Empowerment through Language...

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?

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