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A guest blog by Faye McCray
When I first started teaching writing workshops with kids, it was for selfish reasons. I was in a place of transition in my career and that meant a great deal of obnoxious self-reflection about what made me truly happy. I knew it wasn’t my day job and when I pictured myself happy, I kept conjuring up the same image: Kid-me, twelve-ish, sitting in front of my sixth grade classmates reading my work for the first time. To be clear, I didn’t want to actually be twelve again. God, no. There were braces and glasses and bad relaxers. However, I did want that feeling. The feeling of being surrounded by folks ready to listen and be heard.
As a child, I was a voracious reader. My favorite work was fiction that took place in worlds completely different from mine. In retrospect, I don’t know if that was my curiosity or just the fact that worlds that looked like mine didn’t really exist in the nineties literary landscape. Either way, for me, reading was like getting to try on another person’s soul. It was the ability to see, feel and taste what life was like in a way completely different from my own. I could go from my reality: being a girl with box braids and a beef patty on a subway in Queens to a young woman on vacation in Monte Carlo who meets and marries a man who, unbeknownst to her, murdered his first wife.
When my sixth grade teacher decided to task us with writing original work to share with our classmates, it was as if I was going to finally see them and they would finally see me. Truth be told, I was probably the most excited kid in class. However, the seed was planted. I was a writer, and I bet if I looked hard enough, there were other kids who thought they were writers too.
On March 22, I had the pleasure of hosting the Columbia Art Center’s first Teen Open Mic. The theme was “Choose Civility”, HoCo’s most known slogan which in the current social and political climate, could mean a great many things. I was so nervous leading up to the event. I knew how much a Teen Open Mic would have meant to me. I also wondered if the idea was antiquated. After all, isn’t social media one big open mic with the added benefit of anonymity?
As teens trickled into the Art Center, however, I could see the same excited anticipation I had felt over twenty years ago written all over their faces. Naturally, there were nerves but armed with their words on their phones or on sheets of paper in their hands, they were ready. Their powerful work ranged in topic from mental health to self-acceptance to race to the environment. I was moved – not only by the incredible work itself but how beautifully it was received. The crowd was modest but as I said to the young writers that evening, I preferred it that way.
By the end of the night, as we wandered around the beautiful art center and munched on the remaining snacks, the mood felt light. The teens, who had arrived as strangers, now shared praise and encouragement, promising to “see each other next time.” Their enthusiasm was infectious. I realized that although I was decades away from making that discovery in my own sixth grade classroom, I was invested in making similar experiences a possibility for other pre-teens and teens. We all have a desire to be heard. More importantly, we all have a valuable story to tell.
About the blogger:
Faye McCray is an author and essayist whose popular essays on love, life and parenting have been featured in the Huffington Post, My Brown Baby, For Harriet, Madame Noire and other popular publications. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Weemagine, a website devoted to celebrating and inspiring all children and the people who love them. Faye is also the author of Dani’s Belts, a collection of horror short stories, Boyfriend, a full length novel about a troubled college student struggling with love and fidelity, and I am Loved! a collection of positive affirmations for kids. Find out more about Faye on her website: http://www.fayemccray.com/
Join forces with author, library and HoCoPoLitSo to offer a book of dreams for everyone
The inside cover of Jason Reynolds’s book For Every One says it all. We’re supposed to pass it on. The book’s dedication reads, “For You. For Me.”
