Ten weeks with the East Harlem Poetry Project
April 1, 2003
Apr 1, 2003
23 Min read time
We meet on Friday afternoons in the basement of the Jackie Robinson Educational Complex at 106th and Madison in New York City. I am there because I want to teach poetry, work with kids, and explore settings beyond the academy; the kids are there because they have to be.
During regular school hours, the classroom we use for our afterschool poetry project is home to seventh- and eighth-graders at Rosa Parks Academy, one of several schools housed in the building. Poetry chapbooks stapled to the hallway bulletin boards offer glossy evidence of academic bustle. Inside classroom B-8, one bulletin board is devoted to small posters of vocabulary words and their definitions. Another features student artwork inspired by a recent visit to the Jacob Lawrence show at the Whitney. One boy’s picture captures perfectly the blocky angularity and monumental presence of Lawrence’s three ironing women.
There is one bookcase in the room, its shelves filled with identical copies of the dictionary. Aside from the odd candy wrapper, the desks are empty. Books, papers, pencils—all removed. Students are transient and so is their stuff. Only graffiti distinguishes one desk from another. “Rosa loves Hector.” “Gangsta Life.” “School sucks.”
I’ve been told to expect two groups of twelve or so kids, seven to eleven years old. Most are enrolled in Central Park East, the famous progressive public school also housed in this building.
Over the years I have taught college humanities and poetry courses and the occasional adult education class. Now I have signed on to be the poetry consultant for the East Harlem Tutorial Program, an organization that has sponsored programs for youth for over forty years.
For months I’d pored over poetry anthologies and poetry-teaching anthologies. I read everything the poet and educator Kenneth Koch wrote about teaching poetry to children; I cribbed his ideas for lessons. I sifted through my spoken word CD’s and picked out tracks I thought the kids might find interesting. I revisited the New York School poets and the Nuyorican Poets. I sifted through topics—dream poems, picture poems, self portraits, animal poems, city poems, sense poems. I concocted strategies—word games, listening exercises, dance moves. I made lists of words and phrases, of poetic forms and refrains.
So I was prepared. I stood there that first Friday in March, 2002,and surveyed my materials. I’d come with CD’s, with a video camera. With a borrowed boombox and games. We could draw—we could even make shape poems like experimental poets in France. We would collaborate. Talk and share. Confabulate. Create.
At that very moment, I heard my fate coming down the hall in a rush of jangling kid voices moving toward me.
As I stood there in classroom B-8, as I plugged in the boombox tuned to hip-hop station Hot 97, as I moved desks and chairs and straightened my xeroxed information sheets (name, age, interests, favorite singer, favorite book, likings, hatreds), I felt the urge to flee. An overwhelming inner command to flee.
But there the kids were, and there I stayed.
As a longtime student of Romanticism, I of course subscribe to the view that children are original geniuses, bubbling organically with creativity, born free but everywhere in chains because of hostile adult military actions going by such names as “socialization,” “education,” “piano lessons.”
And of course I also subscribe to the even earlier, time-honored view that children, like all humans, are fallen creatures, ontologically wayward, in need of training, structure, and at times even severity to help them direct their energies into the best channels.
Call these views Wordsworth vs. Augustine. Rousseau vs. Lord of the Flies. Every day offers support for both.
—What is this?
—Oh god is this poetry class?
—Is this writing?
—I hate writing!
—Can I go to the office and do my homework?
That’s how low I was. Kids begged to do their homework rather than stay in Poetry Project.
I thus began to grasp the situation, which appeared to be governed by the following axioms:
1.Most kids hate writing.
2.Kids covered by Axiom #1 especially hate writing poetry.
3.All kids, even those not covered by #1, especially hate writing poetry on Friday afternoons in spring.
Poetry Project is called an “elective.” In true Orwellian fashion that means precisely that no child had elected to be here. They would come to me one Friday and go to computer elective the next. No choice, no change. Only making trouble would get you out, and then to the office. The office at least had a water fountain.
