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Book Review: Poetry Everywhere – Teaching Poetry Writing in School and in the Community by Jack Collom and Sheryl Noethe

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This month is National Poetry Month. What I'll be doing to celebrate is featuring one of my favorite poetry how-to books. Mind you, as a poet myself I'm biased, but I agree with Neruda's assessment that when dictators take over, one of the first groups they come after is the poets. Why? Better writers than I have put to paper their thoughts. Let me share them with you.

“…Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.” — Robert Frost, American poet, 1874-1963

“Peace goes into the making of a poem as flour goes into the making of bread.” — Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize Winner for literature, 1904-1973

“Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.” — Plato, 428 BC-348 BC

“Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.” — Thomas Gray, English Poet, 1716-1771

“A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” — Robert Frost, 1874-1963

“Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” — Rita Dove, Former U. S. Poet Laureate, born 1958

Words to think about, I hope. Now, take a look at Poetry Everywhere: Teaching Poetry Writing in School and in the Community and you'll see why I love this book.

In 1972, Jack Collum left factory work to become a poet. His co-author, Sheryl Noethe, taught poetry to the deaf. Both of them are NEA Poetry Fellowships recipients and together they've written a book on their favorite subject – the teaching of poetry-writing to young people. The following excerpt is a summary of their philosophy:

    …writing is the better world, a refuge and solace where imagination is king. We can offer this sustenance, this self-creation to children, making their lives richer and happier, giving them more alternatives. Writing is a grip on existence and empowerment, and a way to listen to the inner truth of the self. The poet enters a previous dialogue with all previous poets, singers and writers. You keep great company.

This passage illustrates the ways in which the poet becomes a kind of modern shaman, a bridge to the past, linking this world and its inhabitants with that of our ancestors. I've personally experienced the power and transformation in the process of writing, of naming, of coaxing out out one's own truth from those places in yourself that are used to silence, to secrecy. I know the synergy that happens in writing. You open yourself, and whatever story is in the universe and in your own body gets catalyzed and the process of writing then catalyzes you further.

I was fortunate enough to work with About Face Theater, (an LGBT youth theater group) here in Chicago, where I held a day-long workshop using many of the exercises in the book. I wanted that kind of experience for them – a means for them to uncover their own story, connect with the collective story, with all of it shaped by culture, class, race and sexuality. Poetry Everywhere was a superb, accessible tool in working with a diverse group of young writers and performers, giving them flex and structure.

To put a finer point on it, logistically, this is an extremely detailed text, with sixty exercises that involve students in such far-ranging forms as haikus, villanelles, acrostics, lunes, sestinas; as well a variety of approaches to free verse. In addition, these more traditional forms are interspersed with word games and icebreakers to help keep the teaching and the sessions fresh and lively.

But ultimately, it is the approach that is the most compelling aspect of Poetry Everywhere. Once again, I'd like to quote Collum and Noethe's own words:

    Your job as teacher is to tell every student what is right with his or her work. This calls for wit, compassion, and a huge frame of reference … When you point out to your students where they are best in their work — the funniest, or most imaginative, or truest to their vision — you give them success and in return, they give you their trust. They write in the only way beautiful things are created – from the heart, without censorship or fear. That's when you get the poetry.

On a final note, it delighted me to no end that one of the authors is a solid working-class man, a brother from the ranks of the factory. That's my story, too. You just never know where people like us will end up next.

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About Lisa Alvarado