The Resuscitation of Childhood: A WITS Reading with Matthew Burgess, Jason Koo, Erin Malone, Emily Perez, and Tiphanie Yanique

Posted in General with tags , , , on April 21, 2015 by writersintheschools

By WITS Interns Laura Burgher and Tracy Gregory

As new interns of the Seattle Writers in the Schools program, we were eager to hear perspectives from the panel of nationwide WITS writers presenting at this year’s AWP conference in Minneapolis. Each writer spoke about past or current residencies, working with students from 2nd grade through high school. We followed the threads of commonality that wove through each of the writer’s experiences as they shared stories of working with students, and the influence this had on their own writing. In their students’ work they all found a freedom, a wide-open space of play and creativity, that by tapping into they were able to access new levels of creativity in their own work. They all spoke very highly of the talent of the students they work with and find immense value in teaching.

Matthew Burgess, who teaches 1st and 2nd grade students in Brooklyn, believes there is an inner poet in all people, and that children especially embody this poet by embracing nonsense. When faced with a nonsensical phrase, the adult mind would dismiss it, while the child “jumps right in to keep the song going.” Matthew credits his students with teaching him how to write. Jason Koo read a poem he wrote based on an assignment he had given to his 3rd and 4th grade students in New York, who he believes are much better poets than adults. While we have suffering, he says, they come to the page with energy, imagination, and fun.

Although creativity overflows in the younger grades, Erin Malone, from our own WITS program in Seattle, recognized that her 5th graders tended to fall back to a “safer” place in their writing by returning to rhyme. When she pushes them to write outside of their comfort zone, their writing reveals a glimpse into their complicated inner lives. Erin noticed a trend in her students’ poems that draw from and address fears. She pulls from a similar place of fear and loss in writing her own book, Hover. (Erin will be reading from Hover this Wednesday, 4/22 at Elliott Bay Books).

Emily Perez, working in high schools in Houston, realized that most of her students censor themselves in their writing. She uses “experiments” to encourage them to take risks. She spoke of working with a student who had already developed her poetic voice, but by providing a safe environment to take risks in, the student wrote in an original and powerful way. Tiphanie Yanique also works with high school students, in New York, and read from an accomplished student writer. She attributes WITS with the development of her teaching and writing skills, which she sees as intricately intertwined.

Using the language of the panelists, including their poems and their student’s poems, we wrote the following interpretation:

wake the poet

find yourself an ocean

bump around in the blue

join in the interior feathered moss

dissolve what ifs (is blindness)


light a match into the windbreak

of your hand

fold tufts of clouds back

like moths eating sky

into your sweaters


scour the lion’s stomach

be the king of anything


when the ink runs dry

you faint

so make sure to sing

beautiful gigantic things



Posted in Uncategorized on April 15, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Margot Kahn Case, WITS Writer-in-Residence

For my 12-week course at Franklin High School, we’ve been working on profiles, or portraits, of other people. Each week we tackle one aspect of getting to know a person. How do they identify themselves? How do they present themselves to the world? Where have they come from? What’s important to them? Who and/or what do they love? What are their secrets, their dark sides? What do they want in life? To practice asking these questions of others outside of class, we ask them of ourselves in class first.

For our third session together, I brought in food. I’m no veteran teacher, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that a little food goes a long way when it comes to paying attention. “I brought you snacks,” I said to kick off class. “So listen up!” Everyone cheered. So easy!

Together, we read two essays from an old 2010 issue of Saveur Magazine. “Lost in Translation” by Monique Truong is an excerpt from her book Bitter in the Mouth. It’s about how her South Vietnamese family first encountered Jell-O salad on the table of their North Carolina neighbors who were kind enough to have them over for dinner. “We were horrified,” she writes, “which was really saying something considering that this man, woman, and child had only months before escaped from a country at war.” In “Our Daily Bread”, Richard Rodriguez remembers the simplicity of his father’s refried beans and chorizo. It was a dish his father made daily, and one that Rodriguez didn’t fully appreciate until after his father had passed away.

