In 1975, when I began a two-year stint as poet-in-residence in the schools of Louisiana’s Avoyelles Parish, I admit I was terrified. I was prepared for glassy-eyed adolescents who already hated poetry. And heaven knows what they expected — an antiquated librarian, probably. What they got was a skinny 31 -year-old in blue jeans and running shoes whom many of them mistook for a fellow student. But we did seem, in the brief spurts of time we had together, to develop a mutual delight in one another. I was delighted, at any rate — and I think it’s safe to say they were pleasantly surprised by the poet and the poetry.
Louisiana’s literacy rate was the lowest in the nation. Of the state’s 64 parishes (counties), Avoyelles ranked near the bottom academically. And yet, led by a visionary super intendent, the parish school board decided to dip into its meager budget to match funds provided by the National Endowment for the Arts for a poet-in-the-schools.
I had never taught before, and I wondered what kind of teacher I would make. I found I was good at empathy and inspiration, poor at discipline. I also decided I wouldn’t be a regular classroom teacher for $50,000 a year, which was what I concluded a good teacher should make.
Certain faces shine in my memory, like those of the pretty black girls whose writings shyly, tentatively shaped the sentiments of black pride. Lynette, who had the almond eyes and saffron coloring of a high-fashion model, wrote:
Black is the color of my skin.
Black is death –
like the color of the widow’s dress
or the big black Fleetwood she rode in.
Black people died for this color.
Martin Luther King, Malcom X fought
for their black people. Rest peacefully in your grave.
But I say, No, black is not death –
It is everything I live for.
Or the faces of adolescent boys, who seemed to wake from their classroom slumber only for periodic fights in the halls, banging each others’ heads against the lockers — yet they could come up with something like this:
Spring is like your first shotgun.
. . .
Spring is like seeing your first deer.
Spring is like catching your first six-pound bass.
. . .
Spring is like seeing your first pro football game.
These kids had something special going for them: they hadn’t been programmed to write formula poetry — or any kind of poetry. When I forbade them to use rhyme, they were free to come up with poetry full of their own language, with the Cajun words that flavored their speech: boudin (a spicy sausage), goo-fish (a “trash-fish”), local nicknames. One student wrote:
T-Bud’s grocery is going out of business
All boudin, chicken and Shake-N-Bake must go.
Along with the Cajun were references to “Charlie’s Angels” and “Starsky and Hutch,” those artifacts of modern culture that no adolescent escapes. Wish poems revealed a strong bias toward the red Trans Am and the blue Cutlass Supreme. One girl’s poem about her desk complained:
because of this old marked-up thing,
I ruined three pairs of panty-hose.
Love poems drove them to some of their most creative efforts:
Her face is as rich as a big chunk of gold –
I think I’m in love
to the top of my head.
Or this one, which a shy student stayed after class to finish:
When I’m with her, I feel like
a bird, out on its first flight.
Or the blasé gum-chewer who startled me with this:
His crude, exotic words
made my head spin like a wheel,
as though thunder was thrashing
against my tensed ears.
As if some untamed lion
was going to grab at my throat.
Some of the kids couldn’t handle love but wrote creative “hate poems”:
Her walk is like a bullfrog with a hernia.
Her hair is like burnt spaghetti.
Her fingers are like lunchroom corndogs.
My work convinced me that the encouragement of creativity nearly always evokes a response. It is difficult to describe the thrill I felt when a student rushed up to me in the stairwell and pressed a poem into my hand, or when a “slow” student stayed after the bell to finish a poem begun in class.
I discovered that in teaching, as in writing, all my past experience was grist for the mill. The student unimpressed by my credentials as a poet was intrigued by my interviews with sports heroes, or by the fact that I ran four miles a day, or by the fact that I had once pumped gas to pay the rent. I shared many such experiences with my students, hoping to strike a chord of recognition and interest.
Finally, I told them how sports had opened a new world to me, a world reflected in my writing. I suggested that writing poems might do the same thing for them — open doors which they previously had thought closed. Only by writing poems, I told them, will you understand how the poet operates. You may discover the poet inside of you, heretofore unsuspected. This is a time to open doors, not close them.
In my journal I kept a record of how the two years progressed:
December 10, 1975: My first sink-or-swim class. Just me and 40 dubious adolescents. Asked them to write lines beginning with the words “I wish.” Most of them wrote pedestrian stuff — “I wish for peace in the world.” I feel discouraged. In fact, I’ve never felt so far from poetry in my life.
From that unpromising beginning, I discovered that if I simply had the students make the wish personal — “I wish that I ...” — the results were much better. Some efforts, like this anonymous work, startled classmates and poet alike:
I wish that I could be in Rome
dressed in white satin. I would
walk the bridges that lay toward
the horizon. I would wear diamonds
on every finger and furs every
day. To go out in the evening, I
would wear white satin as I would
watch the women staring with
envy in their eyes.
