On Reading: The Poem That Caught My Eye to Catch My Ear.

Tim Singleton, co-chair of the HoCoPoLitSo board, writes On Reading for the fourth week of each month on the HoCoPoLitSo blog. This is the first appearance of the new feature.

The Poem That Caught My Eye to Catch My Ear.

The other day a poem caught my eye because it wanted to catch my ear. I had spied or sort of spied Eamon Grennan’s “Oystercatchers in Flight” in my inbox, Poets.org’s Poem-A-Day offering.

Sea’s stony greenblue shatters to white…

EG Oystercatchers PADTo be honest, most of the time, the Poem-A-Day missives fall by the wayside, especially if, at a glance, they look long – I save them for ‘later’ and off they disappear, most likely not to be looked at again. This time, the word ‘oystercatchers’ caught my eye and then the brevity of the poem. I could take a look.

With the next glance and I saw the words looked pure sound and begged to be read aloud. I did. One. Two. And three times. The sound was a pleasure. It took something to work the line rhythms into the air. It was a roil of words. Something was going on here. I liked the way the words abutted each other, almost fighting for space and identity amidst the rockiness of the lines. [Listen to a reading of this poem in the clip at the bottom of this post — you can tell I am still working out the rhythm, sound and breath in the recording. Click on the image at the right to read the text of the poem.]

Up till then, I had just been saying the sounds of the poem. I was almost at the point of saying, “What is going on here? What is the meaning?” and some distraction reclaimed me to the busy tasks of the workday; the poem went by the wayside.

Much later in the day, someone else mentioned the poem and we brought it up on the computer to read together, trying to get out something we both had glimpsed, but didn’t really pay attention to at the time. What was going on in that poem? It looked neat. It sounded neat. But what?

Oyster catcher by Dan Pancamo

Oyster catcher by Dan Pancamo*

Early, in my inattentive glancing, I had assumed humans for oystercatchers. Seemed romantic, appropriate for a poem and I was working at meaning through that misconception, trying to figure out the bit about orange and black and what. Then, eureka, oystercatchers are birds! a fact which google not only confirmed but also displayed and we all started appreciating what the poem was obviously saying. The poem and its colors started to make beautiful sense. Sometimes we readers of poetry just try too hard.

There is a complexity to what could just be obvious in this poem, though, which makes it delight, but it wants a bit of trying to get at. The first line gets things going so quickly and particularly with sound that meaning might not deeply render on a quick read; its not conveying in the way of obvious and ordinary everyday language where words rest on the ear starting with meaning, rather by a pay-attention-example of solid words that jump right away into the next sound, almost leaving things behind. (All the punctuation in this poem but the last mark is of a push-forward kind: colons, hyphens, even that first apostrophe which launches a reader from the first word breathlessly into the second, even the parens, which add a hastened phrase on top of the forward push.)

Just where the poem ‘turns’ there is ‘veronica’ as a verb, kind of delicious, kind of awkward, a little odd to my ear and eye. The flower is not an everyday appearance in the geography of my mind, so I am not quite guided to instant image or meaning. Or is it a reference to a Christ-imaged cloth? Or the bullfighter’s move? Not sure. Can’t tell. But then I think it could be just the sound in the word that is describing what the birds are up to, how they hang and move in the windy air: slow-slow-fastoff: verrrr-onnnnn-ica. I am still a little uncertain about what it specifically conjures, but it slows down the rhythm for a moment before the ‘then away’. Nice. It is a great sound to say, a comfort after the hard Ss, Ts and Ks of the earlier lines.

