Writing to Learn, Writing to Nourish Community

cheryl reading and grinning lightenedMy friend Cheryl Perrault is a poetry Johnny Appleseed, planting seeds, serving as a powerful mentor for poets lurking in the shadows of their other selves. She encourages us to give more generously whatever we have to give, and wants us to see that we have jobs to do as poets in the world–some in situations in which the word poem is never spoken, in which we are poets operating undercover as teachers or therapists or healers–or carpenters, or chefs, or farmers, or physicists.

When Cheryl entered my writing and teaching life, one of the first things she did was to give some of my students a place to read their poems. This happened as part of her poetry and music series Wake Up and Smell the Poetry, which takes place one Saturday morning each month, in the recording studios of the Hopkinton, Massachusetts Community Access channel, HCAM. (Edited video recordings are used in HCAM’s broadcast programming, and can also be watched online. The ongoing series is available to any community video channel that requests it.)

From this series so full of treasures, I still treasure most the experience of listening as my students read to adult strangers. It’s the kind of memory in which I know exactly where I was sitting, in semi-darkness, stunned by the bravery Cheryl elicited from them, too.

Russian Music elegy edit

My grandmother played these pieces in a 1917 edition, from which this is one page, loved to death. They’re still in print, though, hooray, so I can play from pages easier to handle.

Here’s an example of Cheryl’s impact on me. Because of her, I’ve performed–many times, by now–a poem-and-music version of a poem called “Russian Music for Piano.” As I was preparing a reading for a place with a piano, Cheryl suggested that I could play, between sections of the poem, parts of the simple piano pieces the poem describes and traces through my life. Every time I’ve repeated this performance I’ve come to understand both poem and music in new ways, deeply grateful to my listeners for the glimpses into their own lives they’ve shared with me in response.

Last week, Cheryl asked me to be part of a blog-hop. (I like calling it a blog tree.) I’ve learned that mostly I should do whatever she suggests (even if I rename it.) The assignment involved answering some questions I usually dodge: What am I writing / working on? How does my writing differ from other writing in its genre? Why do I write what I write? How does my writing process work? What are my future plans for my blog? In my answers, I’ve focused on writing about teaching, and also on writing poetry.

You can read Cheryl’s very different and fascinating answers to the same questions, at http://www.blog.cherylperreault.com/  I’ve persuaded a few other writers to do the same on their blogs, and you’ll find their responses to the questions sometime soon, on the blogs I list at the bottom. Meanwhile, I’ve linked to great things they’ve posted recently.

What am I writing/working on?

In my poetry, I seem to be turning a corner, right this very minute. I recently became gloriously overwhelmed by a writing workshop at the Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences, at UMass Boston. I went there wanting to write more bravely and accurately about my father’s war, and its impact in his life and within our family. Sometimes intentions bear fruit directly as well as indirectly, and most of the new poems I’ve been drafting rise out of the experience and encouragement and rich provocation of the Joiner Institute. (You can read some about my teacher-as-student experience at the Joiner here, and some thoughts about writing as peacemaking here.)

I’m still revising my full-length poetry manuscript, What There Is. Do you live next door to a publisher who’s searching for poetry manuscripts? Please let me know. (Okay, joke. If you went excavating, you’d probably find at least one poetry manuscript searching for a publisher in every corner mailbox you pass. Or you can imagine the equivalent in electrons–since poetry submissions increasingly happen online.)

Meanwhile, I continue to write about “the daily texture of progressive education,” trying to do justice to the experience of teaching in a place where I could truly come to know and work for my students. I’m also trying to describe what it was like to learn with my students, and with parents and colleagues.

How does my writing differ from other writing in its genre?

My poems are more structured than some, and less structured than others. They’re simpler than some and more complicated than others. Here’s a tiny sample, if you scroll down. I never intend my poems to be puzzles–I don’t think most poets intend to write puzzles–but I figure it’s legit to expect a second reading.

I love giving live public readings–but I’m also interested in each poem as a visual object on a page, in the effects of line breaks and stanza breaks and margin choices. Emphasis on the word choices.

I’ve been told that my blog entries aren’t actually blog entries; they’re essays. That’s probably a fair critique.

Why do I write what I write?

I write in short forms because it feels right to me.

Grace Paley, when asked why she wrote short stories instead of novels, answered that life is too short for the writing of novels. I’d say the same thing, only more so. Life feels too short even for short stories! I love working on poems short enough so I can carry them around in my head, but still long enough so I can get into trouble, and swim back to shore through the writing and revising of the poem, learning as I go.