His book is about dreams, and how hard one must work to achieve them. He wrote about trying to focus on his ambitions:
“So I went out and bought all the books on all the ways to make dreams come true, laying out the how-to, somehow spinning life into a fantastic formula for dummies and dream chasers, written by experts and dream catchers who swear that I can one plus one and right foot left foot my way into fulfillment, never taking into consideration all this mess I got strapped to my back and my head and my legs and my heart.”Reynolds wants everyone to hear about following dreams. So does HoCoPoLitSo. The Howard County Library and HoCoPoLitSo are joining forces to bring Reynolds to speak to the East Columbia Library Oct. 9. And we’d like to share this gift of a book. The library and HoCoPoLitSo are raising money to give out 100 copies of For Every One to students who attend his reading. Pupils from Lake Elkhorn, Oakland Mills, Wilde Lake, and Harper’s Choice middle schools will be bused to the reading, joining lots of Reynolds’ fans at the event. Register here for the event. Every dollar raised is matched one to one by funds from the Kathleen Glascock Challenge, a memorial fund named for an inspiring Clarksville Middle School media specialist who believed that books could change lives. She and Reynolds would have had a lot to talk about. It’s hard not to get goose bumps when Reynolds, who didn’t read a book cover to cover until he was nearly 18, talks about teenagers. “All I want kids to know is that I see them for who they are and not who everyone thinks they are,” he told the Washington Post last year. Reynolds, now a best-selling author with nine books, a Newbery Honor, and National Book Award finalist on his resume, says he wants to tell the stories that he wasn’t seeing on library and bookstore shelves – tales of black and brown teenagers handling tough issues. His goal is “putting that on the page with integrity and balance, to acknowledge the glory and the brokenness. That’s all I want to do. It’s a lot, but so are they.” Librarians around the county can’t keep his books on the shelves, and they’re thrilled that Reynolds is coming to read. Anne Reis, media specialist at Homewood Center, the alternative school in Howard County, was introducing Jason Reynolds to two classes of “very reluctant readers,” as she called them. They were disruptive, she remembers, until she started playing a “The Daily Show” clip of Trevor Noah’s talk with Reynolds, who emphasized the importance of hip-hop to his writing, and how young people are the antidote to hopelessness. “They heard the truth of his message and that he respects them and wants to write for them … . They were completely silent,” Reis said. “A pin could have dropped and you would have heard it. Jason Reynolds has an authenticity in his writing that speaks to the kids at my school. They are psyched to meet him in October!” Donate here: https://hclibrary.org/classes-events/glascock-challenge-seeks-to-inspire-reluctant-readers
Susan Thornton HobbyRecording secretary, HoCoPoLitSo Board
I had never heard of Marilyn Chin. But there I sat in the hazy Smith Theatre, listening to the petite, flip-flop-clad lady unfold her Chinese heritage, her voice’s rich resonance baptizing life into her words. Peppered with rhetorical questions and salted with snark, Marilyn Chin’s poetry invited the audience into conversation. As she discussed her experience with assimilation, I thought back to my years of insecurity with my Nigerian identity.
During my childhood, I tugged at my belly, my hair, my skin. I hunched in over myself. But I remember watching a spoken word from YouTube during youth group, the same lines which had echoed through my house the entire week prior because my mom, the youth leader, had been so fascinated by the video. Ears straining to keep up with the whiplash tempo, the laughing cadence, I snapped my fingers, riveted by the rain of spitfire, desperately beckoning the words barked out of the poets’ lips to be mine.
Slam poetry was alive.
A tandem of voice and pulse, spoken word went beyond sonnets and “thou”s and lofty declarations of love; it playfully teased out slant-rhymes and sidestepped the conventions of language. Poetry, I discovered, could be as unorthodox as I wished, and listening to the crowd of adroit artists (cough-SarahKay-PatrickRoche-BlytheBaird-OmarHolmon-cough) has since stirred a hunger.
Maybe I am looking for truth, naked and unholy. Maybe I write because I’m looking to sing what could be my gospel, to scream it in the shower, to spit it into the mic, to whisper it in an ear, to let it breathe ink and paper and dust.
While I write, I’ve knocked on Petrarch’s door, revisiting the poetry I once scoffed, imbibing in myself a greater appreciation for the art. Analyzing syntax and diction is what I love to do—maybe because I regularly eye my friends’ texts. (There’s a world of difference between “ok” and “Okay.”) While I am yet to be convinced that every inch of a poem is birthed from divine inspiration, I nevertheless believe that the spectrum of poetry—from spoken word to the coffee-stained margins—contains a delicateness that ought to be explored with careful hands and open eyes. As a writer, I wish to infuse electric vulnerability in my writing, inviting readers and listeners to unwind, to laugh, to have conversation.