The way sound and rhythm works through all the lines is thrilling, physically manipulating when you read it out loud (do!). It’s not just because of the punctuation lack. You can hear clapping here: “tribe of black till you clap and their risen black” in the repeated slap-like ‘ack… ap… ack’ sound. And you can sense the rhythm/wind hold-shift-hold for a moment in the poem, too:

               …and their risen black

as they veronica on wind and

then away with them (shrill-pitched as frighted

             plovers only harsher more excited)

and riding the stiff wind like eager lovers straining

             into its every last whim: its pulsing steady

The parenthetical phrase full of energy that stifles and speeds into the steady pulsing surrounding it, “harsher more excited” sending the tongue off and into the ploddingly slower single syllable words of “and riding the stiff wind like…” Grennan makes the wind of the breath match the wind of the wind. ‘Lovers’ brings back the stalling hold-in-place of ‘veronica’ with its V sound and something of a parallel image of wind fight. Then the final, almost exhaustive:

its pulsing steady

heart-push in every flesh-startling open-eyed

             long-extended deepening sea-breath.

which you don’t get to without having said the whole of the poem in one long exhale. Bravo. You are breathing like the sea.

On the first few glances at this Poem-A-Day email I missed some obvious things, a now super obvious one being Grennan’s comments on the piece I would have seen if I had scrolled down a single screen from the poem:

“This poem is a fairly straightforward visual report on its title, the birds being a common sight on the coastline I live beside in Connemara, Ireland. I sought a contrast between their ‘abiding’ and the speed and dash of their taking off, their going. The lovers’ metaphor intends, I guess, a broadening or deepening of the natural facts. The absence of punctuation is a strategy to suggest the long-breath continuity and interconnectedness of things.“

I had gone straight to the sound and was quite happy for it, even blew past the title and its clue. I wasn’t worried about meaning at that point, letting words be sound for the sake of hearing what the poet was up to. I was fortunate that the poem came back to me later, grateful the time spent listening through the sound to get to the meaning: it’s quite an enjoyable observation, quite a re-livable observation shared via Grennan’s skill with the rhythm and sound in words and groups of words. I love the way this poem uses breath and sound to portray what its words observe. You’ll be missing things if you don’t read it out loud yourself.

You can see that I am not the best at making the most out of the Poem-A-Day features as they visit my already overwhelmed emailbox. I pay attention only sometimes and then often just slightly. Still, I highly recommend signing up for the service and letting poems interject as they may. When they do, let them spend time with you. They have a way of making delightful your day.

*”Oyster catcher by Dan Pancamo” by Dan Pancamo – Flickr: The world’s mine oyster. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oyster_catcher_by_Dan_Pancamo.jpg#/media/File:Oyster_catcher_by_Dan_Pancamo.jpg

Nsikan’s Young Life with Poetry

In the last few months, we heard from Katy Day and Faheem Dyer about what poetry means to them.  Today, in the last part of our series on young people on poetry and literature, we hear from Nsikan-Abasi Akpan.  She is a student at Howard Community College and an aspiring writer.

 

Nsikan reading her poem to Taylor Mali

Nsikan reading her poem to Taylor Mali

What do you get out of literary events like Taylor Mali’s reading at Blackbird Poetry Festival?

I recently met slam Poet Taylor Mali. He is a fire that enhances the light in others. It was nice spending time with him and the HoCoPoLitSo team and seeing that he doesn’t do what he does just for the stage – it’s inside of him. Poetry is inside of me and meeting him has encouraged me to not force my way into it, but rather to allow it to come naturally, perhaps when I least expect it to.

As a student and as a citizen of this world, what benefits do you see in reading and studying literature (especially poetry)?

The benefits of studying literature is growth. I spend many days cooped up in my room like a hermit, watching documentaries of great writers like Jack Kerouac and George Eliot, but it doesn’t mean I’m up to no good.  It sounds silly, but when I get anxious (mostly due to my fear of not making it as a writer), I remember the struggles of J.D. Salinger and how he had to try many times before The New Yorker accepted his work; when I feel misunderstood, I think about Virginia Woolf and how she never truly fit in; an most importantly, when I find myself almost giving into anger and sin, I think of God and how He has given me poetry.  Then I recite a poem in my head and end with “Amen” – and all is well again.

What’s your favorite piece of literature (a particular poem, poet, or novel maybe)?