We read these two essays and talked about how much we learn from the narrators—Where are they from? What are their families like? What is important to them? Family, respect, ritual, hard work. We talked about how these essays are about food, yes—but the food is really just a vehicle to talk about so much more.

In the penultimate paragraph of Rodriguez’s essay he talks about Proust’s Madeleine, so we talk a little about Proust’s work being an exploration of how memory works. We talk about the difference between voluntary and involuntary memory—voluntary memory being the memory we call upon (What’s her phone number? Where did I put my homework? What year did the Civil War begin?) and involuntary memory, those memories that comes to us unbidden (walking down the street we catch a whiff of blossoming roses and think of our grandmother who used to wear a rose-scented perfume). I gave everyone a madeleine cookie and instructed them not to eat it until I started reading:

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the affect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ….Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? …And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of Madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little Madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”

What is Proust talking about? He takes a sip of tea and all the hardships of his life—even the fact that one day he will die!—everything falls away and all that fills his head is the memory of being with his aunt on Sunday mornings before going to church, sitting in her bedroom and eating this cookie dipped in a cup of tea. Taste and smell have the power to flood us with memories, have the power to evoke experience and emotion. And they can be powerful writing tools, as well.

After the crumbs were brushed from our desks, we set to work. The assignment was (choose one):

Write about a food you love. Or a food you hate.

Write about a food that is important to you or your family.

Write about a memorable meal (because it was so delicious, or because something wonderful or terrible happened).

There were no blank pages on this one. Everyone wrote. About a week later we were lucky enough to have Molly Wizenberg visit, which was an inspiring experience for many. Here are a few excerpts of the results.


In Calmar, the family piled into the kitchen, mashing potatoes, rolling dough, flipping the thin disks onto the hot grill. To make an excellent lefse was a virtue we all yearned for. Political and religious differences were forgotten. Guilt over leaving Iowa melted right along with the butter.

I always hated visiting Calmar, but I always craved lefse. Grandma’s house was an unwanted destination, claustrophobic and full of expired food. I begged to stay with my Uncle Luther when we visited. But the lefse was never expired. Never overwhelming. It was always sweet and kind. Everyone made it; everyone ate it.

We had lefse at my uncle’s wedding. We had lefse at Grandma’s Christmases, too. The last time Grandma and Grandpa visited Seattle, they brought a lefse grill. Grandma convinced mom to buy the special pastry cloth and the flipping-stick. Grandpa sat in the green recliner we got him just for that trip while we filled the kitchen with flour, sugar and potatoes. At Grandpa’s funeral, we had lefse. I don’t think I ate any. Maybe I wasn’t ready for the memories that buttery-sweet Norwegian tortilla would bring.

In Calmar, we’ve been getting rid of garbage bags full of junk for the past week. My aunts and uncles have thrown out moldy puzzles, age-old medicine, clothes full of moth balls. Grandma rides back to her house and asks, “Where did everything go?” In her new kitchen in an assisted living building, she makes lefse. It tugs at my gut at first, and then somewhere deeper. Lefse is the Norwegian roots we’ve all but forgotten.

– Hannah B.

Seaweed Soup

My parents used to fight a lot. They fought over who did or didn’t lock the door at our family restaurant. They fought about whether the chairs had been arranged the right way. But when it came to dinner, all the fighting ceased. We often did not talk to each other when we ate dinner; the only noise came from the TV. Silently, my parents shared their love for one another by putting food in each other’s bowls of rice. When ‘I love you’ was hard to say, my mother would put a piece of beef in my father’s bowl. And sometimes, my father would put in my mother’s bowl a boiled enoki mushroom.