Eunice Braimoh finds herself in a limbo between cultures: in her room hangs the Nigerian flag, while Maryland’s mosaic fusion has grafted itself into her heart. As a writer exploring vulnerable curiosity, she wishes to symphonize conversation regarding race, gender, and diversity. When not effusively fangirling over slam poetry and intricate word-play, Eunice can be found writing (and rewriting) her own poetry and fiction. Previously recognized with two Regional Keys from the D.C. Metro Region, Eunice recently received a Silver Key for her poem “in which icarus does not drown”. She will be attending University of Maryland, College Park as an English major starting this fall.
The week of September 25th, we celebrate our RIGHT TO READ! In celebration of Banned Books Week 2017, we asked several educators and librarians about their favorite banned books. Here’s what they said.
To Kill a Mockingbird has influenced me as a reader and a teacher. As a young reader it brought me into a world I knew nothing about. As a teacher it has opened the same door for hundreds of students. It is only controversial because it depicts an ugly truth- which is also its value. – (a Howard County high school English teacher)
“It depicts an ugly truth – which is also its value.” Agreed. For my own part, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has had a similar impact for me, both as a teacher and as a reader. Our literature is our history. Regardless of genre, our literature reflects who we were, are, and could be. I have always found myself drawn to those authors who have been willing to paint in honest brushstrokes, an image of humanity that requires taking stock in the complexities and contradictions, pressing us to face the mirror. Often lost in the controversy surrounding “Huck” is the wink of hopefulness gained from the novel’s final passage. – (a Howard County middle school English teacher)
My daughter read Al Capone Does My Shirts last year as a 5th grader and it was her first experience of being “hooked” by a book and rushing to read the next book and the next in the series. It totally changed her from being a reluctant reader to being someone who devours books! Having taught it in the past I do not see why it would be controversial. Many books have characters with huge flaws. But having characters that possess both positive and negative qualities is what makes them multi-dimensional, interesting, and realistic. – (Howard County secondary literacy coach)
As a middle school teacher, I would have to choose The Giver and The Outsiders, two books that really touched kids and elicited deep and honest discussions. I loved teaching those books. – Beth S. (Howard County middle school English teacher)
Favorites to teach and/or read: Hunger Games, To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, In Cold Blood, Leaves of Grass. Favorites to read to my kids: And Tango Makes Three, The Paper Bag Princess, The Lorax, Where the Wild Things Are. – Amy P. (High School English teacher in Hudson, MA)
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Both novels are stories of the horror and dehumanizing effects of war (WWI, to be precise), and the relentless pursuit of an ill-defined victory at all costs. Reading these books in high school caused me to question a lot of the assumptions I had about politics, war, religion, and conflict more broadly defined than I had before. Or since, for that matter. They literally changed my outlook on life in a span of a few weeks, and I continue to wrestle with these ideas to this day. – Jeffrey M. (English Professor at Howard Community College)
And Tango Makes Three. My two children enjoyed this book when they were just 3-4 years old. It’s a book about penguins! But here’s the thing – now that my older son is 8 year old I am wondering how he might experience and “hear” the book today. That’s the thing about books (good books), right? They challenge us to these questions – and this book forces me to be thoughtful about how I would teach my children about family diversity and help them become accepting, welcoming people in the world. In the Night Kitchen was a gift from our friend and neighbor (Tim!) – of course the children just love that Mickey is naked – butt and penis and all – in the illustration and they giggle and laugh. But they also enjoy Mickey’s adventure. It’s fun. For my kids – who like to tell fart jokes all day long – this book delights them. And I’m really, really good with that. – Laura Y. (English Professor at Howard Community College)
Strega Nona is one of my favorite books of all times. This book has been challenged and banned due to the magical or witch-like abilities of a magic pasta pot. Strega Nona’s objective is not to be a book about witchcraft, rather a book that is full of whimsy, allowing children to engage their imagination. Challenging or banning books can stifle creativity and imagination. When a book is challenged or banned because one person feels that it is against their morals, it can lead to an entire community of readers having restricted or no access to a book. – Christina P. (Librarian at Howard Community College)
The Things They Carried: it challenges ideas of morality, truth, courage, and patriotism. I come from a military family (going back generations), so this really resonates with me. The narratives never stop feeling relevant. O’Brien creates a web of fiction, memoir, history, and memory that always ensnares us us readers, leaving us in the best possible state: uncertainty. That is where all good inquiry comes from. – Ryna M. (English Professor at Howard Community College)
It was much more banned in the past, but definitely The Handmaid’s Tale! Even when I read it in the 8th grade (?), I remember being shocked at the story–not because of content, but because of so many similarities and so much truth. I thought how not so unrealistic this society was, and I still think that now. – Sylvia L. (English Professor at Howard Community College)
For my kids… Hop on Pop!! This is such a great book to start children reading on their own. The simple rhyming text is perfect.