“You might as well have asked, “What’s your favorite grain of sand?” Am I allowed to have a favorite? It’s just too much, but I’ll tell you this: In Stephen Chbosky’s book “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” the main character, Charlie, is asked what his favorite book is. His answer: “The one I just read,” or something like that. I just read “Catholicism,” a poem by Billy Collins, so for this moment, that is my favorite poem.

Do you have any thoughts on what literary organizations like HoCoPoLitSo might do to encourage more young people to read, study, and encounter poetry?

Who says poets aren't silly?

Who says poets aren’t silly? Katy and Nsikan share a moment with Taylor Mali 

To some crazy people out there, poetry is no longer important. I once heard someone say “Poetry is dead.” Of course that person only said so because they were feeling bitter about failing the poetry unit in English class, but still we live in a world where such statements seem almost true. HoCoPoLitSo reminds us, though, that people who love poetry still exist, that poetry lives. It was through HoCoPoLitSo that I met Billy Collins and was able to recite my poem, “Frank,” right in front of him. HoCoPoLitSo is energetic and on the ball of everything literary, and young people need that. By providing the opportunity to not only read poetry , but also to meet the poets and share our own works, HoCoPoLitSo encourages us to stay involved and to stay in touch with literature.  There are also local sources, like HCC’s literary magazine, The Muse, which bring us closer to literature.  Young people are willing when it comes to being a part of the poetry world. It’s absolutely magical.

Rest assured, poetry lovers everywhere, that young people like Katy, Faheem, and Nsikan will become stewards of all that is beautiful and magical in the world of language and literature. But you and I have to support them, so that they can continue to spark and renew their energy.

And I promise you this – your support of HoCoPoLitSo will continue to foster their love of poetry and literature. Katy, Faheem, and Nsikan are the reason that HoCoPoLitSo does what it does.

– Laura Yoo

Member, HoCoPoLitSo Board of Directors

Join the World Poetry Party: a Celebration of Verse and Voice — June 26

word cloud poetryFriday,  June 26, 2014 • 7:00 p.m.
Studio Theatre
Howard Community College

Come listen to the rich resource of world poetry
as poems are read in a variety of original
languages and then in English translation.

HoCoPoLitSo, in partnership with the Columbia Festival of the Arts and the Columbia Association, presents the World Poetry Party. On Friday, June 26, 7 p.m., come to the Studio Theatre in the Horowitz Performing Arts Center, Howard Community College, for a celebration of global verse. Poems in Spanish, Korean, American Sign Language, Italian, Polish, and Bulgarian will be performed in the readers’ native language and then in English. This free event is part of the June Columbia Festival of the Arts. Readers young and old from around the world will perform their own work, or the work of poets famous in their native languages.

Bulgarian poet and journalist Lyubomir Nikolov will be the master of ceremonies. Nikolov has published three poetry collections in Bulgarian; Summoned by the High Tide (Sofia, 1981), Traveller (Sofia, 1987), and Raven (Sofia, 1995).

If you have poetry for consideration, please submit poems and a brief biography (50 words or fewer) to hocopolitso@yahoo.com no later than June 10.

 

Dominique Morisseau’s SUNSET BABY – A Special Presentation with Discussion/Discount

SunsetBabyAdDiscounted tickets are available now for a one-night-only presentation of Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, at 8 p.m. Friday, May 15, 2015, in Smith Theatre, Horowitz Center, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, Md 21044. Two-for-one tickets are available at http://www.repstage.org/Productions/sunsetbaby/ using code: HOCO; general admission is $40. This program, presented in partnership with the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), Rep Stage and Center Stage, is made possible by an Outreach Grant from the Howard County Arts Council through Howard County government and seeks to engage and connect Howard County and Baltimore audiences.