If my mom and I had been fighting, I’d gently twirl my chopstick to tangle the strands of seaweed together before placing it in my mother’s bowl to let her know I was sorry. My mother and I did not fight often until she whisked the family away into a new life in Seattle. The spacious home we lived in before was gone, and the differences between my mother and I were becoming more obvious. She grew up in China, and I was growing up in the United States. Neither of us felt we understood each other, and I never made the effort to understand that the sixteen hours my mother worked each day had all been for me. I would often yell at her for refusing to accept me for who I was while actively refusing to acknowledge the Chinese traditions that she lived by. I preached empathy and kindness towards others but could not be bothered to be empathetic to my mother’s viewpoint as a Chinese mother in a society speaking only English.

Some days, there would be a bowl of seaweed soup on the table as a side dish. It was my favorite, aside from pork bone soup. When there were leftovers after dinner, I’d drink bowls of it, feeling the soup warm all sides of my belly while washing away the dry feeling of rice I had just eaten. Sometimes I would wait until everyone was asleep just so I could have another bowl of seaweed soup. It had just the right balance of saltiness and warmth to comfort me on a cold day. Though seaweed soup takes less than an hour to make, it showed up on the table only sporadically. The soup is healthy and known to lower blood pressure, but my mom did not make it often because of my low blood pressure.

The soups that my mother strenuously labored over for hours, adding expensive ingredients like birds nest and sea cucumber, were her only way of showing how much she loved me when I refused to listen. The seaweed that I placed in her bowl was my only way of telling her I was sorry when I was too embarrassed to say it myself. Food was what brought the family together when we had no other way to show our love for one another.

– Judy W.


As a Filipino, it is almost customary that our shelves have cans upon cans of Filipino sardines, corned beef, Vienna sausages, and Spam. Also, as a lazy male, I am determined to make fasts form the cheapest ingredients. That is how I spent my afternoon.

While heating up a pan, I cut the Spam into thin slices and put those in a bowl. Then I diced the Vienna sausages and put them in another bowl. From my fridge, I took several eggs and cracked them in a bowl. After beating the eggs, I added some salt, pepper and some spices I found in the shelf. I don’t know if anyone else does this, but when my family makes Spam they sort of marinate the slices in egg. After putting oil on the pan, I cooked the Spam until they were dark. The layer of egg stuck to the slices. While cooking them, I would sprinkle some more pepper just because. Then came the corned beef. Nothing special was done there. I just put it in the pan and stirred it around. Once the corned beef was done, I put it in a bowl, but left some in a separate place. After that, I made an omelet of sorts. I poured the Vienna sausages in the egg and mixed it well. Then I poured the mixture onto the pan. While I was at it, I added some cheese. Before folding the eggs, I took the spare corned beef and spread it across the top. All that was left was the sardines. There’s a little meal my family makes with sardines. I don’t remember it anymore, but I remember that it was supposed to have onions and garlic, add water and oil, crack some eggs into it and then add at least two cans of sardines in tomato sauce.

As I looked at my work, I felt very proud. Until I realized that I had to wash the dishes.

– Joshua I.


Hot, moist air out in the field. Under the sun, a familiar figure bent down caring for her crops. Every piece of food we ate was full of her love and care. Her sweat planted every potato, every carrot. The grandmother she loved and missed, reminding herself of the memories with every bite of pickled radish. The crunch sound resembles the fresh smile on her aged face; salty sweet was her vibe. Yellow, golden slices of carrots and the time we bonded to make seasoned vegetables can only be remembered from old-time pictures and bits of salted carrots.

– Ling C.


My dad is so picky when it comes to food. “It has to be an awe in your mouth,” I translated as I interviewed him. As we continued on, he talked me back to when he was a kid—poor, with literally nothing but a pair of pants he wore every day to everything. Somehow, I realized the pain my dad went through as he told me that a potato was like a perfectly baked chicken to him. My father, a man full of anger and pride, teared up as he told me “with the potato I dug up, I shared with my family of 9, and that was our best meal I ever had, even to this day.” With that, I teared up realizing how much he has worked and sacrificed for me. And we ended our conversation there as I cleaned up and he went upstairs like usual.

– Thien N.

