High school, the best poetry audience ever

One way to tell the story of how I came to read poetry desperately and constantly would be: early. I still know by heart a book of nursery rhymes I used to own, with Richard Scarry illustrations. A lot of us, though, had our first serious poetry crushes in, or at least during, high school. At fifteen, while I was struck dumb by Keats in the classroom, I was also buying David Bowie albums, reading the liner notes, and hunting down the books he mentioned there. Hence William Burroughs—who was NOT on the curriculum at the Academy of the Holy Angels—and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which was a life-changer. Then Sister Ignatius commanded that I enter a poetry contest at Bergen County Community College, so I copied over my verses and, to my shock because I never won anything, took first prize. The professor-judge told me I’d clearly read a lot of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom I’d never heard of (maybe he’s the love-child of Keats and Ginsberg?), so I went home and read him, too. University was where this all gathered speed—taking modernism courses, meeting intense young writers who were also cute boys—but I’m not sure I ever needed poems as urgently I did in high school. Those were such isolated, unhappy years. Give me bad office politics, babies who wake at 5 a.m., even tax forms. It’s all better than being fifteen.

So I am all the more impressed by Beth Konkoski at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, Virginia. She’s the kind of teacher I needed but most of us never get. Yesterday, at her invitation, I drove nearly three hours, ran a workshop for 30 students, read to about 300 in a large auditorium, had lunch with members of her department, and drove three hours home again. She doesn’t run an event of this magnitude every year, but Beth is a poet who meets other writers, like me, at conferences, so she knows her way around po-biz. She is also dedicated and organized: Beth asked some weeks in advance for a few poems I planned to read, especially poems revising myths and fairy tales, and gave them to her students in advance with journal prompts. She is also experienced enough in managing teenagers to make it look like a magical power: who ever heard of 300 highschoolers sitting quietly and with the appearance of respectful attention for a 40 minute poetry reading by some middle-aged person? It also seems to me, from a quick visit, that her large, diverse public school must be unusually supportive of inspired teachers, because the logistics alone were staggering. So many permission slips…

My workshop involved litanies and list-poems, a similar scheme to the one I wrote up for The Exercise Book (which I revisited for ideas earlier this week and man, that really is a good collection). I wanted to frame the reading itself with poems by other writers, so I elicited a bunch of suggestions on Facebook. I then didn’t follow any of them except for Margo Solod’s general directive: “hit ‘em hard.” Which meant, I deduced, not corporal punishment but choosing the most powerful poems I could. I began with a terrific Tim Seibles piece and closed with Mary Oliver, because one of my first Washington and Lee students, Jeanne, said “Wild Geese” had empowered her to depart from the script and be who she needed to be. Of my own, I chose a poem about being a zombie, another about campus sexual assault, some about my mother’s childhood in Liverpool, and elegies. The dead pet poems triggered noisy tears from a young woman in the back start—I hope you’ll forgive me, Cellist Girl. A newish poem, “Vasovagal Syncope,” made another young woman run up afterwards: “I have that! I never thought I’d hear a poem about it!”

The questions amazed me most. You know how during the question period after a reading, all the college students will freeze and all the community members shift around uncomfortably? I had thought of pulling a Craig Santos Perez—he tosses cans of Spam to the first audience members who speak up—but I don’t have the throwing arm to reach the back rows, so I just braced myself for nervous silence. Instead, I couldn’t keep up with their raised hands. Okay, there was the sloucher in the first row performing disaffected sarcasm, but almost all of them were writer questions. What do you think about rhyme in contemporary poetry? How do you know when a poem’s done? What’s the most important idea you try to get across to your poetry students? What do you do when you’re staring at a blank page and nothing’s happening? How do you manage self-doubt? The one-on-one conversation afterward was just as urgent. One guy who called himself a “music nerd” asked, “So are there poet’s poets, the way there are obscure, unknown musicians that all the other musicians admire for their skills?” And there was the fiction writer who asked about writing a story in which people are telling a story. “Well, that’s called frame narration,” I began, and he said, “Yeah, but how do you DO it? Is it like, dot dot dot? Is there a way to start in third-person omniscient and then move to first-person?” Man, that kid is in the trenches.

Are there any questions more high-stakes than those, more serious? I liked those students so much for sticking their hands right up in that potentially intimidating space and asking what they needed to know. And I like their teachers so much for making room for this conversation in an era of frantic standardized testing and STEM-field obsession. The music nerds and future scientists need poems, too, and Beth is making sure they have access to them. It’s beautiful.

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