Monday, April 30, 2007

Do you write politcal poems?

The eighth graders were restless this afternoon. Every poem inspired a volley of verbal fire with the cannons to the right of them, cannons to the left. Not at all sure that I was connecting with any of the 250 of them crowded onto the library floor. Questions and answers went better than the presentation -- thoughtful questions (maybe they were listening?) and then one student from the way back: Do you ever write political poems?

I was immediately transported back to a conversation I'd had at a polite gathering of poets in Cleveland a couple of weeks ago. Professor One was bemoaning the fact that Nikki Giovanni had actually written a poem for the Virginia Tech family. "I call this Polaroid poetry," he haughtily declared. "What she should have done is find a poem from the past and read that one at the memorial." I questioned this as did another poet standing in attendance at his proclamation. Another professor chimed in, "yes, I don't believe in political poetry at all."

My friend said saomething along the lines of "Eh? You kidding?" She was more polite than that, but direct. "No," he continued -- political poems may possibly be written but not until maybe 100 years after the event. It takes that long to get perspective."

One hundred years later? Who cares 100 years later? No wonder so much poetry is seen as irrelevant if that is the academic attitude toward contemporary commentary in the form of poetry.

I questioned professor #1 citing Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry on child labor and how that was read in Parliament and helped to change the laws. He looked at me blankly and then he looked over my head to see who else had entered the room. That was the end of the discussion.

Times of crisis (is a massacre a political event?) are exactly the right time to reach for poetry -- to call on our poets to put attempt to put words to the feelings we share. I thought calling on Nikki Giovanni was EXACTLY the right thing to do and that she was able to offer verbal comfort, encircling the wounded with her verse.

Do I write political poems? Yes. And I will continue to do so. In a world where every activity from schools to bees to peace have become political hot potatoes -- how can any writer not be political? In fact, I have a goal. I want to write a poetry book that gets banned in schools for being politically forthright. I'm bored with getting banned for being satanic and anti-familiy values and some of the other goofy things I've been labeled.

Poets are supposed to stir things up. It's a proud tradition that apparently our eighth graders recognize as being important, if not our "scholars."

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Washington Post, NCLB, & Charles Waters

Yesterday, I read an article in the Washington Post that said that the Justice Department is conducting a probe of a $6 billion reading initiative at the center of NCLB on allegations of financial conflicts -- meaning people on the committee chose their own programs despite weak or non existant research on the capabilities of those programs (DIBELS among them).

"That sounds like a criminal enterprise to me," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House education committee."

Also in the course of the article (linked above) is this quote: "Despite the controversy surrounding Reading First's management, the percentage of students in the program who are proficient on fluency tests has risen about 15 percent, Education Department officials said. School districts across the country praise the program."

Eh? Which districts? Those who are too scared of having their funding cut off to be honest? In the libraries and halls of our schools, one hears a different story.

NCLB is criminal on so many different levels, it's hard to narrow it down to just the issue of financial gain for the Reading First comittee. Please see the email I received a couple weeks ago from another poet taking the poetry into schools, Charles Waters.

I just had to e-mail you to tell you this story that happened to me on Tuesday. So I'm in the library in the poetry section when I meet this 9th grader who is trying to find "Romeo and Juliet" for a book report that's due by Friday. When I asked him why he waited so long to start doing research on the play he said "She gave us the assignment yesterday." I thought immediately to standardized testing I guessed to myself that the teacher is rushing to get through the curriculum so quickly to get ready for the test that there's no time to actually teach the material thoroughly. The kid told me he tried to read the play but found it all to be "jibber jabber." There was no Spark Notes or No Fear Shakespeare or any books in the library that I felt could help him understand the material better and suggested he go to the librarian for help; but he said she was busy and just pointed him in the direction of where a copy of the play was at. I then suggested going to the bookstore to get the Spark Notes or No Fear books (by this time his father arrived on the scene) and by the look on his face he didn't have either the money or inclination to go Barnes and Noble which was practically across the street to get the book or books needed. I asked the kid (whose name I'm sorry I didn't ask) if they do in fact do standardized testing at his school and he said yes they what's called the F-CAT or something like that and he had to take it soon. If I had had the money I would have bought to books for him myself. I was so frustrated that I needed to rant to someone who would understand this and I thought of you because I'm a loyal reader of your blog and know you've seen these kind of things up close and would understand. I'm mad at our current administration for their ignorance knowing that one of the main causes for this, I'm disappointed in the librarian for not helping this child out more with his problem and I'm highly distressed that this poor teacher is having to rush his or her lesson plans and as a result the students are suffering academically and emotionally, it breaks my heart and I don't know what to do about it. Any thoughts? Thanks for reading my rant, I feel better having wrote it and god bless poetry forever.

All the best,

Friday, April 20, 2007

sad week

This was such a sad week -- I was in a hotel all last week where the story of the killings at Virginia Tech dominated my room in a constant moan, continuing after I had turned off the news. Even the walls were weeping. So tragic, words fail. And the bloodiest week in Iraq. Too many lives lost without the benefit of commemorative snapshot eulogies on the Today Show.

Wednesday, USA today listed the tragic events young people had witnessed since 1986, captured in exquisite visual detail on their TV screens: Challenger Disaster, Columbine, Tsunami, Katrina, 911 -- it was a formidable list. Missing on the list ENTIRELY was the Iraq War. Missing. Not mentioned. How is that? The one event that has dragged its bulging baggage of death and destruction through the news over (just say) a student's entire middle or high school experience is not worth listing as a tragedy? How is that? Is it too political to even mention that death in a war zone is just as final and just as tragic as death by waves, winds and mad men?

Here in Mentor, the HS is dealing with a home grown crisis. Three students at the HS have committed suicide this semester. Two in the past month. Three young people so stripped of hope that they saw no future in living. 75% of the students called in sick on Friday due to threats of violence at the school promising to make Columbine look like nothing.

How do we nurture our young people and show them hope? Lectures? Counselors? Motivational Speakers and pre-packaged anti-bullying programs? Are the answers buried in statistics in math texts? On multiple choice proficiency tests? Science class is getting a little spooky all by itself what with global warming and all, too scary to look there. Like the Hookies who turned to Nikki Giovanni for consolation, it may be time to come back to poetry -- a place to not only express our feelings, but actually identify them. Poems written by the students themselves, to share and to listen.

I was reminded of what Marilyn Manson said in Bowling for Columbine when asked what he would have said to the shooters if he'd had the chance: "I wouldn't have said anything, I would have listened." Brilliant observation.

I don't think we can lecture kids into hopeful thinking, but maybe we might be able to, with a kind guiding hand providing gentle directional corrections, listen them into it.

Blessings to all who departed this week. The world will miss your voices.