Making Writing Their Own: 8th Graders and Zines

Posted in Writer Posts with tags , , , on April 9, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Corinne Manning, WITS Writer-in-Residence

Something I love about teaching for WITS is the encouragement to roll with the punches. At the beginning of a teaching residency, you might have a defined schedule, a plan with a classroom teacher, and a curriculum, built shiny, and ready to go. Anyone who has worked with youth, or who has even just worked as a teacher knows that all the careful planning can—will—change instantly. There some changes at the school I worked at this year, but the nature of the WITS program is to find innovative and creative ways to help students fall in love with writing, so I had everything I needed to embrace that change.

But sometimes, even writing super exciting and awesome stories, poems, and memoir gets old when you are at an age where you aren’t quite sure why you like something, when you haven’t had a chance to really define for yourself why you like doing it. In 8th grade, that pinnacle of adolescent muck, you are constantly getting told what to do and maybe you’ve heard all the reasons why you are told to do something a certain way, but… whatever—it just doesn’t make sense yet.

I’ve found power in defining writing for myself, and finding ways to continue to make it mine and useful. Growing up, I wrote stories and poems and put them into books that I would copy and give to other people. It wasn’t until I went to college that I learned I was making zines. During that time of making my own books I found two things that I loved: writing and bookmaking; and I got the chance to make each of them my own.

So, instead of doing Reader’s Theater with the 8th grade, I switched up my curriculum and decided to introduce them to zines.

photo 1

“How To Make a Hamburger” by Parker, 8th grade

Zines are self published magazines that are made using whatever you have on hand. They have a cut and paste look to them, as they are most often made using a photocopier. The print runs are small, so only a few are made at a time, and they’re made to express something, not for profit.

The energy of zines is empowering. This form has been used again and again through the ages, often with the edict: if they won’t publish us, we’ll publish ourselves. Zines have found form in publications for protests, Sci-Fi and dystopian narratives, comics, and most recently, through young women who defined for themselves what it means to be a girl or grrrl.

“I don’t have a computer at home,” some of the students would say, trying to get out of the project. And every time I told them that they didn’t need a computer, that everything they needed they had in school, they’d look at me like I was crazy. Many of them didn’t seem to know what a photocopier was, and I had to emphasize again and again in a crochety-aging-hipsters manner: Get the authentic experience and make this on a photocopier, not a scanner or printer.

A zine, of course, can be made on anything you want, and in the future, they can totally make their zines at home using their printer and scanner if they have one. But it sure looks cooler from a photocopier.

photo 2

Some zines by Catharine Blaine 8th graders

How can zines be applied to creative writing?

I had the chance to work with these particular students for two years and I knew their writing, they’d written in every genre of fiction, written poems, even came up with creative definitions of fiction, so I trusted that they knew what they were doing. But all this work I’ve done with them wasn’t going to amount to much unless I gave them the chance to see how to apply creative writing on their own terms. I wanted writing, the power of it, to feel immediately useful to them.

Before they got into their final project, the Per-Zine (stands for personal zine, which can be about anything that’s personal to you) they made zines about their favorite things and zines that explained how to do something: making hamburgers, waking up on a Monday, or even making a your younger sibling cry.

Photo 3

How to Survive the Pre-High School Years, by Luna, 8th grade

PHoto 4

How to Survive the Pre-High School Years, by Luna, 8th grade

Perzines tend to have an opinion even if its about something simple, like the things that make you happy, or the way you’ve found to survive the pre-high school years. It’s yours.

Photo 5

Students found clever ways to articulate their feelings about their thoughts, God, or their frustration with stereotypes.

photo 6

Gotta Problem? Blame Science. By Elizabeth, 8th grade


Gotta Problem? Blame Science. By Elizabeth, 8th grade

All writers know that the game changes when you introduce the idea of making something public. But it’s even more thrilling when the rules change: when you decide that something is ready to be published, when it’s your finger hovering over that green button on the photo copier, when you are the one that’s decided that what you have to say is valuable and needs to be heard. It’s true that they’ll grow up and many of their opinions will change, but the day they sat in class and created a zine to share, what went through their minds when they were bored are documents of who they were at a time, and are articulations of what many of us, even as adults, are still feeling. Through creating zines, students connected with one another, whether it was teaching each other how to photocopy, or finding something they related to in the work of another student. They have everything they need to make writing their own—not a bad skill to bring with you into high school, or maybe the rest of your life as a writer.

