By Samar Abulhassan, WITS Writer-in-Residence
“Black silk, shelter me.
more of the night before I open
eyes and heart to illumination. I must still
grow in the dark like a root
not ready, not ready at all.”
I must write the same poem over and over,
for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.
If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge
of myself, I must live as a blind man
who runs through rooms without touching the furniture.
Teaching artists often have a handful of foolproof writing lessons on hand. For myself, I can usually trust that if I hand a young writer a cobalt, sunset-orange or sea green paint swatch and ask a row of questions meant to de-familiarize a color (perhaps supplemented by Federico Garcia Lorca’s green winds, or Dottie Lasky’s green secrets), the results are vibrant and unexpected. I have always loved films beaming with saturated colors and poems that heighten seeing. I have also always been in love with nighttime and writing born out of “darkness.” One night, on a weeklong writing retreat this past February at Friday Harbor Labs, I walked into town along a pitch-dark path lined with madronas, feeling my way through the cool dark. I emerged startlingly nourished by trail’s end: I was almost sad to see the street lamps.
This year in several classes at B.F. Day and the Hutch School, I hoped to gently nudge us all toward an intimacy of writing meant to record the giddiness and terror of stumbling. As the end of this school year nears, one of my favorite after-images of teaching was witnessing a sea of open faces, eyes closed, pen moving across paper. Asking students to close their eyes (blindfolds work great too) I invite students to allow dream logic to reign over waking logic on the white page, for an allotted amount of time, in the safe container of classroom. I reminded students to welcome the private experience, although sharing, like always, was welcome.
Before we begin, I dim the shades, turn off the classroom lights, and I read them Denise Levertov’s wonderful poem, “Writing in the Dark” as an invitation. Here’s an excerpt: “Keep writing in the dark: a record of the night, or words that pulled you from the depths of unknowing, words that flew through your mind, strange birds crying their urgency with human voices, or opened as flowers of a tree that blooms only once in a lifetime: words that may have the power to make the sun rise again.”
Students write for ten minutes, with felt-tip pens, inside a quiet hum. Some students feel immense freedom during this experiment; other writers feel uncertain and anxious. Perhaps both. Sometimes I also read them Levertov’s poem “With Eyes at the Back of our Heads,” offering the first line as a launching point for their own excavations. Often the results are beautifully raw – fragments inked in innocent script: cursive that crawls and leaps and zigzags beyond margins. “Practice will reveal how one hand instinctively comes to the aid of the other to keep each line clear of the next,” Levertov writes. It’s true: writing in the dark, students come into new contact with their hands, remembering the physicality of writing. Yes! Still, even when they inadvertently write over words — the “mishaps” are delicate, complex, lovely — layers of meaning and ideas trimmed, intermingling. To give you a brief glimpse into the marks students made, I offer a cento here, a patchwork poem made from the notes of fifth grade students of B.F. Day and middle and high school students of the Hutch School.
Pages of Mistakes (Ave)
Glowing eyes, the power to see and shine (Luz)
hidden rivers oar like subtle shadows
when they are echoing inside doors (Jenny)
walking into the car of midnight and driving it (Oliver)
Don’t worry: it will be a little darkish
try to think of it as a beautiful bird flying your imagination
to the next step (Minh)
Trees tempt me with their swaying branches
They are asking me to climb them (Eva)
Am I afraid? Of course. Am I willing to be brave?
Yes like the moon and yes like the sound of dawn (Ave)
as the lights go off my mind is at ease (Ginger)
It does not stay restless like a tiger (Marc)
secret rivers that never rush by (Jude)
sorrow of the scarecrow (Megan)
as gentle as a feather coming to you
in your hands and heads knocking
at your door (Marc)
don’t bloom worry … clear voices …
flowers … drums … now what words (Jaylynn)