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
so make sure to sing
beautiful gigantic things