I attended my friend David's fiftieth birthday last week. The party was at a fancy Persian restaurant. At the table where I was seated were two lawyers, two doctors, a website designer, and a financial analyst. When the financial analyst asked me what I do, I smiled and told her that I'm a Poet in the Schools. "You know, like the music teacher. Only I roam classroom to classroom with pencils, paper, word tickets and student poems." For the past 17 years, I've noticed that adults--who work in fields vastly different than mine--love to hear about my job and often share how they wish they'd had a poet in their classroom when they were in elementary school. Then the financial analyst echoed what I'd heard before, when she confessed that if she'd been exposed to a poet early on, maybe she would have learned to write poems and not be so afraid about being creative.
My job involves creating writing experiments to loosen the grip of this I-can't-write-a-poem voice. If that voice allowed to tighten its hold, it can and will assert a fair amount of pressure, until you become terrified to sit in front of a blank page. I've been there. I know. My aim with these little experiments is to use playing with words as an anecdote. No grades. No judgment. No worry allowed. Sometimes, when fooling around with words, it helps to not even call what we're writing "poems." Sometimes "little experiments" has a way of easing the anxiety kids, as young as age 7, can sometimes feel about creating something as soft and tender and desperately in need of hearing its own heartbeat as a poem.
Somehow, what I do with kids works. Somehow, I keep finding ways to spark "poem" ideas for too-cool-for-school sixth, seventh, and eighth graders and wild, wacky, and wise third, fourth, and fifth graders. When the financial analyst followed up with the inevitable second question, the one that's always lurking--"Are you published?"--I told her about my latest book Rip the Page! Adventures in Creative Writing (Shambhala, 2010). This is where I put the curved hints and slanted clues picked up from the kids I teach (who are also my teachers) into a Wabi Sabi sort of order of dares and double dares, and invitations to scoot to the edge and leap off a lofty line into their own wild-mind wanderings. Wisely, my editor left the word "Kids" off my book's cover, so adults might risk picking it up, too. The financial analyst smiled nervously.
After the cake was served, I assured her that it's never too late, and she could still play with words on the page too. Then I invited her to come to one of my little writing experiment workshops sometime. She thought about it, then asked what my strategy was for getting the most reluctant kids to write. (I thought, you mean kids who grow up to be financial analysts? You mean the ones who flat-out refuse to whisper secrets on to the page?)
So I shared with her the story of Matt, a fourth-grader, who didn't like to be called on or looked in the eye, and who told me on the first day of poetry in no uncertain terms that he HATED writing. The first few sessions he never wrote a word. Just sat there with dried grass clinging to a dirty pant leg and stared out the window. On the third session, though, he seemed curious when I casually whispered, "What isn't in your imagination today? Probably not dogs or birds or trees," I'd added. "No dogs, no birds, no trees. Nothing, absolutely nothing," he confirmed. And that was the start of a tall pile of anti-poems. The poems of Not. The poems where this kid got to get angry, annoyed, frustrated, sad, yelling-mad, and spit all his nothings on to the page; every last thing he didn't want to say. In this way he got to reclaim all the authority he felt he didn't have and be as rude, loud, lonely as he dared confiding to the safety of the stark page. He soon found out that there was no way to be right or wrong; the poem would just sit there and listen.
At the end of the party, the financial analyst told me she planned to buy a copy of my book, "for her son's writing teacher." I'd like to think she'll take a peek for herself as well.