Tune In To Poetry

This morning I made an appearance on “The  Mo Show” on Valley Free Radio. I was there to talk about … what else? Poetry, of course. Rather than write about it (especially because I’m a little sleepy now, having gotten up at some ungodly hour to arrive at the recording studio on time), I’ll invite you to listen. (Read Mo’s instructions on the top of the page, then scroll down to the July 30 entry, at the bottom of which is the link to the MP3 file for the show in question.)

By the way, in addition to being a creative, fun and intelligent radio host, Mo is an awesome artist who does amazing things with old refrigerators and glitzy mosaic tiles.

Which leads me to wonder … what rhymes with refrigerator?

H’s Haiku in Sound

H. missed our big poetry reading, the one she’d practiced and practiced for. That surprised me. Her love of poetry is no secret around our school. On the other hand, I realized she might have stayed home out of fear. H. is militantly shy. Getting her to speak in class was one hurdle her other teachers and I patiently encouraged her over, and getting her to speak to larger groups in public has been an exponentially more serious struggle.

When I saw her next, H. said she’d been sick. Then she missed some more school. She told me she’d been throwing up. I knew what that meant. And soon she confirmed my suspicions. She’s pregnant again.

But we had another big project we were working on, and H. made it to school for enough days to finish it. My afternoon class, which turned out to be just six girls, interviewed each other about why poetry is important to them, then they recorded their interviews and learned to edit them using the computers. H. is good with computers and good with poetry, so this was a perfect fit.

I interviewed H. on tape, following the script she and her classmates had created. I read each question as it was written: What is your name? What have been your biggest challenges in life? When did you start writing poetry … But my favorite part of the recording is the tail end, when I abandoned the script altogether.

That’s a risky thing to have done with H. She doesn’t like surprises maybe even more than she dislikes talking in public — and even though it was just the two of us in my office-turned-recording-studio, she was conscious of the microphone propped up on the desk in front of her, and the countless  potential listeners it represented.

“You mentioned you want to write a book of poems, is there anything more you want to say about that?” I asked.

Her eyes shot me an accusation. I’d tricked her into talking. I’d tricked her away from the script she’d rehearsed so carefully.

“Well,” she said, “I want to write poems that aren’t like anyone else’s.” Then, after a pause, “I hope someone notices me.”

We talked some more. Then, I closed the interview with one last question. “Is there anything else you want to say about poetry?” I asked.

H. thought for a long broadcast second. Finally, she summed everything up with three words: “I love it,” she said. And then, she and I began to laugh.

I’m inexplicably happy to have that moment recorded; the sound of our laughter, a wordless testimony to the joy of poetry. A haiku in sound.


photo by Aja Riggs

Annabel Lee and a Lesson in Existential Angst

I entered the classroom on a hot, humid Monday morning, after a hot, humid weekend. Before even saying hello to the dozen or so teen mothers seated at their desks, I began to recite:

“It was many and many a year ago …” and continued through all six stanzas of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem, “Annabel Lee,” about a perfect love and a perfect tragedy.

I was sure my students would love it.

But when I was done reading I looked up to see that their heads had melted into their desks. Their expressions were of torture mixed with surrender.

“What’s the matter?” I asked?

“Miss, you’re depressing us!” One student said.

“It’s hot, and we’re tired, and that poem was f&*#$ing sad.”

“We’re in school,” I reminded. “Can you express yourself using another word?”

I introduced the concept of angst, but they weren’t looking for new vocabulary.

“Even your clothes are depressing today, Miss!” another chimed in. “You’re wearing black”

“And your hair is up in a bun. You don’t even have it loose.”

I looked down. Didn’t they notice the pink trim on my black dress? But I didn’t argue. It was a rather somber outfit for a July day.

“We should be reading poems about summer and fun and the beach!” one girl suggested.

“Okay,” I said, and I tried again. Poe had a poem about the beach! And it was short! This would surely be the ticket.

I turned in my Poe primer to “A Dream Within a Dream.” In it the narrator stands at the shore (okay, so it’s a “surf-tormented shore”) and tries to hold a handful of sand, that the “pitiless” waves keep pulling from his grasp. Not exactly what they had in mind, as was evidenced by the groans the met my recitation of the final lines.

“But it’s the beach!” I was nearly whining now. “And anyway, doesn’t it make you feel better to know you’re not the only ones who experience the pain and sorrow of life?” We all experience death, loss and decay, I explained. Even now, our youth is slipping away. The world claims everything. But on the other side there is hope! There is eternal love, love that survives material loss, love that survives death, beauty that transcends an individual flower or face.

Despite my attempt to salvage the lesson, I could see I had no converts.

M. looked up in despair. “Can we just write?” she asked.

Now it was my turn to surrender. I handed out the paper. Today, I just couldn’t get the class excited about existential angst. Maybe next week.

A Singular Sloth

Details, I tell my students, bring the poem to life. Recently I saw how details bring life to me.

On my recent trip to Costa Rica, I met Millie, an orphaned sloth. Since she was not raised by her mother, Millie can’t return to the jungle, and thus lives a quiet life swinging from a wicker chair suspended in her well-appointed cage at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. Along with Millie I met a number of other sloths who had been forced from the safety of the jungle canopy by the interruption of roads and cities. I reached out and touched Millie’s straw-soft fur, bent down to smell her camouflage-subtle scent, looked into her glossy, glassy eyes and smiled as she turned her shiny brown nose ceiling-ward.

Like you, I’ve heard countless calls to save the rainforest. But it was in the moment that my fingers touched this singular sloth that the commitment was sealed.

The details brought the rainforest into my heart – alive and new.