By March, 1976, we were deep into preparation of a book of the students’ poems, collecting and typing them and having them printed offset by the school board office. We brought out 1,000 copies of a 100-page paperback, A Sheet of Paper Let Loose in The Wind, which was reviewed in several local papers (and by magazines as far away as Albuquerque), sent to every library in the state, and distributed to every high school in the parish, with a personal copy for each student having a poem in the book.
The school board was pleased and renewed the program for another year. Though I had been able to reach only six schools in the first year, in 1976-77 I covered all 12 parish high schools, spending two to four weeks in each.
December 14, 1976: Bordelonville. My last day here. I felt sad leaving the kids. In two classes, the mood was responsive, and in others there was sporadic interest. I asked them to fill out “evaluation” forms provided by the state department of education. The kids’ comments were very positive. The teacher wrote that she thought the program was “frivolous” and the money would be better spent on basic composition instruction. This was exactly her position when I arrived two weeks ago, so I doubt I made any inroads here. She asked to look at my poetry anthologies (An Introduction to Poetry by X.J. Kennedy and The American Poetry Anthology, edited by Daniel Halpern), then pointed out the poems she thought “obscene” and “perverted.” She told me that all the students cared about was “sex and having a good time.” Hmmm. Pot calls kettle sex-crazed?
Is it maternal, this loathing I have to abandon their talent? They have talent but don’t recognize it. They need someone who believes in it and can help them tap it. They need me, I truly believe. Because Mrs. S. attaches no value to it, she’s quick to agree with the kid in class who scoffs when I read to them from Gertrude Stein (“Please be please be get, please get wet, wet naturally, naturally in weather”) and ask them to play with sounds in their own writing. But then they produce:
splashes on cushions
mist floats by
seeps into panes
surrounded by rolling plains
So who is right, the scoffer or the scoffed at? Best of all, the students inspire me. I’m writing more myself — poetry, again, which I believed dead in me.
January 24, 1977: Plaucheville. Every time I face a new school, I go through this feeling of dread. Starting over is taxing. I’m tired of changing schools all the time. New teachers, new kids, new faces, new names — and by the time I learn the names, it’s time to move on to the next school. I’m the circuit rider of Avoyelles Parish.
In Mrs. C.’s class, I began by telling the kids, “I’m going to read you this poem by Sylvia Plath (‘Metaphors’) and I want you to tell me what it means.” I explained that each line in the poem is a clue to its message and asked them to ponder it out with me. While the message seems perfectly clear to me (“I’m a riddle in nine syllables,/An elephant, a ponderous house”), they seemed puzzled. But when we got to the line “I’ve eaten a bag of green apples” and I asked them what it meant and then said, “Have you ever heard the expression, ‘She swallowed a watermelon?”’ their faces lit up. “She’s pregnant!” Right, you’ve got it. Then we went over each of the nine lines and related them to pregnancy. Maybe a little racy with tenth-graders, but you can practically see the light bulbs going on over their heads as they “get it.” Mrs. C. told me she had never realized you could do that, help guide them to finding the meaning. She would have just given them the poem cold, she said, with no “expectations” or guidelines.
February 26,1977: After much back-and-forth discussion with the school board office, I got permission for several classes to go to Natchitoches to hear Ernest Gaines read from The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. My arguments to the board were based on the fact that Gaines, born and raised on Oscar Plantation near New Roads, grew up in surroundings similar to those in Avoyelles and has achieved national stature as an artist. The kids were excited. Gaines a study in brown — herringbone coat and the everpresent beret — tall and dignified. At a reception afterwards, he was unfailingly polite and attentive to everyone, answering what must have been the millionth question about Miss Jane. He is the most innately courteous man — almost courtly — I’ve ever met. The kids held out sheets of notebook paper and he patiently signed them — “To Pamela — Best Wishes — Ernest J. Gaines — Feb. 25, 1977.”
March 1, 1977: Marksville. Pamela, the class clown, has discovered black pride. Today she brought her Ernest Gaines autograph to show the class — she’d had it laminated. Then in fifth hour, wanting my attention, she called out, “Miss Poet!”
April 26, 1977: My last day at Lafargue High School, the last school of the year. We wrote “telepathy” poems. I paired up with a boy named Kenneth, blond with glasses and suspenders. He would write down a phrase, hiding it from me, then look into my eyes and concentrate on beaming it to me. He sent me “pink and purple buildings,” and I received “black hole of Calcutta.”
May 17,1977: Marksville. A marathon day at the school board office. We printed covers for our second book, Jumping Like a Heart. The covers look fantastic, a jumping frog silhouetted against the moon (done by artist-in-residence Debra Kendrick), in brown ink on cream paper. Jumping Like a Heart was an even bigger hit than our first book, and it too now reposes in libraries all over the state. Alas, the success of the books was not sufficient to ensure funds for a third year of the poet-in-residence program. With that knowledge, I wrote Jumping’s introduction to serve as a guideline to teachers interested in offering creative writing to their classes. Some excerpts:
• Most students enjoy using the acrostic device - write your own name down the page, then fill in with lines of poetry. Susie Gautheir came up with:
Stems of roses
• If students get stuck on the acrostics (“.I have three e’s in my name!”), I refer them to the dictionary (elegant, elephantine, erotic, exotic, eggplant, errant, ebony, echo, electrocardiogram).