Blog entries are the poems of the creative non-fiction world. Snacks. Well, no–tweets are snacks, I guess. Maybe blog entries are light meals to be eaten on the trail? But I’m still working on how to construct the smallest, tightest package of ideas that also feels rich enough.

Here’s another kind of answer: Both my parents wrote poems which weren’t published but had a life in the family and community. (I’m spending some of my time this summer helping my mother work toward a new collection of her poems.)  To me as a kid, writing poetry seemed like a normal thing to do–as if I’d grown up in Russia, say, or some other parts of the world. (Yet another kind of luck.)

I’m not going to say I have to write, but my life is immeasurably more thoughtful and more joyful, both, because I do. That’s what I’ve wanted to give to the hundreds of students I’ve worked with as children or adults. Thoughtful includes responsible, and joyful includes wild and spontaneous. So there you are, dancing in that same duality–or “creative tension”, in the words of Dick Zajchowski, formative Touchstone School Head–that I’ve sought to embrace in all my teaching life. Serious playfulness. Playful seriousness.

And here’s yet another kind of answer: Sometimes I think that I might shamelessly pretend to write, in order to have the pleasure of friendships with other writers. In some overwhelmed or blocked chapters of my life, that’s been approximately the case.

How does my writing process work?

I have no idea how my writing process works. I have no method except paying attention, and no philosophy except the learned benefit of giving myself permission to engage in a phenomenally inefficient language activity.

I’m slow, at every kind of writing I do, especially poems–and slow at almost everything else I do, also. Quite a few people live in here, and what I say in ordinary conversation often seems messy or slipshod, and true to only a minority of them. In writing I’ve learned to give all those selves a chance. The process of revision, very important to me, is a kind of coming to consensus. Increasingly, though, I hope for the kind of consensus in which different voices can live side by side, and be a chorus instead of a riot. (Still, somewhere down the road I might want a riot instead of a chorus.)

My future blog plans:

I’m posting this on two blogs, on an old, neglected one called Villages, and also on A Year to Think It Over.

I’ve never had plans for the poetry blog, and it’s not exactly about poetry. Pin me down and I’ll say Villages is about virtual villages created by language. I’ve enjoyed imagining myself as a member of a village that includes Charles Darwin, or the Canadian writer Val Ross, or all the people I love, finally in one place. But I have no idea what will happen next there, and this will be only the fourth post.

What about the blog about teaching and learning? I do expect I’ll come to a time when I’m ready to move on. I hope I’ll be able to keep paying for the domain, so those anonymous wonderful whoever-you-are people in Australia, the country of my most faithful audience, will still be able to find the posts they like.

blog reader countries map editReaders arrive from other countries, too. In the past few days, for example, the blog has been read by people in Vietnam and Kazakhstan and Brazil and Cameroon and Serbia (among others)–and even the United States. Monitoring my blog I refresh my memory of geography. A world map highlights the countries of readers, and if I scroll over the country list I see larger outline maps of each of them. This makes me feel both fascinated and thwarted. I wish I knew more about all those people (and their villages)–but Word Press hasn’t yet developed that kind of oversight.

Several people have suggested that my blog entries about teaching and learning may have another future as a book. For  the time being, though, it works well for me to focus on one little knot of energy at a time, without worrying about larger structure. Does that sound suspiciously like the freedom within which I like to approach each new poem? Or the freedom I tried to give my students? Hmmmmm…

And now, here’s your reward if you’ve made it this far through the longest blog entry I’ve ever written. Here are links to blogs by three writers I respect, enjoy, and highly recommend.

Alex Dunn works as an environmental educator with magical power to turn kids on to the night sky (just as an example.) I’ve watched him in action with my own students. He also writes two blogs. The Daily Bird New England tells me when to wake up and view species who’ve just arrived. Tree swallows! Moogle Gaps feeds my map obsession. I’ve used the links to send you to some recent posts I enjoyed.

Polly Ingraham has taught in all kinds of schools, including a charter school where she taught with my friend Kate Keller. She writes about all sorts of things, including overlaps between the secular and the sacred, in a blog called The Panorama of a Pastor’s Life. Here’s a recent post about The Fullness of Time  and an organization called A Better Chance.

Colleen Redman lives and works as a poet, photographer, and journalist in Floyd County, Virginia. In one way her blog is very local, focused on the community of artists and musicians and craftpeople and farmers who call Floyd home. Reading Colleen’s posts about her community I figure they’re lucky to have her, and I start thinking about the individual in community from a new slant–Colleen’s! She also writes funny, observant, and moving poems, and you can find her reading aloud a wonderful poem about her brothers’ deaths, here.