Some kids assessed the situation and quickly adopted a policy of nonviolent noncooperation. Others took a more direct-action approach: flicking pencils, playing with gum, fiddling with their do-rags, snapping rubber bands—an apparently inexhaustible repertoire of “acting out,” as the school psychologists say.
Thus began a three-month-long education, of me as well as the kids, a schooling in various options—whether, for example:
a) to get attention by threat, i.e. force;
b) to solicit attention by charm and/or bribery, i.e. seduction.
I could be either Gorgon or Siren. I felt myself becoming an ungainly hybrid—call me Sorgen.
As the children, most of them shockingly beautiful, sat or wriggled in the semicircle of chairs I’d arranged, I saw:
a) dreamy, thoughtful, articulate, lively beings, sociable yet singular, remembering their babyhoods and looking forward to lives as musicians, cops, basketball players, teachers, construction workers; fully alert in the present, fiercely attached to their families and friends, curious about the world, reflective about themselves;
b) a little vicious band of Hobbesian cannibals, searching with murderous eyes for that day’s scapegoat, armed with an unending supply of taunts, insults, and malicious strategems, able to weaponize small everyday objects in the blink of a soon-to-be-punctured eye. . . .
Poetry Project had officially begun.
• • •
Historically the teaching of poetry has tipped more toward the pedagogy-as-punishment side of things: memorization, imitation, recitation, the whack of a rod, the smack of a ruler. I had a dear friend who in Montreal circa 1920 was forced to memorize Wordsworth’s Odes as punishment for giggling with her girlfriend in class. In later years she was grateful to be able to draw on Wordsworth’s lines for comfort.
Nowadays if poetry enters the classroom at all it comes in under the banner of pedagogy-as-play. I was all for play, but I also wanted there to be some learning.
On that first day I asked if any of the kids spoke or read or understood languages other than American English. Hands shot up:
—Spanish, Swahili, and Chinese
—He don’t know Chinese
—I do I do
(We agreed to suspend disbelief regarding Paul’s Chinese-language expertise.)
—Yes, said the wide-eyed, curly-haired, apparently Latina child. I bit my tongue not to say, you sure you don’t mean Spanish? When her mother, a tall blond named Inga, arrived I was glad I had.
The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss speculated in Tristes Tropiques that writing first began as an instrument of enslavement, a tool for rulers to use against the ruled: a way to dominate subject peoples, to count them, to tax them, to discipline them. Perhaps all children recognize the alien and alienating aspect of writing: thus their general resistance.
But of course poetry need not mean writing. It began as an oral art and it still flourishes as one, e.g., the rappers. In Poetry Project we could bypass writing altogether. Forget proper spelling and rules of punctuation—were we going to allow the arcane requirements of formal literacy to impede us? No. Thus the CD’s, the video camera: we could do poetry as performance art.
The fact is, however, that I am not a performance artist, a poetry-slammer, or much of an improviser. I am instead an addict, product, and servant of the long literary tradition of poetry in British, American, and other Englishes. A tradition in writing. A tradition bound in books. So these kids were going to get their Whitman and their D. H. Lawrence and their Langston Hughes and their Gertrude Stein and their Amiri Baraka and their Fernando Pessoa in translation and their eighteenth-century nutjob Christopher Smart as well as Maggie Estep and Emily XYZ from the United States of Poetry CD. The students would have pencils and writing journals and free-writes and short assignments as well as taping sessions and improv opportunities. For good or ill, the kids were going to have to deal with my predilections as I would deal with theirs. A few kids were well versed in several of these poets; many were not—nor was I at their age. Some kids were great readers, some were not. We would have to feel our way toward our own limited social contract. We would have to negotiate. Our medium was time and our currency was language and sound, writing and speaking. Over ten weeks we’d see what we could do.