This website was a wonderful resource and includes a template for making a quarter page zine line the ones by Catharine Blaine students.

Story Problems: Learning Narrative through Pictures

Posted in Writer Posts with tags , , , , on April 7, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Greg Stump, WITS Writer-in-Residence


Comic by Maya, a 1st grade student at Broadview-Thomson K-8 School.

As a teaching artist who helps students of all ages learn to make comics, I’m often fascinated by how a single lesson or exercise can be just as useful for the very young as it is for teens and adults. Short comic strip stories, humble though they may be, seem to be especially effective in teaching story structure to anyone. This is because all parts of the story (introducing a character in a setting; throwing a conflict/problem or disruptive event into the scenario; heightening the drama/tension; and resolving the matter as the character is restored/transformed) are not just visible, but adjacent to each other as well. In a comic, we can see all at once how the story ends and begins, or we can read it piecemeal or in reverse order — unlike text narratives, which are inflexibly linear, or movies, which can only show us one part of the story at a time.


Anyone who spends time with young children knows that they can tell stories even before they’re able to write them down, and this is never more evident to me than when teaching them comics. As a WITS writer-in-residence this year, I was very happy to get to teach the first graders at Broadview-Thomson, in part because it’s so much fun to see what little kids (who are still learning how to write) will come up with when asked to draw out their stories. The comic you see here, drawn by a first grader named Maya in Jeanne Medalia’s class, is a great example of how a simple six-panel comic can demonstrate both a solid grasp of narrative structure, and a delightful imagination to boot.


As the story begins in the first panel, our butterfly protagonist leisurely flaps past a flower. Suddenly, disaster: the butterfly collides into a tree (the “disruptive event”) in the second scene. The “rising action” in panels three and four show our hero laid out on a stretcher and taken by ambulance to a hospital bed, where it lies miserable and injured. Fortunately, a nurse mends the butterfly’s damaged wing, and the comic ends much as it begins — with the butterfly in flight, only now with relief after having gone through a dramatic ordeal.


Again, this is a simple exercise, but the use of a vertical six-panel grid to tell a story in pictures can be quite powerful in getting kids — or anyone, really — to see, quite literally, that what makes a story engaging is how it introduces and resolves problems. And when assigned to students as young and creative as Maya, it leads to work that is as charming as it is instructive.


Pushing through the Gap: Molly Wizenberg, Karen Finneyfrock and Elizabeth Austen Visit Seattle Schools

Posted in Author Visits with tags , , , on March 26, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Erin Langner, WITS Program Associate

Every so often, the excerpt of Ira Glass’s interview on storytelling that was made into a short animation several years ago resurfaces on my social media feeds. The acclaimed writer and radio producer’s words about making your own creative work align with your ambitions, and eliminating the gap between them, are the kind that people go back to over and over, particularly when they are in a darker place, creatively speaking. When Seattle memoirist and food writer Molly Wizenberg spoke with a room full of eleventh graders at WITS partner Franklin High School about her story of becoming writer recently, she mentioned those words to the students; they resonated particularly strongly against the writer’s own story of making her way from working in a grocery store, to studying anthropology, to building food memories into blogs and memoirs, over the course of twenty-six years.


Molly Wizenberg speaks with students at Franklin High School.

Later that same day, I accompanied Seattle poet and young adult novelist Karen Finneyfrock on a visit to McClure Middle School. When a student in the audience asked the author how she found her writing style for her books, she divulged how much more difficult writing her first novel was than she had expected. The writer explained how she had already published books of poetry, but when she shifted to writing stories, she had to bring much of the style into her work in later drafts, during the editing process. She assured the lunchroom full of over one hundred middle schoolers listening with the intensity of people about to go home and start their own novels, “Writers spend at least as much time editing a book as they do writing it.”


