Poetry Friday: Dodge Poets in High Schools: What Do They Do?

May 4, 2012

(students at Spotswood High School)

I’m often asked what happens during a High School Poet Visit or during one of our High School Mini Festival.  There are some quick, simple answers that come to mind.  1) Poets read their work. 2) Poets read the work of other poets that matter to them. 3) Poets discuss poetry.  Pretty straightforward, right?  This spring I’ve been sitting in on our High School events and have come to realize that a few things are happening that go way beyond that simple description.

Christine Salvatore was recently at East Brunswick High School.  Many of her poems are persona poems, and this fascinated the students.  They wanted to know why she wrote that way; why she didn’t just write about her own experience from her own perspective.  “There are times when I can’t write directly about my experience in my poems—it’s too recent or I’m still a bit vulnerable about what happened.  I write persona poems so that I can shape my experience into something manageable, and so that my reader can connect with some aspect of what I’m grappling with.  Do I know what it’s like to be a middle aged man and to doubt my marriage? No, but I do know what it’s like to feel a little trapped, to feel like maybe you made the wrong choice or that you have no choices.”

Peter Murphy, also at East Brunswick’s Poetry Festival, played a game of “Truth or “Fact?” with students after reading his poem “The Stubborn Child,” based on a Grimm’s tale about a child too stubborn to lay peacefully even in his death. The poem explores Peter’s own experiences as a child and then a parent.  After reading it to the students, he asked students “Do you think this is factual? Did these things really happen?”  Most students thought not.  And then he asked “But is it true?”  Yes, they thought it did ring true and that the sentiments and images in the poem were palpable and real.  “Poets sacrifice the facts in order to get to the truth,” Peter stated. “I may not have had these exact experiences, but I had the experience of being a stubborn child, and I had the experience of wanting something better for my own daughter.  If I wrote the poem just like that, it wouldn’t be a very good poem. I used the images and metaphors to make this part of my life experience into something more true than the facts.”

Michael Cirelli (pictured above), who recently visited every High School in East Orange, shared with students his fascination with the innovative language that hip hop artists, rappers and particularly teenagers use. At UrbanWordNYC, he works with teenagers constantly, and told the students in East Orange that he often hears things he can’t get out of his head, and that make their way into his poems, which often explore and expand what a simple word, or phrase can mean.  At Voorhees High School, he recited a new poem devoted to the potato—the many ways we eat potatoes, the things that are made out of potatoes, and the ways potatoes have figured into history.  His reading was so charged and energetic, and the poem was unlike what most students might think of as a poem.  Michael shares such curiosity and wonder about language that it will be hard for any student to think of a potato, or a poem, in the same way.

Crystal Bacon recently visited Seneca High School in Tabernacle, and shared with students that when she was a teenager, she couldn’t make sense of her family. It wasn’t a traditional family like everyone else had, and at the same time, she felt decidedly un-girly for a teenage girl, most confident in a hand-me-down men’s suit.  “It was my writing that helped me see my family and piece together what we were all about and to deal with the realization that I just simply wasn’t a traditional girl.”  In her poems, you hear some of this story come through.  But just as important as the poems is Crystal’s capacity for self-reflection, openness and self-acceptance which guides her writing and her life.

Which gets to the heart of this blog.  Our poets open a door to poetry for High School Students, but they also present the possibility of a rich inner life.  They share not only their craft and their art, but the capacities that make them poets.  They share themselves as compassionate, striving, curious, self-reflective and honest human beings.  They show students that there is a way to contain and express difficult emotions, without having to completely expose oneself.  They show them the joy that can come from following one’s curiosity and wonder.  They are models of individuality and the confidence that comes from knowing who you are, and who you aren’t.  During the tumultuous teen years where emotions are intense and big life decisions need to be made, they offer a way to live, an option for how to face the challenges of being a teenager.

Are you a New Jersey high school teacher who would like to arrange for a Dodge Poet to visit your school?  Write to us at poetryprogram@grdodge.org.

Photos by Lauren Rutten Photography.