• • •
We faced, of course, some problems of definition. With kids, unlike undergraduates or grumpy academics or bickering coterie poets, one need never enter into metaphysical, formal, or historical debates revolving around the question, “What is a poem?” Anything you said was a poem. A prose poem, a poem in stanzas, a poem in free-verse lines: all were poems. No problem: who cares? It became clear that our tacit definition of “poem” was, “a short piece of writing, in lines, more or less.” I found out on the first day that the very idea of “a line” of poetry confounded some kids. I’d asked them after a long conversation to write down five lines about the senses—food they liked to taste and smell, things they liked to look at or touch, sounds they loved or hated, and so on. As some kids scribbled away about the sensual ecstasies to be had at McDonald’s—and clearly McDonald’s fries are the apex of sensuous experience in the under-ten set—two kids drew five straight lines in their writing journals, “lines” as in the shortest distance between two points.
For most kids, as for most adults, poetry means rhyme. In his remarks on teaching poetry, Kenneth Koch warned against rhyme, and for good reason—it tends to lead kids right into the waiting straitjacket of Hallmark insipidity. But it’s also true that rhyme is the open sesame for some kids’ linguistic energy. Terrence’s energy, for example.
Terrence makes an early debut as our master rhymer. He is in fact a compulsive rapper. He hates to sit; it cramps his rhythmic speech, the pointing fingers, tilting head and hip rotation that anchor his stream-of-Terrence-consciousness. He rhymes effortlessly, brilliantly, and punctuates his lines with expertly timed percussive “chhshhhk” sounds, as if he were his own snare drum.
I see girls
I play the drums and it makes little pearls
When Terrence takes off it’s important to stand clear, because sometimes in his exuberance he throws whatever’s at hand: the eraser, the chalk, his backpack.
Terrence abhors an aural vacuum; he would rather rap nonsense or repeat phrases endlessly than not rap, and once he gets started the morphemes start flowing, liberated from the humdrum requirement to organize themselves into recognizable words.
Fueled by Terrence and some of his livelier classmates, we begin our first conversations about words and sounds, rhymes and rhythms. We modulate into other themes—Why write? Why make poems? The kids have good answers: to remember things, to make yourself feel better, to have privacy, to share something, to make something up, because you like to, because it’s interesting. But many don’t write unless required to. Writing equals school.
I soon discovered—that it is far easier to have a good conversation than to launch a writing exercise or a discussion about a poem. American kids are brilliant raconteurs; they will talk about anything and talk well, as long as there’s no written object to refer to. We talked about dreams. Everyone has dreams, and everyone remembers big ones. We talked about memory versus imagination. We talked about the first things we remembered as infants. It was fascinating.
I realized that we could talk forever about our lives as small children: how we used to wear diapers, what horrible dreams we had some nights, what lovely visions we had other nights, on and on without ever once talking about or paying attention to language qualanguage. I was torn between running an encounter group and running Poetry Project. After two classes we’d barely read a thing. And the kids’ journals were mostly blank. By the third class I decided that it was time to refocus—or more precisely, to get some focus. I figured there were only a few things I could do in my limited time as Poetry Consultant: I could open a space for conversation, I could facilitate self-expression, but I could also get some new things in the kids’ ears—new words, new rhythms, new phrases, new ideas.
The kids got all manner of new things into my ears: I now know more about Alicia Keys, Bernie Mac, Ja Rule, and Aaliyah [R.I.P.] than I ever needed to know. But more profoundly, the kids also shared their habits of mind and their modes of sensory processing. Though we had little time together as a group, and still less time one-on-one, certain things became clear: the kids were seriouslywired. They live in surround sound, and I doubt if many of them had paid attention to the low rocking rush inside their own ears—what you hear when there’s nothing else to hear. They are beyond MTV generation, beyond hip-hop; these kids are cellphone-Gameboy-CD-digital-video-Matrix-etc. generation, used to processing lots of stimuli all the time. Given the general cultural gestalt—a dispersal of attention, a hopping from thing to thing, obligatory multitasking—–it seemed that I might usefully provide some way to focusattention, to gather one’s wits and senses and mind.
Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.
I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clack
of sticks cooking my meals
I hear the sounds I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused, or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city. . . .
—Walt Whitman, from “Song of Myself”
• • •
By week four, we’d read some Whitman together; we compared his city to ours and listened to a scratchy Edison recording of Whitman’s voice, now available on CD. We read Langston Hughes’s “Island,” each child reading a line aloud; we studied a map of Manhattan, the island in question, as well as a map of the outer boroughs; we located our own neighborhoods, and identified the “two rivers” of Hughes’s poem.
As we launched our first poems—city soundscapes, poems of the senses—it became clear that in Poetry Project as in life, one confronts a choice: to grapple with the particulars of reality, or to soar in imagination. To document or to invent. “No ideas but in things” (William Carlos Williams) or “notes toward a supreme fiction” (Wallace Stevens).
A few surrealists we will always have with us, and that’s good, for they diversify our vast, hearty population of American realists. Maybe it was our immersion in Whitman’s concrete catalogues, maybe it was the urban stress the kids lived with, but it seemed that we as a group tended more toward socialist realism and poesie verité than toward the outlandish, the whimsical, the expressionistic, the abstract, the surreal. Under the admittedly realist rubric, “Life in the City,” kids wrote:
In my project
we play outside and in my project
me and my friends watch the
playground because the people
took it apart because they
are going to make a new park
Every night there’s always a gang
Riding around my block
Saying the name of the gang
When I’m in the projects
there are always
Thinking about life in the city also inspired more sensuous—even synaesthetic—lines:
I hear the talking outside my building,
I hear the firetrucks going for a fire.
I can hear the wind blowing in my face . . .
—Susanna Lundberg’s “The City Sound”
We read aloud Claude McKay’s “Tropics in New York”:
Bananas ripe and green, and ginger-root,
Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,
Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs. . . .
With McKay and Whitman in his ear, Joshua Howard tapped into a lyrical documentary mode:
In my life I see pineapples apples
kiwi mangoes banana
And I hear people I hear music
And I hear subways and it’s just lovely
Tasty food and I see Fatima and look
At people to see
What they are doing.
Miles Litteral, a careful, deliberate speaker and our sole resident surrealist at age eight, gave his acoustical catalogue a special torque:
I hear the subway the rail road the bus
the car the people the birds the bugs
the wind the rain the locks
the toys the dogs the cats the rumbles
the walking the door the fish
• • •
In several essays (on Leonardo, on Michelangelo’s “Moses”), Freud wrote eloquently on the narcissistic foundations of art-making. Poetry Project thoroughly confirmed his sense of things. Kids who were in la-la land when we read Claude McKay or listened to Maya Angelou or watched another kid read her poem for the class would suddenly snap to full engaged attention when it was time to read their poems. By week five a class rhythm had emerged: at the end of each session, when I took out the video camera to record the kids’ poems, a free-for-all would break out. Nonononono let me read it’s my turn I wanna read. I began to value the video camera as never before. It was indispensable, the video carrot following the writerly stick.
We were thus fully prepared to exploit the fine American tradition of poetic egocentricism. Some kids emerged as the true heirs of Whitman, barbaric yawpers singing their own songs of themselves:
I am very outspoken
to people I know
I would never be smokin’
even as I grow.
I have an attitude
because I know people can see
that I also have gratitude
because I am free to be me.
—“Free to be me!” Brea-Simone Brown, age eleven
Other kids found it more congenial to celebrate themselves in their mesostic name-poems. The mesostic (as I explained to the kids) is a poetic form championed by John Cage (in his “Mesostics for Merce” and “Reading through the Cantos”): you select a word or phrase, write it as a vertical column, and then write words you find relevant on the horizontal, your horizontal words sharing one letter with your key vertical word. It sounds fussy, but it’s not—a mesostic is basically an acrostic with more flexibility. We first tried out some mesostics on the blackboard, using words like “spring” and “March,” then kids wrote their own mesostics, using their names, and made posters (a project that revealed the violent passion children have for glitter—glued in great gobs to their posters). Most kids’ mesostics were, in the end, slightly modified acrostics. Kamari and Jamila came up with:
Lemon & lime
—Jamila Washington, age eight
Intelligence and . . .
