Friday, April 27, 2007

Back to the academy...

For National Poetry Month, some unexpected money came in via the League of Poets to the QWF for poets to visit schools here in Quebec. Fortunately I was one of the first to answer the call. We had a hard time, though, lining up a school that would have me ... but finally, with four days left in the month, the arrangment was made for me to visit a Secondary 1 class (12-13 years old) at Lauren Hill Academy here in Montreal. (I tell you, it 's so much easier when the writer's organization plugs for you, rather than the poet having to make the intial contacts with the teachers and the schools, which in my experience -- i.e. the Writers in the CEGEPs program -- has up to now been the case. Artists of all kinds need the dignity of representation, esp. when there's money involved. )

To be honest, I was a bit apprehensive, since I've never taught that age group. I spent hours wracking my brains to think up and print out material -- second-guessing myself against the unknown. It turns out I had little to worry about. The class was an enriched English class -- the students were bright, creative, and well-behaved. We brainstormed about what poetry was, I shared with them a few simple but expressive poems by mostly other contemporary poets that they responded to really well (these had been photocopied -- namely Lee Young Lee's From Blossoms, In the Old Days a Poet Once Said by Ko Un, a poem by my friend Nina Bruck, that remarkable anonymous 16th c. poem --

Western Wind, when will thou blow
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!

This latter I shared with them partly to to show it's emotional and natural to write in rhyme. Also, that second line, "the small rain down can rain" really pushes the limits of reason, but is so evocatively powerful... Then I had them do a a creative writing exercise patterned after WCW's "This is Just to Say" and Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool" -- they could choose one or the other, whichever inspired -- which lead to enthusiastic readings by some of the students of their own work. After that I read a poem I which I wrote at 16 and patterned after the "This is Just to Say"... which brought on, to my happy surprise, an applause. Then I took out my guitar and we ended with some poems put to music and a couple of my songs following typical song verse-chorus structures, just to show some of the difference -- and similarity -- between poetry and song. Needless to say, this eighty-minute class went really well. My instinct not just to focus on my own work, but to present those of others I thought they'd like, was, it turns out, the appropriate one. I can only recommend that to other poets in the same situation: you're an emmisary for poetry, not yourself.


Anonymous said...

Brian, you have quite a nerve, I'll certainly grant you that much, taking on an audience of junior-level public high school students in this day and age--and without a .44 magnum or flick knife, to boot. Then again, maybe that's the best age at which to catch their meager attention--"nip their lowbrow distractions in the bud," so to speak; by the time most of them are at the university level these days, they're nothing more than tattoo 'swatches' or porn stars and strippers without portfolio. Britney Spears--who grew up in the entertainment industry--never even HEARD OF Yoko Ono until she was around 20, 21. I think that explains a lot in regards to her cheesy, sensationalist output.

I can see myself putting in a speaking engagement at a public high school--I can just imagine what a disaster it would be. I would appear something like a cross between the alcoholic stand-up comic from a Bukowski short story, and a birthday party magician who keeps having his tricks explained/exposed by some smart-aleck 9-year old. I would probably throw a huge tantrum, lecture them on the benefits of patricide and matricide, and plug in an electric guitar as I screamed, "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!!!" and scissor-kicked Wayne Kramer- and Sonic Smith-style.

To be honest with you, Brian, just like the spoken word album and 'singing/rapping poet' scenario have gradually taken the place of the published poetry volume over the past 40 years (especially for the younger generations), I think the internet of websites/blogs/forums/YouTube clips is now taking the place of public readings and speaking engagements. There are simply too many antisocialising factors to keep people from physically meeting in audiences these days. Furthermore, I read somewhere a couple of years ago that the average poetry book lauch in a pub or coffee house in Canada nowadays results in sales of something like two or three books--often none. Those aren't exactly good figures to factor in when considering quitting one's day job. They're not good figures for the media and general public to get their hands on, either, if such poets/publishers/writers collectives want the tax dollars to keep funding such publications; as a result, such shortcomings are usually kept hush-hush and white-washed over.

Oh, well. Life goes on....


Brian Campbell said...

Who's Yoko Ono? (Just kidding)

Well, a couple of things about the "nerves": I'm a trained teacher with 16 years' experience, although mostly I've taught adults and CEGEP-level students. Also, this was an enriched class... and I was told so beforehand, and that reassured me quite a bit. In my teacher training (where I made the definitive realization that high school teaching was not for me)I had the pleasure of teaching an enriched class, and it was a whole other ballgame, let me tell you. Some of these kids are at the Mensa level of intelligence. One of the thirteen-year-olds I taught yesterday gave a line-by-line analysis of "We Real Cool" -- she had studied it the previous year -- that I don't think I could have bettered. I was impressed by what a number of them came up with creatively in ten minutes.

If all classes were like this, I would be teaching high school myself, but the enriched classes generally go to teachers who have been in the system 25+ years, and this one was no exception to that rule.

It's a great advantage to play music in these situations. I enjoyed your fantasy about plugging in an electric guitar, but for that you'd have to shlep a lot of musical equipment -- that kind of amplified sound doesn't come from nowhere.

I also enjoyed your remarks about launches. Oh so true.

Life definitely goes on...

Sean Dixon - said...

But how does 'the small rain' push the limits of reason?

Brian Campbell said...

Speaking for myself, I've never had anyone come up to me and ask, "When will the Western Wind blow the small rain down can rain?" The second line doesn't grammatically follow the first, and together they seem two questions grafted or interspliced into each other ... but taken together they so effectively evoke a gathering storm, & with that final oath & wish in the final two lines, a mood of crazed desperation -- well you can only suppose that it's a sailor who has been out at sea too long a time, although there is no sea mentioned in the poem. Anyhow, that's how I see it -- as pure evocation of lovesick homesickness while being lost in & at mercy to the elements -- although a small rain, there's a certain delicate beauty there, isn't there? How punishing can that be? Well one imagines a cold driving rain, as if he's saying "a small rain can really rain." At least I do, anyway. Or perhaps its a kind of Chinese water torture rain... well not quite. See what I mean?