National Poetry Month, April 17, 2014

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti

For the past two days, I’ve been in Warren County–in the town of Warrenton–teaching poetry to grades sixth through eighth at Warren County Middle School. Joan and I are quartering at The Ivy, a Bed and Breakfast, built in the Queen Anne tradition, and just one of the many mansions lining Main Street in

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

Warrenton. Emmanuel Episcopal Church, where Horace Greeley married Mary Youngs Cheney in 1836, is also on Main. I also discovered an Italian restaurant, Milano’s, just a block or so down the street from The Ivy, where I ate a pretty darn good eggplant parmesan sandwich.

I’ve found the children at Warren County Middle thoroughly prepared by their teachers. They had read poems and throw around familiarly terms like free verse, couplet, cinquain and haiku. They, like their teachers, are warm, engaged, talented and most hospitable. I’ve been having a great time.

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

A poem the students brought up again and again is “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe – the first adult poem I remember feeling affected by and I’m sure I heard it first when I was roughly their ages. I loved, and still love it, all that dire schmaltz and unapologetic melodrama. It was, especially, the last four lines of the last stanza that got me all those years ago: the rat-a-tat-tat, the pounding, the rhymes and repetitions, the crashing meter. I heard that poem. So the minute they brought up “Annabel Lee,” I launched into a recital of it, though I threw more than a line or two, but I have it in the main. It’s stuck with me all these years, so we talked a little bit about the poem, and then we talked a bit about love. The kids were thoroughly intuitive about every bit of it.

I’ve been using these past two days George Ella Lyon’s now-rather-famous “Where I’m From” exercise to get the students to jump-start their own poems. I initiate the exercise by handing them my own “Where I’m From” poem as a very nuts-and-bolts model, then reading it to them. I’ve met with six classes and it’s impossible here to really do justice to the unique perspectives and ranges – the length and breadth, the dreamy yearning – of all the poems the students have written, then rose to read to their classmates. It’s an exercise that really works – for practicing poets looking to generate new material (that was lurking there all along) and for folks who have never penned a poem in their lives, as well as for teachers attempting to entice students into writing first poems. At any rate, the poems my students at Warren County Middle have written are precocious and moving.

George Ella Lyon (photo by Ann.W.Olson)

George Ella Lyon (photo by Ann.W.Olson)

When I first started using the “Where I’m From” exercise – the first time I used it was with veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland – I wrote to George Ella, a friend (soon to be Appalachian State’s 2014-2015 Rachel Rivers Coffey Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing), just to thanks her and let her know that my plagiarizing had really yielded extraordinary poems from those vets and their families.

She responded in her typical gracious fashion: “Listen, there is no theft in using WIF as a poem-starter. I think that’s why it got me to write it; I just didn’t know it at the time. … it’s meant to be passed around.

“ … it is a beautiful feeling to know the poem somehow works as a door into poetry and into the self. What I did was so small–and a jump-off from Jo Carson’s poem (Note: See George Ella’s reference to Jo Carson in the link above) –and what teachers and the internet have done with it is so huge. I keep being amazed. I just wrote to middle schoolers in the Watertown School District who sent me their WIF poems before the Boston bombings. I wonder if they will be invited to write about what it all felt like for them. Of course that will be unfolding all their lives.

“A teacher in Tuscon just contacted me about Skyping with her students when they finish their WIF iMovies. Several times a week new WIFs, videos, blogs, school posts, show up. They say something important about the power of place, of poetry, and of the human hunger for a voice.”

That “human hunger,” those voices have been ringing in ample supply at Warren County Middle over the past two days.

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