Karen Finneyfrock speaks with students at McClure Middle School

The following week, when Washington State Poet Laureate Elizabeth Austen spoke among a small circle of students who attend the Hutch School, the harder aspects of writing came up again. Telling the students of the way she had transitioned from acting to writing poetry, when she was in her 30s, the poet shared some of the similarities she encountered across her two professional lives. One was related to what might normally be called rejection, whether it be from a part in a play or of a piece of writing from a publication. She explained to the students in the room, who ranged from first graders to high school students, how such moments didn’t always mean that a piece of creative work wasn’t good, or was necessarily worse than someone else’s work. “It’s a selection, not a rejection,” she said with the concise intent one would expect from a poet laureate.


Elizabeth Austen Performing with the Sandbox Radio Collective. Photo credit: John Ulman. Image from

Whenever I re-watch Ira Glass’s interview, the disclaimer that begins the video always stays with me the most: “Nobody tells people who are beginners—and I really wish someone had told this to me…” As I sat beside the students, hearing advice and anecdotes and lesser known insights from accomplished writers like Molly Wizenberg and Karen Finneyfrock and Elizabeth Austen, I felt reassured about these kids—someone was telling them things that could affect their relationships with the creative work, now and later on. Those students will hopefully find themselves with smaller, less daunting gaps to close than the rest of us.

The Work of These Fingers

Posted in Writer Posts with tags , , , , on March 19, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Matt Gano, WITS Writer-in-Residence

The Center School is full of deep thinkers and creative minds. The pumps are primed and these kids are ready to write. To help build our creative approach I like to introduce themes that work as an arc throughout the semester. Mary Oliver writes, “…poetry imaginatively takes place within the world, it does not take place on a sheet of paper.” Using this quote as a springboard, the first practicing approach I throw out to my students is the idea that poetry is an “expression of the body.” I use this concept in combination with Mary Oliver’s stance as a backbone to constructing effective metaphor and developing creative ideas that are grounded in concrete imagery.

When we speak of the notion that poetry is an “expression of the body,” we talk about our sensory perceptions and our physical relationship to the world. We talk about translating our emotional experience, which most often lives in an abstract realm, into the physical by making connections to objects that imply our meaning. To take this a step further, we discuss how our own individual experiences with abstract emotions (love, hate, fear, etc.) can be understood universally through specific connections to the body. Here, Leiya F. shows us exactly how powerful-truths can be explored in this way in an excerpt from her poem, “The Work of These Fingers”:

“When my thumb accepts you,
I let the sun know
that you have done
the deed of a saint.
I point down to the dirt you are less
than when you have forced hot coals
in my eyes from your sin.

I show this finger to silence the solid voices that slam, scratch, and slaughter
the air of this empty room.
I use this to beckon to the little girl who is pointed camouflage in the clean
grass and muddy filth of people that make her pliant.

I throw this exotic symbol to say “Screw you” to middle the people
who think they can use my body to fit their voice and use their voice over
Enough said.”

Moving through this concept, students are encouraged to look for other surprising ways that imagery can take form. By grounding our abstract thoughts, ideas, and emotions in the physical we become translators of experience. We discuss the idea that one of the important jobs of the poet is to find new ways of showing our emotions, to SHOW our truth by finding the right image. Here, Bryce G. shows us how this works in a excerpt from her poem, “A Symphony of Magnificence”:

“Her song is different
a pot of churning tunes
bubbling melodies
Her dreams are a symphony of sounds
an orchestra playing in harmony
something Beethoven mixed with Baroque
but as the last note
slides off a gleaming harpsichord

auto tune kicks in

to a pop singers sugary voice
as the base in the background
fades away
to the plucking of a guitar
and the crooning of the blues
Her smile is a sad folk singer


into a tenor
bellowing out a song
wonderfully off key
he sings about a piano playing up a thunderstorm
like no other”

Doing this work early on in the first semester helps to lay a foundation for strong writing and imagistic depth. As we move further into the art of creative writing, having students understand connective imagery and the concept of translating experience helps to shift approach and train their imaginations to consider the transformative ability of metaphor and imagery as a powerful tool. With this little notch in their belt, they are one step closer in exploring their writing voices and honing their individual styles.