So beat it, or else!!!
—Kamari James, age nine
Poetry as self-expression, poetry as self-extension. Poetry as observation, poetry as ululation. Poetry as communication, poetry as obfuscation. Poetry as prose, poetry as music. Poetry as sign, poetry as sound.
In later weeks, we had some success with shape-poems. We looked at Guillaume Apollinaire’s brilliant, early twentieth-century French constructions, deftly rendered into English by Koch—a heart shape, for example, formed by the words, “my heart like an upside down flame.” One small girl, during her first visit in week seven, entered into the project with gusto. She made rainbows out of color-words, clouds out of cloud-ridden phrases, stars out of her siblings’ names, and in the end she made a teardrop, its outline formed by the sentence: “When my mommy and Sammy broke up I cried.”
There is not enough time in three months, much less in a brief glance over the shoulder in a two-hour class, to respond properly to such a thing. But then, the child wasn’t looking for my response. She was looking at her own page, her objectified sadness; its shape, its language, its finality.
Such moments sharply reminded me how inadequate our time was (long as it may have seemed to the kids), how stretched and patchy my attention. Some kids desperately wanted affirmation for each scribbled line; others wanted to team up with buddies to horse around or draw baseball players. Older kids bossed younger ones; quieter kids retreated before exuberant ones; some loved to write, others to draw, others to riff, others to sulk. Sometimes we sat in chairs at desks arranged in a circle; other times the kids roamed the room, pencils and paper in hand, or plunked themselves on the floor. Our reading efforts were communal, and thus vulnerable to the attention-seeking wisecracks of this or that child. Yet most listened with a friendly competitive interest when a fellow student read a poem, or when I read poems written decades ago by Koch’s young students: as Aadil said, appreciative, disbelieving, and rueful upon hearing the work of a fellow seven-year-old, “Aw, that sounds like a professional!” Or as Nakell remarked on hearing Josh’s city poem, “I like that! I was going to write something like that. I want that line.” Great poets steal, I told her. At which point Terrence interrupted his flowing rap to nod sagely.
And then there was India, a lovely eleven-year-old who would deflate into a limp rag doll the minute she was given her journal and a pencil. She would revive with equal rapidity when I took out the video-camera. The trick was to get her to write something in her limp phase that she could then read in her enlivened phase.
One part of India’s brain was devoted to a refined hatred of her teacher Darren. This emerged when, after our long and winding conversation about dreams, I asked the kids to draw one of their dreams. Soon Travis was snickering, looking over India’s shoulder at her picture: one horizontal dead Darren, offed by the bloody knife in the hands of a little grinning stick-figure India.
Aside from the occasional fantasized murder in Poetry Project, things were often calm, sometimes even idyllic. On some Friday afternoons you really could believe the republic was full of native geniuses.
Consider Jasmin Ortiz, age nine. She was one of the kids who seemed to take easy pleasure in writing. She sat there with her hair pulled back, her gamine’s face shining, her eyes slyly crinkling, and bit on her pencil. She was like a shy charming little cat. She darted into your space then out again, rubbing briefly against your legs. Out would come fey little rhymes, popping phrases, deft turns from thought to thought, sound to sound:
I hear my baby brother going
Wa wa wa
My mother goes
Don’t touch that
I hear a door slam shut
I hear Charlene’s
And a piano
My goldfish bowl
And my puppy
And I hear at
Night the thunder
—Jasmin Ortiz, nine, from “My poem of sounds in my house”
At approximately 4:10 one Friday afternoon in April, Jasmin independently discovered “the variable foot,” a unit of prosody that William Carlos Williams announced as his own invention in the mid–twentieth century. Like Williams in his late phase, Jasmin laid out her poems on the page in staggered increments of phrases of variable lengths, composing and arranging along a kind of musical phrase. Other student-poets cleaved to the justified left margin; still others wrote in paragraphs. Again, had there been world enough and time, we could have explored what each of these choices might have meant. One felt that Jasmin was already making artistic choices when she wrote.
