On Tuesday, March 10, 2015, I experienced the magic of poetry. When you combine a great professor with eager students and poetry, you can get magic. This magic swirled in beautiful force at Howard Community College. I visited Professor Tara Hart’s Creative Writing class as part of my role as Howard County Poetry & Literature Society’s Poet-in-Residence. This great program has taken me to nearly all of Howard County’s high schools and each visit had some magic. This one amazed me.
I was met by Tara Hart and Tim Singleton, who also teaches Creative Writing at Howard Community College. It’s clear these two writer-professors know their craft because the students showed an eager desire to learn that only emerges when a teacher has created a positive and trusting atmosphere. The room was filled with about twenty-five students, a diverse group, who had just completed a memoir assignment. I thought I’d read a few poems and then ask them some questions to see where our conversation might go.
I read three of my poems about graffiti artist “Cool Disco Dan.” I spoke of my love of graffiti art, its ability to work as elegy, and its ability to give voice to those who feel voiceless. The students burst into questions. I asked about a poem that has mattered to them. Several of them spoke about various poems that had touched their lives, poems that echoed their own experience. We talked about this as one of poetry’s great powers– it can help us realize we’re not alone. One young woman spoke eloquently of a poem so in sync with her own sadness that the poem had a healing property. We spoke of Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and of Howard County’s first Poet-in-Residence, Lucille Clifton. I urged them to explore her work as it has often done for me, just what that student described– Clifton’s words echoed feelings I hadn’t named yet and thereby gave me a chance to heal. I read Lucille Clifton’s poem “Praise Song” from Blessing the Boats.
They raised excellent questions about the craft of poetry, including the challenge of writing first and last lines, of starting a poem with too much emotion. We took a while discussing last lines, exploring some poems that close by opening out, poems that end by blooming big. I used the example of Yeats’ “When You Are Old,” an intimate poem in which a deceased lover speaks to the surviving lover. Most of the poem’s details are are clean and small, but then it closes with a trajectory that takes the reader from the fireplace where the surviving lover sits, to the mountains overhead, to “the stars.” It ends big.
We also discussed opening poems with what some might call conventional language. While a poem’s power often resides in its surprising language, sometimes it works to open a poem with common language that invites the reader easily. This idea came up as we discussed what they feared about writing poetry. The always challenging “How do I start?”
One young man wondered what to do with an overflow of emotion in a poem. I thought this question was especially keen. We discussed the power of emotion in a poem and that it’s the last thing you want to lose. But too much emotion can drown the reader. We discussed ways to work at restraint, at guiding and channeling a poem’s emotional content. Often, it’s an intense emotion that gets us writing in the first place. These students understood clearly that a poem’s emotion is essential and that restraint can raise pure emotion into beauty.
One of the blessings of the community college classroom can be diverse ages. In this class, most of the students were of the traditional college age, probably 19-22 or so. There was one older gentleman whose question really moved me. He told the class that my poem “Before My Father Was My Father” took him back to an event in his family’s history in Korea. He told a story in which members of his family had been saved from a sinking ship by American troops during the Korean war– and this poem about my father, took him back to that moment. As he said, “…it connected him” to the poem. Only poetry’s magic creates moments like this. All I could do was thank him.
We talked about ways to break out of our writing habits, especially about ways to renew our learned syntax– in search of more surprising language. One young man gave me the best lesson I could receive. He referred to my poem “George Zimmerman’s Options,” which builds around verbs imagining choices Zimmerman could have made that would not have resulted in the murder of Trayvon Martin. This student said when he read the poem he imagined it written with the chronology reversed. I was stunned. This was a strong insight. I can tell you I’ve been messing with that poem ever since.
Near the end of our discussion, I read “For Gilberto Ramos,” a poem about a young Guatemalan boy who died in the Texas desert, crossing into the United States. This prompted one student to ask about the challenges in writing what some might call “political poems.” I told him that while it can be difficult to address the broken parts of our world with poetry, I am convinced we have to try. Admitting that strong feeling alone doesn’t make a strong poem, I urged these students to bring their sense of quality and craft to poems that touch the world’s pain. I told them about Split This Rock, a Washington, D.C.- based organization that nurtures “poems of provocation and witness.” Another young woman spoke well about the personal and public power of poetry. Her words echoed my own conviction that poets and artists have a duty to address the world in which we live.
Professor Hart’s classroom holds far more than a class. A small community of writers gathers there. This is just the kind of community that can conjure the magic of poetry. These students showed a willingness to take risks, to explore their own lives with their words. This is how good writing happens. I am deeply grateful I had the chance to witness it.
Photo Credit: Howard Community College Website