Parkview Middle School
in Green Bay really does know how to do it right!
You may remember that I was invited to be part of the "Poetry Cafe" that Parkview was putting together for their sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students. Those students gathered last night in the media center at the school, which stands in the shadow of Lombardi Field in Green Bay, and I was part of it.
I was one of four poets making presentations to the students. The others, Anjie Greene-Martin, Liz Hammond, and Dale Ritterbusch, often work together as part of a group called The Wasteland Poets, the name being, I think, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the mistaken notion that outside the centers of Milwaukee and Madison, poetry in Wisconsin is pretty much a wasteland. These poets want to say, perhaps, "Just a damn minute - we're here, and we're poets." The true wasteland, sometimes, is trying to get attention for poetry in the hinterlands.
Getting attention for poetry at Parkview in Green Bay was no problem last night at the Poetry Cafe. It was a great mobbing throng of students who arrived, well more than the thirty students they expected, I think, plus some parents, teachers, and even the school principal.
The folks at Parkview are doing it right - they must be, to get that many students that interested in poetry. The care and joy they put into the Poetry Cafe made it clear to me that here No Child is Left Behind. The Poetry Cafe ran from 6:00-8:00 p.m., and here they were, still giving to the students.
The event was held in a media center made up to resemble a coffeehouse of the Folk Era, complete with a bead curtain to walk through as you entered, and several lava lamps to light the doings.
There were cold drinks available, and tasty treats. LOTS of everything. Someone cares.
And there was the ceremonial beret. Each of us put on a beret and was transported. Into the realm of poetry.
The evening started with one of the teachers playing guitar and singing a song, and students of hers held up prints illustrating key parts of the song, with the song's heroine somehow integrated into the scene of every print - melding into a tree perhaps. Poetry does that sometimes, helps us to see one thing in terms of something else.
Then the four of us invited poets talked about being a poet and about writing poetry and we read from our work. And we each offered the students a "poetic challenge."
I asked them to write a Parkview Honka, the form I developed especially for this occasion, and which I've been practicing in public here and here and here, and elsewhere. The rules of the honka are fairly simple:
(1) Two stanzas, the first of three lines, the second of two lines.
(2) Exactly six syllables per line.
(3) In the first stanza, you describe what is "out there," out in the world, not within yourself. This is physical description of what you can see, hear, touch, taste. It is not about yourself nor your feelings.
(4) The second stanzas gets more personal and contains your insight, opinion, conclusion, or realization of something greater. This can come from "within."
(5) Somewhere between the first stanza and the second stanza, the moment of magic that makes the poem happen has to occur: the poem has to leap or open or in some way connect us to the juice of the universe.
(6) On this basic framework, you may play with alliteration or caesura or rhyme/slant rhyme, etc.
Anjie Greene-Martin had read a "list poem" and challenged the students to develop a similar poem. Liz Hammond had read "What I Learned in Kansas" and asked the students to write a "What I Learned in..." poem. And Dale Ritterbusch read a poem called "Disobedience" and suggested the students write a poem about the most stupid rule they'd ever had to follow.
Then it was time for the students to put their heads down and work on their own poems. Learning, I believe, can be a noisy proposition, and there was some learning going on, some enthusiasm being unleashed. We four invited poets went from table to table, answering questions, making suggestions, offering encouragement. From time to time the students paused to check the numbers on the tickets they'd received upon registration. Some twenty or twenty-five books were being offered as door prizes. So this boy or that girl would shout a cheer when he won, or she did, and then it was heads down, back to the writing.
The noise of learning. The roar of the enthusiasm. I think the best thing we can do for student writers is foster enthusiasm for writing, to nurture in them the desire to do it even when no one is looking. We were seeing enthusiasm last night.
The final portion of the evening was the "open mic" when the students read their poems for us. Sad poems and silly poems. Rhymed poems and free verse. Poems about the seasons and poems about their very selves. A great rush of young poets lined up for the microphone, all of them wanting to share their words, some of them offering more than one poem. Finally, it was, "Okay, we're running out of time now. If you have already read a poem, please sit down. If you haven't read your poem yet, come do it now." The last poet of the evening was one of the teachers, who read two of his own poems - one was a Parkview honka which he'd just written for us; and the other was a poem he'd written during classtime while his students were working on their own writing.
And then it was over. The Folk Era coffeehouse evaporated. This moment of poetry was behind us. It was time for us to go on to whatever was next. We picked up plates and napkins and glasses from the tables. The students tidied up. We stepped through the bead curtain back into the workaday world.
Yet we took with us into that world something that hadn't existed before. Some moment of magic. That is the magic of poetry.
The folks at Parkview Middle School in Green Bay know how to do it.