The Guardian calls the play, “Smart, entertaining and moving as it grapples with the tensions between past and present while asking penetrating questions about the nature of liberation. Morisseau’s script sings with intelligence.” A drama of family and revolution, the play explores what happens when a former black revolutionary and political prisoner decides to reunite with his daughter. The Huffington Post names Morisseau as a “direct heir to the magical wordsmiths named Lorraine Hansberry, Tennessee Williams, and August Wilson” for her vibrant exploration of the point where the personal and political collide. Morisseau, who received the Kennedy Prize for Drama in 2014, is a playwright and actress. Her literary work has been featured in the New York Times best-selling short-story collection, Chicken Soup for the African American Soul.

This Baltimore/D.C. area premiere of Sunset Baby, directed Joseph Ritsch, will be performed by Rep Stage and streamed live to Baltimore’s Center Stage, then followed by a post-performance panel discussion facilitated by production dramaturg Khalid Long, an instructor and researcher at the University of Maryland, College Park. Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah will host the Center Stage live streaming event.

For more information visit www.repstage.org, call 443.518.1500 or email hocopolitso@yahoo.com.

Seniors in Columbia can request transportation by calling the Senior Events Shuttle at
(410) 715-3087.  HCC is an accessible campus.  Accommodation requests should be made to HoCoPoLitSo by May 7, 2015.

For more information about HoCoPoLitSo and its sponsored programs and activities, visit http://hocopolitso.org.

PDF of this press release.
HoCoPoLitSo is a nonprofit organization designed to enlarge the audience for contemporary poetry and literature and celebrate culturally diverse literary heritages. Founded in 1974, HoCoPoLitSo sponsors readings with critically acclaimed writers; literary workshops; programs for students; and The Writing Life, a writer-to-writer interview show. HoCoPoLitSo receives funding from the Maryland State Arts Council, an agency funded by the state of Maryland and the National Endowment for the Arts; Howard County Arts Council through a grant from Howard County government; The Columbia Film Society; Community Foundation of Howard County; the Jim and Patty Rouse Charitable Foundation; and individual contributors.

 

SunsetBabyBanner-med

HoCoPoLitSo Recommends: Composer Peter Lieberson’s Love Sonnets of Neruda.

Neruda

Pablo Neruda

Join the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra for the Season Finale Lexus Classic Concert, Schumann, Sibelius, and Neruda Songs, featuring Mezzo-Soprano Kelley O’Connor on May 8 & 9 at 8pm at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. (For more information on the works being performed and a preview of some of the works, visit this online program guide.)

Tickets start at $35 and Students are $10. HoCoPoLitSo friends will receive a 25% discount on tickets in any section. Use online code HOCO2015 or call the Box Office and mention the code. There is a free pre-concert lecture at 6:45pm and parking is free. Box Office: 410-263-0907, www.annapolissymphony.org

Neruda Songs

One of American composer Peter Lieberson‘s final works was Neruda Songs. Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was a Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner and is considered one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. Lieberson chose five of Neruda’s passionate love sonnets, saying: “…although these poems were written to another, when I set them I was speaking directly to my own beloved Lorraine.” Each line of poetry receives new music, reflecting the meaning of the words. From the program guide:

“Each of the five poems that I set to music seemed to me to reflect a different face in love’s mirror. The first poem, ‘If your eyes were not the color of the moon,’ is pure appreciation of the beloved. The second, ‘Love, love, the clouds went up the tower of the sky like triumphant washerwomen,’ is joyful and also mysterious in its evocation of nature’s elements: fire, water, wind, and luminous space. The third poem, ‘Don’t go far off, not even for a day,’ reflects the anguish of love, the fear and pain of separation. The fourth poem, ‘And now you’re mine. Rest with your dream in my dream,’ is complex in its emotional tone. First there is the exultance of passion. Then, gentle, soothing words lead the beloved into the world of rest, sleep, and dream. Finally, the fifth poem, ‘My love, if I die and you don’t,’ is very sad and peaceful at the same time. There is the recognition that no matter how blessed one is with love, there will still be a time when we must part from those whom we cherish so much.”