Hurry the Stone

Posted in Writer Posts with tags , , , on March 12, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Melanie Noel, WITS Writer-in-Residence


“hurry a lion into the cage of music

hurry stone to masquerade as a recluse

moving in parallel nights


who’s the visitor? when the days all

tip from nests and fly down roads

the book of failure grows boundless and deep”


– from “New Year” by Bei Dao, translated by David Hinton and Yanbing Chen

The cormorant is a poet among seabirds. Among boobies and loons, it’s a bird of the in-between. It appears to do nothing as it lets the sun and air dry its wings. It stands there frozen in a shrug. When it speaks it sounds like the door of a haunted house arguing with a toad. It is a great diver and can migrate in flocks, but there is this time between that it stops entirely.

Nikolai Goodman, the son of poet Denise Levertov, told a story at her memorial that stays with me. He was homeschooled in their apartment in New York City. He was doing homework on the floor and looked up to see his mom staring out the window. She was staring out for a long time. He asked her, “What are you doing?” And she shushed him, not gently, and said, “I’m writing a poem.”

I felt like an alien dropped in from a remote planet at Broadview-Thomson. My hosts, almost 80 of them born around the year 2005 (and three kind teachers born after 2005), were benevolent and imaginative. They were a kind of magnificent, sometimes frustrating wilderness who listen to and worked with me, despite my greenish pallor and strange voice. We made field notes from our respective positions. I tried to tell them about a timeless future I’d found in language, and they pointed persuasively at the present.

Being busy, being assessed, and competing, seem built into the fabric of schools. There is a lot of expectation and contradiction. You’re expected to pay attention but you’re often interrupted. You could miss things while looking out a window, let alone standing still to dry your wings. Thus the danger and the urgency of poetry.

I found myself particularly touched by students’ empathy when it appeared.   It seems the closest thing to being in-between, to one of the immeasurable values of poetry, and still within institutional bounds. We used Federico García Lorca’s poem “The Little Mute Boy” as a template for writing about the senses and learning refrain. Students who could read it in Spanish read it in Spanish for the class. Here is that poem and its translation:




El niño busca su voz.

(La tenia el rey de los grillos.)

En una gota de agua

buscaba su voz el nino.


No la quiero para hablar;

me hare con ella un anillo

que llevara mi silencio

en su dedo pequenito.


En una gota de agua

buscaba su voz el nino.


(La voz cautiva, a lo lejos,

se ponía un traje de grillo.)




The little boy was looking for his voice.

(The king of the crickets had it.)

In a drop of water

the little boy was looking for his voice.


I do not want it for speaking with;

I will make a ring of it

so that he may wear my silence

on his little finger.


In a drop of water

the little boy was looking for his voice.


(The captive voice, far away,

put on a cricket’s clothes.)


From The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca, by Federico García Lorca, translated by W. S. Merwin, published by New Directions. Copyright © 1955 by W. S. Merwin.


In Mr. Beers’s attentive and inquisitive class, Jeremy asked, “why would the boy give his voice to the cricket? That doesn’t make any sense.” It was a good question and a good point. I echoed the question back out and Ali, from the back of the room, answered, “maybe he knows the cricket needs it more than he does.”

Here is Ali’s poem:


The girl was looking for her sight.

The star-nosed mole king had it.

In a glass marble

the girl was looking for her sight.


I do not want it for seeing with;

I will make a bracelet of it

so that the star-nosed mole may wear my sight

on his arm.


In a glass marble

the girl was looking for her sight.

(The captive sight, far away,

put on a star-nosed mole’s clothes.)


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