Front and Center

by Matt Gano

There is something transformative and unique about teaching poetry in a classroom full of students who are hungry to work the craft and deeply care for each other. First semester Poetry 1 at The Center School is more like an adult writing workshop than your average teen high school class.

While it is the goal of every teaching artist to provide space that is both safe for students to express themselves and a strong learning environment, it is never that easy. I credit my students for taking ownership over their classroom and buying-in with enthusiasm. Whether it is analyzing and interpreting the work of a professional writer or complimenting the subtleties of a classmate’s vulnerability, words are chosen with care and aimed for the heart of understanding.

The past few weeks have been centered on peer critique and performance feedback in preparation for a class performance that represents their final for the semester. Within this time I have witnessed students open and break through emotional barriers that those attending writing conferences pay big bucks to experience. In my five years of teaching creative writing I have never seen this type of honesty and vulnerability in a classroom.

One of the most crucial benefits of having students eager to write is that we have been able to create a relaxed writing space. We begin each week with a writing prompt and flow into the lesson for the day.

The following prompts are a bit challenging and can each be used as a writing assignment for a full class lesson. Because of the ability of the students at Center, I have taken to throwing challenging ideas their way from the get-go. Here are a few examples of what we’ve been writing from:

• Write about something you know inside and out. What does it appear to be on the outside? What is it really like on the inside?”

• You are what you eat. Write about the foods that are common in your home and how they have made you who you are. What does it sound like when they are being made, what does it feel like to eat them etc. What type of food do you come from?

• Think of a momentous event in history, personify an inanimate object that witnessed it.

There has been some great work produced from these. The following is an excerpt from Faye’s poem tackling the third writing prompt listed above. She is speaking through the eyes of Germany as a landmass.

The Holocaust

My fields are filled with ghosts.
The grass runs over, but there are no trees, anymore.
Sometimes, the individual blades stand straighter.
They dance wildly on windless moon-nights.
Their rustling is the rattling
of chains. These blades,
we made you walk over them,
serpents of people, chained together. My children
built prisons for you on this ground,
older than the sum of its dirt. This ground,
ancient in its silence, how it did not riot
how it did no rave and shake unending, when it was first permeated
with Jewish blood.

How did that beautiful, wretched baptism not carve craters into the soil?
How did I not fall to pieces? Did not split
in half, a new equator? Did not wrench Germany
in two? How did it take human stones
to split my landscape from its tumor?
I am a remitted patient.
This cancer is gone.
But anyone who looks at my face can see
these embittered scars. They are skeletons
beneath my skin where a structure should never have existed.
The Third Reich dug one into me, a new hell
six feet below the redemptive deluge.
My breath reeks
ghostly like lemon juice on a cold day.
There is so much blood and repentance
under my skin that I pulse
with it, as though I was human,
animated by the bomb strike of flesh versus flesh,
like when your blood starves out your lungs for oxygen…

One of the more successful lessons we have had works with grounding abstractions in the physical form. Students were asked to think of an emotion and use physical imagery to ground it in the body. Here is a rough draft/great example from Ken displaying his perspective and depth on the subject.

The Songbirds

Darkness was a child who grew inside of me
He was born as a child of five
And festered and fermented
In the holes that ran deepest

Trenches that were never filled
Because he kept digging at the scar tissue
To manipulate vessel-control-console
He emptied out the hopefuls invitation only he would say

And years went by
Before Darkness became domestic oppression
That fed off of my emotional value
My body aches were the scraps he reduced to waste
A companion to nothing but the smog cloud’s acid rain

Finding the strength to fight for internal control
Does not come from the heart
Does not originate from the brain
Is not defended from compositions of physical strength

It resides within the soul’s gates
And when the doors fly open a v-formation
Of five songbirds flutter in
They each patch up the furrowed ground
And polish the molt skin
To present a botanic escapade

Five songbirds is all it takes
Songbirds that signify
Lashes at the prodigal son’s back
They burrow deep as running rivers
That give surface textures of the Nile’s bank
Each intermingle and greet each other at the
Wrists, mouths, cheeks, lips
They each sing stories through
Concurrent beaks
Carrying one pain at a time
Because that’s all the agony
That frigid bones can take

Their destiny is without manifest
And fate is chosen from a drawing bag
They transfer the heavy onto me
With a hopeful wish
And last regards

That alone I can transform
The sorrows of my heart
And sing magnitudes of radiation
That will kill anything dark

That will release the chains and let
True light emerge from wakes of black
Shimmering with keys of strength

A song will be sung
While spectrums of light
Burst in hues under my skin
Looking through transparencies
My bones become an orchestration
My rib cage plays dusty chords
And strum worn out keys
And strings that need to be tightened
They now know tenderness
As the Darkness began to shift from his cradled nest

I open a portal
With my lips that had been shut so tight
They could have ripped like newly sewn stitches
and the Darkness dissipated
Into one small smog cloud
Drifting away as the songbirds continued to sing

Needless to say this semester has been highly rewarding. The poems keep coming and we continue to build each week. As we near our final performance this week at the Richard Hugo House, I see a group of young people finding their voices and working to create strong art that connects to the world. I’m proud to present the work of these students and I have been inspired by their collective desire and creative development.

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