Something Wonderful To Do on a Saturday Afternoon in Columbia, Maryland

Columbia, Maryland, is almost fifty. At forty years (young) itself, HoCoPoLitSo has watched what was once America’s New City grow up. Way back when, there seemed hardly a thing to do in a place that had only just magically appeared out of the vision of James Rouse and onto the landscape, a new type of community curiously growing out of the farmland of Howard County.

Today, Columbia boasts ever more things to do and the schedule can be oh so cluttered. Back in the day, that wasn’t so true, not true at all. That lack of things to do was the impetus behind a bunch of Columbia pioneers forming the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society in order to bring their favorite writers to town to read to them and their friends. They wanted something to do. Something special to do. They made it happen and it has been happening every year since.

Dinaw Mengestu, Paris, 06/2007 © Mathieu ZazzoIt’s been a great forty years and the organization continues to “enlarge the audience for contemporary poetry and literature and celebrate culturally diverse literary heritages,” as its mission states.  The list of writers HoCoPoLitSo has brought to Columbia dazzles many from afar who — drop-jawed — wonder how a suburban town that didn’t exist all that long ago is a now a treasure on the literary landmark map and regarded around the world. At last count, the list of visitors includes 5 Nobel prize winners, 17 US Poets Laureate, 11 National Book Award winners, 22 Pulitzer Prize winners, and 7 Maryland Poets Laureate.

This weekend, another name will join the list: recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, Ethiopian American novelist, and book club favorite Dinaw Mengestu.

On Saturday, Mr. Mengestu will read from his work as part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts’ “American Routes” program, a weekend festival of exploring the visual and performing arts. Mengestu’s route to America began when his family fled war-torn Ethiopia and immigrated to the United States when he was two years old. His novels and nonfiction pieces open a window into the little-explored world of the African diaspora in America. “This is not an immigrant story we already know quite well,” writes The Washington Post. He is expected to read from his latest novel, How To Read The Air, as well as a selection of his beloved The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, set in Washington DC.

Please join us and become a part of the history of HoCoPoLitSo, the Columbia Festival of the Arts, and the wonderful, unique place that is Columbia, Maryland.

For tickets, event details, a video preview, and directions, visit this Columbia Festival of the Arts event webpage.

Presented in partnership with the Columbia Festival of the Arts, another of the wonderful reasons there are so many things to do in Columbia, Maryland, these days.

Next Up – Faheem Dyer on Poetry

FaheemIn this mini-series on young people in/of poetry, I have made my own observations about the importance of poetry in the lives of young people and I have interviewed HoCoPoLitSo’s Student on Board, Katy Day about poetry in her life.  Next up is HoCoPoLitSo’s student intern, Faheem Dyer.

Faheem is a senior at Atholton High School. He has been pursuing his interest in poetry since middle school, and some of his favorites are Whitman, the Beats, and the Romantics. At Atholton, he is the president of the Poetry Club, and he serves his school’s student newspaper, Raider Review, as the Opinions Editor and the Online Editor. When he graduates this summer, he hopes to attend college in the fall to study creative writing or comparative literature.  He says, “I believe that a deep engagement with the written word is essential to the intellectual growth and a healthy understanding of the world, both on a personal, and social level.”

Here’s what he had to say.


 

What do you get out of attending poetry and literary events, such as the Rita Dove and Joshua Coyne event last year?

I think the most profound thing I gained was the direct exposure to talent and experience of Ms. Dove’s and Mr. Coyne’s caliber. More than that, though, I think the chance to see these two people share their insights and ideas on their crafts with an attentive, engaged audience helped deepen my understanding of those art forms, both as a consumer and aspiring creator.

As a student and as a citizen of this world, what benefits do you see in reading and studying literature (especially poetry)?

I believe that being well-read in literature is the most important part of being a well-educated and informed individual. Whether it’s lofty philosophical theory, or raw poetic passion, all human knowledge and experience is cataloged with language; writing is one of the most important vessels of thought, and to make oneself a student of that is to put oneself at the heart of it. That is invaluable in growing as a person, and it is absolutely essential to a robust education.

