risk for dropping out and barely hanging on. I fit an image of smart young White kid and I acted well for adults.

After I left school, with no emotional support from key adults, such as both my fathers, I slammed through life like a pinball. I have a multitude of jobs in my history and a long list of attempts at alternate careers, often stymied by my lack of a diploma. Ironically, most people now who know my work or collaborate with me assume I have graduate level degrees. I am a graduate of the school of learn it as you go and learn it well to compete. But I lose out too often. I have made a series of poor choices. Other times I have just been stopped for other reasons and family matters that took precedent in my forward movement.

In the meantime, I have also accomplished a long list of amazing feats. I need to be more focused on that tally than what I have not achieved or where I believe I have failed. I find I am not always my best judge.

Now is the time for me to accept that I am my own obstacle in the lack of degree. A diploma is not an assessment of my worth. It is just a way to qualify my knowledge, talent, and skill for the system in which we operate. It is a necessary prop in a society and a generation that has lost a value for self-education and skilled trades. It causes me great concern when I hear all this national conversation about the press for college. But that is a topic for another post, I imagine.

I was frightened off from meeting this accomplishment over and over for the past four decades. Now is the time to stop believing that I am not worthy, that it is too hard, that there is no money for me to do it. I have $150 to deposit in my checking account today...all the money I have. I stripped out my very modest IRA to pay bills this summer. I somehow made the mortgage payment and last month's car payment last week. I can pay another bill that will stop one of the incessant phone calls from a creditor or another with this check. 

I am teaching a couple of courses and I have a small part-time job. I am hoping for another opportunity for employment. Next week I present with my collaborator and creative partner at the Preemptive Education Conference in NYC, then on to workshop with students who will be working in New Haven Schools and offer a reading of our poetry at the University of New Haven. We will sell some books as well.

Then I will come home, make arrangements for my transcripts from three different colleges, if they can find them in the vaults, and sit down to chart my course to my college diploma. That meeting should probably happen just around the time of my birthday. I can't imagine a better gift to myself. 

And, I will continue my work...and continue recognizing myself in the faces of the young Black man in the back row, the freckle-faced girl huddled near the window, the Mexican 4th grader who loves to write and cannot stop, the boy who sings all the time and thinks no one will ever like him, the child in every desk, the teen behind every hip posture, the faces of those who just need to know that there are adults who believe that they are marvelous just because they are alive.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Today I Wear My Poet Hat

There is a lot of pressure when self-employed. The scramble for work, the constant follow-up, the volunteerism, the press to market and generate income, the bills and deadlines are enough to make for constant anxiety. Sometimes even panic.

My poetry is taking second chair to all the other needs at this time. I am getting a little itchy but other priorities are leaving four cycles of poems dormant in my binder. But I am one to take my time with a poem anyway. I described it today as "worrying a poem to the bone." I am not satisfied with the first draft; in fact, I am rarely satisfied with the tenth draft. I am one of those poets for whom the act of honing, revising, dallying with the image and language is a joy as well as a vital obligation.

As an editor for many years, I read hundreds of submissions annually. Now I am making the final decisions for a poetry journal. This is rather daunting. I know what it feels like to get the "not this time" letter in the mail so I have empathy for the human on the other side of the SASE.

As an artist educator and workshop facilitator, I witness how difficult it is for someone to translate one's own experience and emotion to the page, and then to take the step to place that work in front of a reader, much less to throw it into the arena of publishing and, thus, critical judgment.

There is so much space between the moment a person commits their humanness to the page and the competition for pages in a journal. Editors have to consider that there is a tender spot in each writer's heart that yielded the poem we are screening, critiquing, accepting, or sending back.

On the other hand, the poet has to remember how many people are out there, sitting at their computer or over their notepads, pen in hand, creating something significant to themselves. They have to reflect on how many poets are taking their five poems of the moment and placing them in the mail for consideration. The competition is keen. We can never underestimate the sheer numbers.

So often, I feel that poems we consider for publication are a few steps short of their own capacity. This is disconcerting. The push to publish sometimes blinds a poet. The delight in creating a poem may often veil our eyes from the opportunities to shift the poem from competent, or even good, to marvelous. So will the desire to see our names and verse in print.

I continue to ask, "What is the rush?!" Certainly the contest and reading period deadlines are motivators but why not sit with the poem a little longer and notice that a word has been repeated three or four times, with no true purpose to the repetition. Or notice that the whole first stanza is not only editorializing and telling the reader what the poem to follow is about, but that it is burying a spectacular line that would open the work up with true panache, and thereby engaging the reader immediately in the experience rather than narrating it? Or perhaps the poet can take the time to proofread the submission and avoid the sloppy typos that shed a callous light on their professionalism? There will always be another reading period or contest. In fact, the plethora of such is diminishing the whole and making the whole business entirely too confusing.

Now I will say that I am honored to be in a national community of poets and to serve them with my efforts, as are my colleagues who work together diligently to publish our journal. I admire the commitment of our entire staff, all of whom (including me) are volunteers. 

I also want to say that often I contact a poet whose poem is so close to stellar to suggest edits that will take it to its fullest potential, based on comments as the poem circulates through our ranks. The poets are always gracious and the usual comment is, "Wow, thanks. I did not even notice that."

But that not noticing is another problem. We are charged with the responsibility to notice by our nature and post as Poet. If we do not give the poem ample attention to observe the blemishes and missed opportunities, we are failing the poem, the potential audience, and ourselves. Every syllable should count. Every syllable should earn its way into the piece. And every syllable should sing.

We also have to remember that we are limited thematically by the essence of human nature and the human condition. Although we may be feeling the excruciating pain of a parent with a critical disease, the heartbreak of loss or abuse, the joy of a newborn child, the bliss of a bird in flight, so are thousands of other people who may be poets as well. We are motivated by our own pains and pleasures to create art. But we then are well advised to step away from the creation emotionally and take a good hard look from the points of craft and uniqueness. How have we described that circumstance or individual in ways that make our own voice and vision unlike any other?

This is the finer element of making a poem and making it our own. It is also the key to more publication. Lastly, it is the path to fullness and satisfaction as a writer and creative being.