For me one of my favorite books growing up was Are you There God, It’s me Margaret. It’s one of the first books I could relate too. – Melissa P. (Preschool teacher at the Children’s Learning Center)
A guest blog written by Christina Smith, a student in Professor Ryna May’s literature class at Howard Community College
Admittedly, I had never attended a literary reading prior to the HoCoPoLitSo Irish Evening on February 10th. I hope that it is not too shocking that I say this, given that I am an English major. So, I am happy that I finally had the opportunity to experience a literary reading at the 39th Irish Evening held at the Smith Theater at Howard Community College.
Before I went I knew little about the program, only that the author would read from at least one of her two books, and that there would be Irish music and dancing for entertainment. Even though my friend Amy and I were probably some of the youngest people to attend that night, I did not feel awkward there. On the faces of the people there, you could tell everyone was having a fantastic time. The entire evening was a hit.
I was shocked to see that the program boasted the Ambassador of Ireland, her Excellency Anne Anderson. She was very gracious, and it was impressive that Mrs. Anderson was able to join us for the Irish Evening despite her busy schedule. A list of her accomplishments made me feel lazy and slightly light-headed at the enormity of her dedication to civil rights and women’s right’s worldwide.
While I like to think myself well read, I had not been made familiar with Belinda McKeon’s work. It was a treat to have her read from both her books, Solace and Tender. I was quite taken with her reading from Tender as I could feel the insecurities that her characters suffered from, the anguish of unrequited love and how truly awkward it is to be a young 18-year-old. She was witty and kind with her characters, as though greeting an old friend. Hearing the author read her own work gives you an idea of how those characters really present themselves in her mind. From her reading, the audience got a feel that these characters were real, that they had pains, hopes, flaws, and humor.
I loved the reading from Tender so much that I even ordered it from Amazon when I got home. Now when I read it, I will have the added pleasure of knowing how the author intended for it to be read. And in a way I will be able to connect with the characters on a more personal level.
The evening wrapped up with a performance from the Narrowbacks and Irish step dancing by the Culkin School. The music was traditional Irish music, a perfect nightcap to a fantastic evening.
I admit that I got some strange looks when I told people about my Friday night, but it was definitely worth it to let my inner nerd have a fun evening. I look forward to attending more events produced by the HoCoPoLitSo.
And a big thank you to Professor May for making it possible for me and a plus one to attend.
By Christina Smith
A guest blog submitted by Cara Caccamisi, a student in Professor Ryna May’s literature class at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland
Howard County Poetry and Literature Society’s 39th Annual Irish Evening, which took place at Howard Community College’s Smith Theater on Friday, February 10th at 7:30 pm, was an event of Irish pride and culture. Hosted by Columbia’s own Catherine McLoughlin-Hayes, the HoCoPoLitSo Irish Evening Chair, the evening was a great way to experience Ireland without leaving the state of Maryland.
The auditorium was filled with fascination, excitement, and anticipation from the many spectators, while musician Jared Denhard performed the Celtic Harp. Then, Ms. McLoughlin-Hayes came on stage to introduce the main event for the night. Her enthusiasm set the tone for the evening.