What’s your favorite work of literature (a particular poem, poet, or novel maybe)?

I personally never get tired of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, specifically “Song of Myself.” The wild, loving, and almost holy way Whitman addresses the nature of the world around him is beautiful and altogether profound and spiritual on a deeper one.

Do you have any thoughts on what literary organizations like HoCoPoLitSo can do to engage young people?

I may not be able to speak for all young people, but I know that if I were not already interested, simply being shown poetry in ways that demonstrate its continued relevance could easily engage me. Also, in introducing poetry to others, I would keep in mind what priorities and temperaments I’m trying to appeal to, because there is something for any young person of any mindset to gain from poetry, but the ways to make it appealing differ greatly from circle to circle.

You can read Faheen’s review of HoCoPoLitSo’s 2014 Lucille Clifton Poetry Series event when Rita Dove and Joshua Coyne read and performed together on stage at Howard Community College.

As a teacher, I am envious of teachers who get to teach students like Faheem. His commitment to poetry signifies more than his interest or even “skills” in language and literature – for me, it signifies the potential for a deep and wide understanding of the world that I believe literature students like Faheem can cultivate.

Poetry and other forms of literary arts ask us to look outward – at the world, at people, at history, at cultures, at empowering ideas as well as dangerous ideas.  At the same time, they ask us to look inward, too – to think, to feel, to ask questions of ourselves, to imagine, and to nurture our interior lives.

Yes, poetry can do that. And Faheem knows it.

– Laura Yoo
Member, HoCoPoLitSo Board of Directors

Blackbird Poetry Festival’s “Nightbird” Features Taylor Mali

NightbirdReading2015RailAd Taylor Mali_edited-1The Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), in partnership with Howard Community College’s Office of Student Life, English/World Languages Division, and Arts & Humanities Division, presents the annual Blackbird Poetry Festival’s “Nightbird” at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 23 at Smith Theatre, Horowitz Center, Howard Community College (HCC). Nightbird features Taylor Mali, one of the most well-known poets to emerge from the poetry slam movement. A book signing and reception will follow.

Tickets to the Nightbird reading are $20 general admission, $15 for teachers, students, and seniors. Tickets can be purchased at www.hocopolitso.org or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1332550. For more information, contact HoCoPoLitSo at (443) 518-4568 or hocopolitso@yahoo.com.

The New York Times calls Mali “a ranting comic showman and literary provocateur.” A passionate advocate for teachers and education, Mali trained at Oxford for the stage and appeared in the 1997 film SlamNation. His poem “What Teachers Make” is a 4 million-hit YouTube sensation.

In the afternoon, Mali will give a shorter, free, and open-to-the-public reading at Smith Theatre with student poets at 2:30 p.m. Earlier in the day, slam poet Chris August will facilitate creative writing and performance poetry workshops for HCC students. Mali and August will tape an edition of The Writing Life, HoCoPoLitSo’s Bravo-TV Arts for Change Award-winning interview show broadcast on cable and YouTube.

Seniors in Columbia can request transportation by calling the Senior Events Shuttle at
(410) 715-3087. HCC is an accessible campus. Accommodation requests should be made to HoCoPoLitSo by April 15, 2015.

For more information about HoCoPoLitSo and its sponsored programs and activities, visit http://hocopolitso.org.

 

purchase-taylor-mali-tickets_edited-1

 

Taylor Mali reads “What Teachers Make.”

HoCoPoLitSo is a nonprofit organization designed to enlarge the audience for contemporary poetry and literature and celebrate culturally diverse literary heritages. Founded in 1974 by National Book Award finalist Ellen Conroy Kennedy, HoCoPoLitSo accomplishes its mission by sponsoring readings with critically acclaimed writers; literary workshops; programs for students; and The Writing Life, a writer-to-writer interview show seen on YouTube, HCC-TV, and other local stations. HoCoPoLitSo receives funding from the Maryland State Arts Council, an agency funded by the state of Maryland and the National Endowment for the Arts; Howard County Arts Council through a grant from Howard County government; The Columbia Film Society; Community Foundation of Howard County; the Jim and Patty Rouse Charitable Foundation; and individual contributors.