• • •
But given everything else a child might do with her Friday afternoon, what was the point? A friend of mine thinks all kids should be shipped out to farms and small factories and workshops at age ten for seven years, where they can learn actual skills and discipline. Where they can learn how to make things. Where they can do something other than hang out. Shouldn’t the kids have been working on more formal skills (in composition or arithmetic), or shouldn’t they have been outside stretching their legs, or indoors learning something useful, like how to repair bikes or cars or computers?
Our public discourse about schooling has largely abandoned itself to the language of economics and bureaucratic management: productivity, efficiency, standards, competitiveness, and so on. This is a great, telling failure of civic imagination, a failure obfuscated by disputes about vouchers and testing. Is it the job of schools to produce competitive workers? Is it the job of schools to produce reflective citizens? Artists? Mechanics? Professionals? Dropouts?Schools make all of these things, including their failures.
“Poetry makes nothing happen,” Au-den famously wrote, but schools in theory are supposed to make something happen: to make kids learn, to make them literate, numerate, responsible junior citizens. Auden went on to write that poetry was “a way of happening, a mouth;” so too can school be a way of happening. School offers a series of “spots of time,” to invoke a Wordsworthian phrase. Poetry Project aspired to be one such spot, a spot both in school and after school, where time might slow and attention expand. Time did slow, of course, into interminable chasms of bored yawns, but time also flew some afternoons once we got into a poem or a collaborative project.
What didn’t happen: I established no longstanding rapport with any child, nor did I expect to—I was seeing the kids every other week at most, at the end of their tiring school day. I do not think the kids’ neural networks were re-wired or even much altered. As for me: I feel almost exactly the same about Poetry Project a year after finishing it as I did before starting it: skeptically committed, provisionally engaged with the idea that children and adults can meet in structured—if somewhat arbitrary—spaces to feel out what conversations and projects they might undertake together. I doubt the kids in Poetry Project remember my name, much less the concrete details of our intermittent classes. But the kids have the class anthologies we made, “selected works” from both groups of students, featuring poems by each child printed alongside the poems we read by Whitman, Hughes, and so on. Maybe in ten or twenty or forty years one of the students will find the anthology stashed in a closet or buried in a box; maybe this person will be surprised or amused or interested to see what he or she wrote and thought as a child. I’m enough of a romantic to believe both that the child is father to the man and that we cannot know except by experience “proved upon the pulse” (Keats’s phrase) what matters to us and what will matter. What we can do is commit ourselves to an experience—a term the Romantics knew was virtually synonymous with “experiment.” Poetry Project was just that—a “pro-ject”—something thrown forth into the world, from a shared present to an uncertain future.
William Carlos Williams observed in his long poem “Paterson” that it was not the writing but “the being in a position to write” that obsessed and inspired him. In the end, Poetry Project was about that getting into position, about moving into the condition of receptivity, awareness, or kinesthetic momentum that is the precondition for anything really “happening.” So when people asked “what happened in your poetry class?” it wasn’t wrong to say, “not much, but we got ready for something to happen.” And sometimes, amidst calls for bathroom breaks, groans and insults, flying chalk and tears of frustration, something did happen:
I love mom I love dad
I love my teacher I love I love
the taste of tea
“I love it,” Aadil Mendez, age seven
Today is cool.
I like today.
My name is Terrence.
I love this world.
I am fun.
I like to play.
I like to dream.
—“Free write, March day,” Terrence Barnwell, age nine
chat chat chat
like a cat.
—“a rhyme,” Jasmin Ortiz, age nine
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April 01, 2003
23 Min read time