Ms. McKeon chose to read first from Solace which was awarded the Faber Prize and Irish Book of the Year. The passage she read described a conflicting relationship between father and son on a farm in Ireland. Ms. McKeon’s second reading was from her latest book, Tender, about two college friends who meet in Dublin and become close; it shows the transformation of friendship from being teenagers to becoming adults. In her unique and exhilarating story, Ms. McKeon depicts the friend’s difficult relationship as Catherine grows strong feelings for James, who is a homosexual. The book grows extra complicated as it is set in the 1990’s when being homosexual was not widely accepted.
Following the author were the Narrowbacks. The Narrowbacks name is a tribute to the term immigrant, as many of the band members have roots in Ireland and they are inspired by the band, Celtic Thunder. The group members consisted of brothers, Jesse and Terence Winch, Dominick Murray, and Linda Hickman, all of whom were apart of Celtic Thunder. Other members were Terence’s son, Michael Winch and Eileen Estes, daughter of Celtic Thunder’s lead singer.
Many of the songs performed consisted of main themes of nature, growing up as an immigrant, and love. One of the most memorable songs, “Childhood Ground”, was written by Terence Winch and sung by Eileen Estes. It remembers the time when the Bronx Expressway was built and shattered the homes of many Irish families, including Winch’s family home. Traditional Irish music is so distinctive as it combines poetry of hardships, life, and love with rare instruments, known in Ireland. The Irish step dancers from the Culkin School performed during some of the songs played by the Narrowbacks.
With the outstanding performance by the Narrowbacks and the talented step dancers, the audience was very well-entertained. The auditorium was filled with the sound of Ireland, and the spectators joined in on clapping hands and nodding their heads to the music. And Belinda McKeon, a truly brilliant writer, left the listeners craving more of the stories.
HoCoPoLitSo created an enjoyable evening and allowed the viewers a chance to spend an evening immersed in Irish culture.
For thirty-five years the HOward COunty POetry and LITerature SOciety (HoCoPoLitSo) has awarded book prizes to the winners of its All County Writing Contest, and recognized students nominated by their teachers for Promise and Achievement in Language Arts. To foster lifelong reading and a love of literature, HoCoPoLitSo presents book awards with personalized bookplates. The tradition continued this year as HoCoPoLitSo board members made presentations at all Howard County public high school senior award assemblies and the Homewood Center.
Books were presented to eleven creative writing winners: Nadine Eloseily (Centennial), Angelina Zater (Howard), and Kasmita Mirani (Glenelg) in the personal essay category; Christian Salazar (Oakland Mills) Ben Yodzis (Hammond), Alexa Marquis (River Hill), Erin Hill (River Hill) and Lawrence Qiu (River Hill) in the short story category; and Xin He (River Hill), Kasmita Mirani (Glenelg) and Kiara Bell (Oakland Mills) in the poetry category. This year’s judges were Sama Bellomo, rehabilitation technologist; Joelle Biele, poet and editor, Patricia Van Amburg, poet and professor, Howard Community College; and Nsikan Akpan, HoCoPoLitSo board member and Former Promise and Achievement in Language Arts Award Winner.
In addition, twenty-four students were chosen by their English Departments to receive HoCoPoLitSo’s Promise and Achievement Award in Language Arts. The honorees were: Amanda Etcheberrigaray, Connor Gallant (Atholton), Jessie Kwon, Teresa Whittemore (Centennial), Tiffany Nguyen, Zoe Read (Glenelg), Emily Carter, Matthew Sinnott (Hammond), Mia Dubin, Emilee Melton (Homewood Center), Hunter Hensley, Rachel Walter (Howard), Naomi Yang, Theo Yang (Long Reach), Devon Carberry, Grace Yi (Marriotts Ridge), Casey Kindall, Cory Weller (Mt. Hebron), Kiara Bell (Oakland Mills), Joseph Smith, Marya Topina (Reservoir), Alexa Marquis (River Hill), Yazunat Guta, and Sara Shemali, (Wilde Lake).
Thirty-one students in all received books by such outstanding poets and writers as Lucille Clifton, Sandra Beasley, Michael Collier, Billy Collins, Emma Donoghue, Rita Dove, Eamon Grennan, Josephine Hart, Robert Hass, Colum McCann, and Richard Wilbur. HoCoPoLitSo is dedicated to enlarging the audience for contemporary poetry and literature through public readings, special events, writer-in-residence visits, and The Writing Life, a cable television series produced at Howard Community College, now available on YouTube, for more than 40 years.