This Time, “The Young” Speak – Katy Day

In my previous post, “Poetry for the Young (and the Young-Hearted)”, I promised you voices of our young poetry lovers.

First up is HoCoPoLitSo’s Student on Board Member, Katy Day.  Katy is a student at University of Maryland, College Park who is studying English and Psychology. She has been a friend of HoCoPoLitSo’s since 2013.  She made her Blackbird Poetry Festival debut in 2013.  Billy Collins, who came to HCC to read at the 2014 Blackbird Poetry Festival, is an admirer of Katy’s poetry (as evidenced by the photo below). She is currently studying poetry with Stanley Plumly at College Park.

I asked Katy some questions to get her take on encountering poetry.

What do you get out of attending poetry and literary events?

All of my time studying literature and poetry hasn’t prepared me to fully articulate the degree to which attending poetry readings and other literary events have influenced my life.  The first poetry reading I ever attended was the Blackbird Poetry Festival in 2013.  I knew that I had discovered something great when I attended Blackbird that year.  I felt like I belonged there and like I had finally found something that I really felt passionately about.

 As a student and as a citizen of this world, what benefits do you see in reading and studying literature (especially poetry)?

Studying literature and poetry has expanded my mind.  It has allowed me to discover who I am as a person by changing and building upon my thoughts and beliefs about the world.

What’s your favorite work of literature (a particular poem, poet, or novel maybe)?

I can’t choose a single favorite.  I love poetry and literature for several different reasons and I think that different works of poetry and literature have enriched my life in different ways.  I can read David Sedaris over and over again and still laugh until I’m crying and marvel over his perfected comedic timing.  The more I learn about poetry and literature, the more particular my interests become also.  I read Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm and was blown away by not only the anticipation of modernist literature in the experimental style of her writing, but also by her progressiveness, which I think even surpasses many of our contemporary thinkers.  Oscar Wilde has also greatly influenced the way in which I consciously navigate and perceive the world.

Do you have any thoughts on what literary organizations like HoCoPoLitSo can do to engage young people?

This is a tough question.  It’s hard to get people of any age interested in poetry. Billy Collins says that high school gives people “anti-poetry deflector shields.”  Any time poetry is encountered, the automatic response is to avoid it.  Becoming interested in poetry is like opening a set of nesting dolls.  You have to begin with poems that speak to non-poetry adherents.  Then, like the nesting dolls that become smaller and smaller, your interests become more and more refined as you explore various kinds of poetry.  I think these anti-poetry deflector shields come from teachers who forgo the big nesting dolls and instead present their students with poems that require the refined interest that comes with exposure and extensive study.  I gained this perspective through my experiences at Howard Community College and through attending HoCoPoLitSo events.  HoCoPoLitSo has done an exceptional job in the past few years bringing poets to Howard County who excite young people and act as gateways into poetry.

Here’s at least one awesome young person in whose hands we can trust the future of poetry in Howard County and beyond.

-Laura Yoo

Member, HoCoPoLitSo Board of Directors

“Why poetry?”: Steven Leyva wins teachers’ hearts and minds

StevenLeyva

Steven Leyva

The Friday Professional Development Day for Howard County’s English and language arts middle and high school teachers was cold and damp, there was a car fire on Route 29 that jammed traffic for an hour, and teachers were rushing in late and texting their supervisors.

Steven Leyva had one hour to convince those teachers that poetry was worth teaching.

Leyva faced the auditorium of 220 educators and cleared his throat.

The power point he had prepared flashed the question: “Why Poetry?”