• Another useful tool is Roget’s International Thesaurus. When I assign a poem about color, I introduce Roget’s color section, which is full of wonderful words to inspire poems. Asked to describe a color in terms of the senses, Vallery Murray wrote:
Red smells like the grass we set afire last week.
Red sounds like the dual exhaust of my uncle’s red
Red looks like the mistakes circled on an English
Red tastes like the red pepper that almost choked me
Red feels like the day I finally got my drivers
• Another good exercise is to write on the board words which may be unfamiliar to the students and ask that they use them in poems. Here Valerie Colvorich used unknown words in delightful new ways:
My dog has a case of superfluous
We took him to a henna who told us
there was no hope
We told the henna that he had spots of
Rococo on his stomach too
He gave the dog a shot of samba
which calmed his balmy nerves down
• Certain unlikely sounding projects best described as ventures into the unknown work amazingly well in the classroom. One such device is to give the students a poem in a language they don’t know (I used a German poem by Holderlin quoted in the Whole Word Catalogue) and ask them to “translate” it. The idea, of course, is that they don’t know German and so are free to make up their own translations. At first, they may stick closely to cognates — English words which sound or look like the German words (thus, wilden Rosen becomes, quite correctly, wild roses) — but as they progress they find their own poems developing and may translate less “literally. ” Here you see the poem in the original German, the correct translation, and a “mistranslation” by student Mark Lacour:
Halfte des Lebens
Mit gelben Birnen hanget
Und voll mit wilden Rosen
Das Land in den See,
Ihr holden Schwane,
Und trunken von Kiissen Tunkt ihr das Haupt
Ins heiligniichterne Wasser.
Weh mir, wo nehm’ ich, wenn
Es Winter ist, die Blumen, und wo
Und Schatten der Erde?
Die Mauen stehn
Sprachlos und kalt, im Winde
Klirren die Fahnen.
The Middle of Life
With yellow pears and full of wild
roses the land hangs down into
the lake, you lovely swans, and
drunken with kisses you dip your
heads into the holy and sober
Alas, where shall I find, when
winter comes, the flowers, and
where the sunshine and shadows
of earth? The walls loom
speechless and cold, in the wind
After the Winter, by Mark Lacour
Gelben Birnen got hung with his mittens on
With a wilted rose in his hands
The land in the sea is where his hanging stand was
After he was dead, he fell on a cushion
The weather was warm his mother cried
when he was buried, his relatives came
It turned cold and the wind blew
what is happening?
The wind stopped
All the dust and stuff settled down
His mother loved him.
With the publication of Jumping Like a Heart, my two years in Avoyelles Parish were over. Besides learning that I could work with students, perhaps my most important discovery was a forgotten love for the Louisiana country side. My notebooks are full of vignettes: a poetry class at tiny Lafargue High School disrupted as everyone rushed to watch a herd of cows being ushered down the road; hearing Cajun French spoken as I waited in line at the grocery store; my neighbor Bitsy telling me “I had an envie for strawberries, so I stopped by the side of the road and bought some;” driving to Bordelonville in the mornings past winding bayous, giant hogs and an airplane parked in a farmyard; watching a baby cardinal struggle to free his head from his shell in the azalea bush outside my window; being menaced by a cow wearing a yellow identification “earring” as I ran my daily miles on the levee.
Such incidents wrapped themselves around my consciousness. The people of Avoyelles, like people anywhere, were unique; I shall never forget some of them, particularly my students. And the landscape of central Louisiana — the landscape from which my students’ poems sprang — will be with me forever.
For C.P., Sixth Hour
By Ruth Laney
Your classmates write poems
while spring jumps up and down outside the window.
They dream of beautiful girlfriends,
red Trans Ams, blue Cutlass Supremes,
They leave sweat and fingerprints on the thesaurus,
chew no. 2 pencils, sigh,
pitch desperate looks at the walls.
Poetry hums in the room.
Like an electric typewriter.
Light-brown Lisa writes of yellow,
maize, golden, straw, canaries.
Fat Roy’s violet cat eats a violet cake.
they twist in their desks,
they grab each other’s papers.
You sit in the back of the room,
shiny face closed,
hand to your cheek,
and refuse to join them. Politely.
They read aloud. You listen.
They hand you jagged pages. You read them
and show your teeth.
They bend their heads
over their pages, intent.
I gaze out over them, adrift
in a sea of poetry.
My eyes meet yours, shining and veiled.
You are the door I want to unlock,
the wild rabbit I fear to approach –
if I do, you may vanish forever.
I only hope
we really are talking
with our eyes, over their heads.