Losing and Keeping Dana

On a mid-November night in 1992, I received a phone call from Dick Zajchowski, the Head of my school. One of my students, Dana, ten years old, had been hit by a van while crossing a busy road through that wet and foggy night. She was badly hurt; she had been taken by helicopter to the teaching hospital nearby; nobody knew whether she could recover.

Dana lasted about ten days, in a coma from which she never emerged, although there were times when she seemed to lift, and our hopes lifted. When I visited and sat with her, reading aloud to her some of the book we were sharing in class, I watched the traces on the machines attached to her body. The electronic lines jumped up and down whenever she heard my voice. Was that good? Was that bad?

I had taught Dana for only a few months, but I had known her in the school community since she was very small. Her older sister, Megan, was also in my class.  Dana, so vivid, so full of life, full of opinions, full of energy—how could she not survive?

treasures for DanaWhen I cleaned out my desk this spring, I found the small box made of popsicle sticks, full of tiny things kids wanted me to take to Dana in the hospital when—we held on, so hard, to the idea of ‟when”—she woke up: braided wristbands, a tiny troll with long magenta hair, small folded notes.

IMG_20130815_100624 - Copy-001But the injury to her brain was too severe. Here’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a teacher: calling the families of my students, family by family, to tell them that all of us working and wishing, all of us folding small paper origami cranes, hoping to save Dana–all of us had to let all that go. She had gone from us.

Dana and Megan’s parents knew immediately that they would need to find counseling to help Megan. Some of her healing happened out of our sight, though with all of our thoughts and prayers.

Meanwhile, a wonderful grief counselor visited the school to help the faculty help the other kids. Wisely, Dick Zajchowski arranged for Maria, the grief counselor, to come into my own class to work with us directly. She talked us through the stages of grief as she had come to understand them.

  • First, we each needed just to tell our individual versions of how it had happened, or how the news had happened to each of us.
  • Then we needed to confess and work through the universal inclination to blame ourselves, irrationally.
  • We needed to share memories and images of Dana, as she lived.
  • Finally we needed to share our ideas about ways we would carry her forward.

It was true: every single child needed to tell both how he or she imagined the event of the accident, and how his or her parent had relayed the news. One child wished he’d told Dana that the movie she was going to see was a waste of time; if he had, she wouldn’t have been crossing that street. I myself had thought, ‟If only I’d assigned more homework that night…” But when I said that out loud, one of the students said, ‟No, that wouldn’t have stopped her…” All of us worked together to face the truth: this was something we couldn’t have controlled, and didn’t.

One child felt Dana’s death as a blow to his own body. He became physically ill whenever we talked about her in any way, and several times had to go home. Still, it was important for us to talk about Dana, not too much, but enough. We couldn’t just dodge what had happened. I struggled to find the right balance.

One girl, Kerry, seemed to have no defense, no delaying numbness, no way to hide from the events or her feelings about them. Again and again, even when we were doing something with no direct relation to Dana’s death, Kerry broke down and cried. But she was touchingly brave in facing and experiencing those feelings and letting them be, crying and then recovering, moving forward. Each time, I felt her carry the rest of us with her.

Whatever we felt, and however we felt it or expressed it, each of us was a resource to the others.

Months went by. I had known enough of other griefs to recognize, in myself, the feeling of trying to walk underwater; a deep weariness. Maria, the grief counselor, had told me to expect some regression from the kids: neediness, crabbiness, helplessness. All that happened. No way out but through.

At home, I worked on a poem based on Maria’s four stages of grief. That helped me move forward, in the way Kerry’s tears had helped her. In school, off and on, I worked with individual kids to write their own letters to Dana, or short accounts of what had happened.

When our class picture was taken, one of the girls held a photo of Dana.

blog photos

Late that spring, Dick asked me to lead the rest of the faculty in writing through that same sequence of parts, the stages of grief, which Maria had explained to us and which I had used in my own poem. Like so much about that whole chapter in my teaching, the memory of my colleagues, crying as they wrote, will never leave me–and I will always be grateful to Dick for discerning, step by step, how our mutual caring could help each of us.

Over the next year, in Dana’s memory, her parents and many of their friends donated the seed money for a new wing to our school. On the wall in that hallway, a painting shows her grinning her inimitable grin, holding one of the cranes we had folded in hope for her. IMG_20130815_100624

Maria, the grief counselor, said that the children who’d been close to Dana could not truly process their shock and loss right away. At ten, or even at twelve, they were too young. ‟Every transition they make,” she said, ‟they will come back to process it again. With any luck they’ll stay in touch with each other, and do some of that together.”

In fact, many of those students have stayed in touch. Many of them, including both Megan and Kerry, are my own Facebook friends. In a way especially needed, somehow, I treasure every smiling photograph they post.