Leyva, sponsored by HoCoPoLitSo to give the teachers a poetry pep talk, passed around two sheets of paper, asking the teachers to write two collective poems. The first lines? “I know that poetry is not” and “Poetry has power.”

At first, some of the teachers were imitating their students — coughing, checking their phones, shuffling papers. But as Leyva explained that he edited the Little Patuxent Review, taught in the Baltimore City schools for years (a round of applause for that one), and was now a professor at the University of Baltimore, they quieted down.

Then a quote from Richard Howard appeared on the screen: “Verse reverses, prose proceeds.” Leyva started to talk about the “magical” things poetry can do: act as a force for healing, open up a student who is closed down, make connections between people, create empathy.

But everyone has to start as a novice, he says, even teachers.

“This is vital when we’re trying to engage students who may not be interested or receptive to poetry,” Leyva said. “It’s OK to be a beginner. You’re don’t have to be good at this right away.”

He read Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” and talked about letting the language wash over you as you read, about how meeting a poem is like meeting a new person because it’s both intimidating and exciting.

“It’s demanding, it’s hard, but that’s the beauty of it,” he said. “Some of them may have past negative experiences with poetry, they may have anxiety over misinterpreting.”

Too many classrooms treat poetry as a riddle to be solved, he said, “it must be an experience,” and then quoted one of his professors, “Art doesn’t need our judgment, it needs our attention.”

He asked for volunteers, and four teachers trooped up to the stage to read “Memory from Childhood” by Antonio Machado. The first teacher read the words of the poem. The second vocalized each piece of punctuation, “Comma!” or “Colon,” he boomed. The third said “line break” at each line break, and the fourth said “stanza break,” when the poem reached that point. If they messed up, as they did several times, they had to start again at the beginning, which drew hoots and laughter from their fellow teachers. The audience, he explained, had to recite the title and be the silence in the poem. That exercise, Leyva said, showed students that everything in the poem, even its white space, is put there on purpose, and needs a reader’s attention. “Everything matters,” he said.

By the time he had the teachers yelling out each personal pronoun (“Me!” and “My,” they chorused) in Lucille Clifton’s “Won’t You Celebrate with Me,” they were leaning forward in their chairs, more than interested.

And when a YouTube clip of “Direct Orders” by Anis Majgani wasn’t loud enough because of a sound system glitch, someone called out, “Read one of your poems!” Leyva did, reciting a poem about New Orleans, his hometown.

He went on to talk about form, rhyming (“you’re saying these two things belong together — “there’s a reason why wife, life and knife all rhyme,” he said), resources, and the skills that reading poetry can develop (qualitative judgment, empathy and imagination).

Teachers asked him about web sites and Split This Rock, stayed after to talk to him about submitting poetry to the Little Patuxent Review, and wrote down the TED talks and books he suggested. And a few gave him a standing ovation.

Jocelyn Hieatzman, a teacher at Oakland Mills High School, wrote afterward about the program, “I spend the next hour listening, and interacting, and awkwardly jumping onto the stage, and feeling chills and tears and ideas flow through me. I shout ‘N’Awleans’ and listen to spoken word from the Seattle Grand Slam poetry championship; I listen to Stephen Leyva recite his own poetry from memory like his life depended on it; I read through poems that touch on complex ideas and sadness and culture and race and identity and beauty. Suddenly, everything is important, everything has weight. I think of our students and their big emotions and secrets and ideas and gifts.

community poems-art“There’s still a car fire snarling traffic on Rt. 29, and we are are still distracted and cold and worried about all the the things that middle and high school teachers worry about.  But ‘we’ have become a ‘we’ and share a collective experience, and we dig deep, and we remember why we love to teach what we teach, and we carry this on. And we carry this on. And suddenly … everything is important, everything has weight.”

And those community poems? The ones Leyva asked the teachers to write, with each contributing a line? The paper filled up fast. The writing is tough to read, but the poems are published here, and like most poems, they’re worth reading.

— Susan Thornton Hobby
HoCoPoLitSo recording secretary

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