Quality Poems: Offering a Window and a Voice
by Ann Bracken
So few of us ever visit a prison, yet many of us already have a vision of what it’s like, thanks to TV shows, such as the popular Orange is the New Black. On November 10, 2015, sponsored by the Howard County Poetry and Literary Society, I visited the Patuxent Institution to offer a writing and poetry workshop to some of the incarcerated men in the youth program. Pseudonyms have been used to protect the men’s identities.
The day was rainy and cool, and the gray skies nearly matched the gray walls and somber mood of the prison. Because I have worked with another writing group at the prison complexes in Jessup, I knew all I could take in were my art supplies, papers, and a book, in addition to my car keys and my license. The screening procedures are very much like going through the check-points of airport security, except that you must be patted down each time you enter the prison. I was not allowed to bring in my tote bag for the class supplies—instead, I was given a clear plastic bag.
Once I made it through security, Hillary Battle, a social worker who works with the youth program, escorted me to the education wing of the prison. I was curious about the designation of “youth program” because I knew the approximate ages of the men were between 25 and 35 years old. Ms. Battle explained the disconnect, “In order to be eligible for the Youth Program, the men must be sentenced under the age of 21. We could receive them at any time during their incarceration because the program distinction is based on when they were sentenced for their crimes.”
I’ve walked those long halls to the classrooms several times now, but I still shudder a little when I get on an elevator and the barred doors clank shut behind me. As Ms. Battle and I walk towards the classroom, many thoughts run through my head. Will the activity be beneficial for the men? What will they be like? Will they write and share? Do I have enough time for all I want to offer?
After discussing the men’s needs with Ms. Battle a few weeks earlier, we had both decided that my activity using J. Ruth Gendler’s book Quality Poems would provide a familiar starting point for the men to explore poetry. In her series of prose poems, Gendler personifies 100 character traits and invites us into their world—a world where “Commitment has kind eyes,” “Forgiveness is a strong woman,” and “Courage has roots.”
Dr. Cynthia Carter, the team leader for the youth program, greeted me with a warm smile and thanked me for coming when I arrived in the classroom. The men sat at their desks, quietly waiting for the lesson to start. As I surveyed the room, I noticed the standard furnishings: a large blackboard, several file cabinets, a few TVs, and about five computers. Nine men sat at desks arranged in rows. Because I’ve been a teacher for my whole career, the classroom felt familiar—even down to the four men who chose to sit in the back row. “We just feel safer here,” they told me and smiled. After I put my supplies on the desk, I walked up to each man, shook hands, and introduced myself. They smiled at me and thanked me for coming. In that moment I prayed that things would go well and that what I had planned would speak to their needs.
I began by reading the poem “Courage.” After a few moments of reflection, Claudio said, “Courage is quiet. He keeps to himself.” The other men chimed in, feeling more confident now that one of their friends had spoken. “Is Courage ever afraid?” Tony asked. My take? Yes, Courage is often fearful, but chooses to move ahead despite the fear. Tony shared his thoughts and said, “I like the line in the poem that goes, ‘Courage is not afraid to pray.’” I read another poem about “Forgiveness” and the men were visibly moved. As I read, they were nodding their heads. I knew they were ready to write when I heard Julio say, “Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.”
All told, the men wrote two poems—one on a positive character trait they possessed and one on a trait they wanted to improve or change. When it was time to share their work, I invited all of them to form a circle with their desks so that we could all see and hear each other better. Here is a sample of the traits they wrote about and some lines from their poems; I found their words both powerful and beautiful.
Danny spoke up from the back row and offered to share first. He wrote about “Distrust” as if the character were a woman. “She lives within herself … I stood at the door of her heart … to let her know I understood, I called her by her name, Distrust.” For his other characteristic, Danny chose “Uncertainty”: “ … harsh forms like factory smoke … moist, unanswered questions.”
Claudio, with short-cropped hair, offered to share next. I had met Claudio during another visit, and I knew him to be a fine painter. He wrote these lines about intuition: “Like vapor in gulfless canyons, travels like a gadfly. Intuition chooses friends like a coal miner searches for diamonds.” As I listened to Claudio’s poem, I was struck by how he seemed to literally paint with words.
Armando, sitting in the front row, offered to read next. “Confidence is not arrogant. He takes responsibility. Confidence is a good trick to have.” All of us loved that last line—a real surprise.
Bernardo sat in the corner and raised his hand to share after his friends had read. He had this to say about creativity: “Creativity comes in every size. He recites rhymes for fun and lives in the forefront of my mind. Creativity has a humble hobby.”
The men’s poems were full of rhythm and memorable phrases. Even though I wanted copies of their work to share with HoCoPoLitSo, I didn’t feel right asking the men to give me the poems they had written that day. I encouraged them to keep writing more about the qualities they had chosen. I did ask them for permission to use some of their work and they all agreed, as long as I used pseudonyms to preserve their anonymity. Dr. Carter, Ms. Battle, and all of the men told me I was welcome to come again any time.
Once again, I could see that poetry had offered people two vital elements: a unique expression of their voices and a safe place to explore their lives.
Poet, certified poetry therapist, teacher
Writing is a discipline and it takes discipline to write.
So how does one learn and practice to become a writer? What’s more, how does one teach others to become writers?
In the next few months, you will hear from those who teach creative writing. Consider this your mini, free Creative Writing 101.
We kick off this series with Dr. Tara. Hart. Tara is one of two Co-Chairs of HoCoPoLitSo. In addition to being a community advocate for poetry and literature, she is a scholar, a poet, and a teacher. Listen to Tara read her poem “Pine” published in TriQuarterly. She teaches poetry and creative writing at Howard Community College. Here’s what she had to share with us.
LY: How would you describe – to someone brand new to teaching creative writing – your approach to teaching creative writing?
TH: I’ve realized over the years that the greatest challenges students face in their creative writing are getting it done on time and overcoming a sense of vulnerability, and that realization has significantly impacted my course design. I set up the grade distribution to reflect the fact that in the professional world of creative writing, you might have tremendous freedom in your assignments but you must hit your marks. Students might struggle to produce creative work by a certain deadline because they haven’t consciously made time or created the right environment for their creative process and habits, or because they fear the judgment that follows sharing their work, which can be very personal. So one of our first assignments is to create an action plan that anticipates difficulties, and every assignment they do receives full credit/points if it meets the required length and deadline and is on topic; I don’t “grade” individual pieces of creative work a la A, B, C, D, F.
This design motivates them to meet their deadlines and push forward even when it’s not perfect or even close. Their final portfolio of work, containing their best pieces and a reflective essay on their own strengths and goals for improvement, is graded at the end of the semester, but it’s now a much lower percentage of their overall grade, and it’s quite remarkable how the “best” writers very often do end up with the highest grades, even though the vast majority of the final grade is really about completing work on time. It affirms my idea that strengthening the habit of writing consistently and pushing through fear to meet the challenges of writing in unfamiliar genres and on a variety of topics produces, ultimately, better quality writing.
I heard a “Moth” storyteller on NPR say that a turning point in her life when she decided to “stop being a writer” and decided to “actually write.” I think my class, with its emphasis on production and feedback, distinguishes those students who are compelled to write and to develop the habits and discipline of a writer, from those who just like the idea of writing and might otherwise use the excuse that the instructor doesn’t “like” their writing – if they don’t do well in the class, it’s because they simply didn’t produce and engage.
LY: What is the most challenging thing to teach in creative writing?
TH: I have struggled most and improved most in the area of designing valuable peer review experiences in which students consistently give, receive and respond to each other’s feedback. Peer review skills are important in composition as well, but it’s harder, in a different way, for students to critique someone’s personal memoir than an expository essay. When I gave creative writing students choices in terms of whom to review, the same strong writers would get the most feedback and others would be neglected. Now I deliver the course most often as a hybrid, so that the Canvas learning platform becomes the “workshopping” portion of the course, and I use its automatic peer review feature to make sure everyone receives equal amounts of attention.
I’ve also worked hard to teach them how to work effectively within a writing community. I give very specific guidance and requirements about how to review each other’s work, using the model of What Works? What Doesn’t Work? and What If? , and as they explicitly improve in the quality of their feedback they implicitly improve their own writing because their self-editing skills are inevitably sharpened. I have learned to come in with my comments at the end of a unit, such as writing to them about patterns and possibilities I see in their fiction or in their poetry after they’ve worked a while with that genre – this gets them in the habit of listening to each other first and for quite a while without waiting for or deferring to the “real” critique from the professor.
Students might say that the most challenging/scary part of the course is reading their work aloud, which I’ve required to greater degrees over the years. I want them to learn more about the rhythm and music of their words. Also, the literary readings we do together, in which each student gets on the stage of Monteabaro Hall and reads for two minutes, make the students feel closer to each other, often increase their self-confidence in their writing, and illustrate the power of a supportive writing community.
LY: You are a poet. What’s the best suggestion/tip/teaching that you received from your own creative writing teachers?
TH: I didn’t study towards an MFA but trained in criticism, so my best creative writing teachers have been the master poets and writers I’m fortunate to read and meet and listen to as they are interviewed about their process for The Writing Life or present in venues here on campus or at the Dodge Poetry Festival every other year. I tell and require my students to READ, and to “read like writers,” which an astonishing number do not do extensively or widely. I ask those who do not read often, “Who, then, do you think is going to read your work?”
Billy Collins has had the greatest impact on my own writing when he teaches that readers don’t really want to hear about the writer’s thoughts and feelings but are looking to find themselves in what they read; that readers need to be oriented in concrete, specific ways before you launch them into abstraction or profundity; and that as writers we need to stop hiding behind vagary or ego. I’m better at spotting the difference between self-indulgent “bravery” (in which facts and feelings are wielded as weapons) and the tender commitment to offering truth.
LY: What is the most common advice/suggestion/tip you find yourself giving to your students?
TH: Show, don’t tell! Let the reader “be there” through the use of sensory details, rather than summarizing or explaining the experience for them. I’m also (in)famous for crossing out lots of text. I can do lots of slashing because I’ve already given them full credit for doing their work – I’m free to tell them how unnecessary lots of it is. Student writers tend to over-explain and interrupt their own compelling action or images with redundant “telling” of what we’re already inferring and feeling.
The Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo) has chosen Laura Shovan, winner of the 2009 Harriss Poetry Prize and author of an upcoming novel-in-verse for young readers, as its 24th poet-in-residence. Shovan will visit county high schools, the alternative school and Howard Community College classes to read her work and guide the students’ writing.
Using portraits and news headlines as triggers for poetry, Shovan will lead the students in writing their own verse. Shovan also plans to start a public reading series with student participation. A Maryland State Arts Council artist-in-residence since 1999, Shovan is the poetry editor of the Little Patuxent Review. Shovan’s book, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, comes out in April 2016 from Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House. Her poetry chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone, won the Harriss prize, and she has edited two poetry anthologies. Shovan graduated from NYU’s dramatic writing program, taught high school and worked for the Dodge Poetry Festival.
For 24 years, HoCoPoLitSo has brought contemporary writers to the students of Howard County to encourage the love of literature and writing. Atholton High School teacher Jennifer Timmel, whose class wrote with last year’s poet-in-residence Joseph Ross, said about the experience: “I think the poet-in-residence program is brilliant. The students were all very moved by (Ross’s) poetry; many of them are writers and poets themselves, so to be able to speak with someone who writes for a living was very inspirational to them. They found his work interesting and inspiring. Mr. Ross is … an incredible combination of encouraging teacher and good poet.”
Shovan follows in the footsteps of illustrious writers, including Lucille Clifton, Li-Young Lee, Michael Glaser and Grace Cavalieri. Last year’s poet-in-residence, Joseph Ross, wrote, “For high school students, I’m convinced poetry can help them discover who they are. It helps them know they’re not alone. Poetry has healing properties, it connects us to everyone else.”