Posts Tagged With: National Poetry Month

Can a poem still change anything?

On January 22, 2013, the day Alexandra Petri asked this question in an article titled “Is poetry dead?,” seven people in Lexington, Ky., were tattooed with words of their choice from a poem Bianca Spriggs had written as a love letter to, about, and for Lexington.

On the pages of the Washington Post, Petri responded to her own question without skipping a beat: “I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer.” In Lexington, Andreea McClintock and Sonya Sisk showed up at Charmed Life Tattoo at 3 p.m. after carefully rearranging their work schedules in the ER. Because they are friends, they wanted to get their poetic tattoos together.

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Can a poem change anything?

Titled “The _______ of the Universe: A Love Story,” Bianca’s poem challenges the belief that poetry is outdated, irrelevant, and useless, that you might as well put it out of its misery by donating the whole genre to a book drive to be shipped some place where no one speaks its language.

Bianca started her poem by inviting everyone to write with her on her Facebook page. Asking people to fill in the blank of “Lexington is the ______ of the Universe” was like offering free tickets to the opening day of Keeneland, take the grandstand seats and remember the sunscreen!  (“the opening day of Keeneland” became part of the poem when Bianca asked folks to tell her their most beloved places in Lexington.)

At 496 words, including the title, Bianca’s poem is already spread across 247 bodies, soon to be 249. Each day, Bianca’s words stretch, go for a brisk morning run in the dark, carry a newborn, bake chocolate-bacon cookies, drink buttered-rum flavored coffee, and do all the things that make up our daily lives. On January 22 at 2 p.m., Kate Hadfield got tattooed with “and were so busy,” a phrase that reminds her of her ever-busy life as a poet and dancer. When Kate dances, Bianca’s words refuse to sit still; they absolutely refuse to die.

Reading Bianca’s poem is, more often than not, a public act: one that takes place in public and makes it necessary to look at skin, ink, and hair, not yellowing pages. “Hello, fried delicacies!” we shout to Hampton Fisher whose tattoo might just be the funniest. At 8 p.m. on January 22, Mikey Wells got “from” — a word he chose to remind him of where he comes from. Like many others who received Bianca’s words as tattoos, Mikey does not hesitate to take his right shoe off, revealing his part of the whole. His tattoo makes you wonder, “from where?” Mikey is from Lexington.

Can a poem still change anything?

Bianca’s poem—spread like a city-wide mural over 249 bodies—changes our ideas about poetry, tattoos, art and love. “The ________ of the Universe” changes our ideas about a city large enough to adopt so many willing to sink deep roots in Bluegrass soil.

Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova

****Note: This blog entry is 496 words long, the same length as Bianca’s poem. Reading “The ________ of the Universe” after this blog entry should make it clear that poetry can get a lot more mileage per word than prose.

Categories: Literary Arts, Other | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What do kids get from reciting poetry anyway?

Here’s  one final thought for National Poetry Month. When I was in fourth grade, my teacher was Mrs. Flannery. Some days I loved her; some days I hated her. She challenged me; she expected great things from all of her students and she was sensitive to kids who had no academic opportunities outside of her class. She could also be mean (according to the solipsist sensibilities of a fourth grader), her breath smelled like cough drops and she gave us hours of homework every night. But the cruelest thing she did was make us recite poetry on Fridays.

We had one week to memorize a poem she chose from her personal literary canon then accurately recite it in front of the entire class. The first poem given to us was “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. The rhyming verse was helpful in remembering each line, and most students who even tried were able to recite it with proficiency. The room sizzled with suppressed snickers every time one of us said “against the earth’s sweet flowing breast” and “upon whose bosom snow has lain.” The mood was much more somber when we learned about the deaths of Joyce Kilmer and fellow World War I poet Wilfred Owen. “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” which we thankfully did not have to recite, may have traumatized a few of us.

Through the school year we spent Friday afternoons listening to each other soar or struggle with poems. Some were funny; we each recited Shel Silverstein’s “Sick,” which spoke directly to us as kids with perpetual spring fever. Some were exciting; we especially got into the galloping action of “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Others were boring; hearing Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowing Evening” 30 times consecutively should be prohibited by the Geneva Convention.

This was not mere memorization and regurgitation. I know these poems, and I can recite significant portions of them to this day. I appreciate them for different reasons. I even have educated opinions about them, and I can tell you about their authors. Mrs. Flannery gave me more than A’s and B pluses. She made me well-rounded and reflective. She also gave me pride and helped me overcome nagging fears.

When I think of nine-year-old-me, I imagine the self-conscious fat kid with a gap in her front teeth, standing to recite a century-old poem (usually fairly well) and sitting down with a red face flushed with embarrassment. This kid is the same 17-year-old who effortlessly stood in front of a room of peers and superiors at the Governor’s School for the Arts commencement and eloquently read her own poetry.

If you’re not impressed with the intangible benefits of poetry recitation, I can certainly understand. It’s true that these same ends can be achieved through music, sports, debate and other worthy pursuits. But before you pass final judgment, I encourage you to cheer for Kentucky’s Poetry Out Loud state champion, Curtlyn Kramer, as she participates in the national championship, May 13 – 15, in Washington, D.C. This competition comes with scholarships, prestige for her community and monetary awards for her school. This “kid reciting poetry” will be vying for glory and reward equal to athletes, academic teams and young musicians. Those types of benefits are irrefutable.

Sarah Schmitt, arts access director

Categories: Arts Education, Literary Arts | Tags: , , ,

An unpredictable business by Graham Shelby

When I was a kid, I loved stories. Loved writing them. Loved telling them. Loved the attention and praise that stories sometimes brought me from teachers and other kids. This led me to picture a life as a writer, one that would be filled with TV appearances, crowded book signings and high-paying worldwide lectures that might just involve a private jet.

Writing, of course, is an unpredictable business. Like many writers, I’ve learned the tough truth is that it’s easier to earn a living by teaching writing than it is to earn a living by writing writing.

As a result, I’ve spent much of my career as a kind of itinerant writing teacher (the classier term for this is “visiting author”). I’ve worked in dozens of schools all over Kentucky and elsewhere. Sometimes my visit lasts fifty days, sometimes fifty minutes. Either way, I take the opportunity seriously. I vividly remember the two special visitors who came to my classrooms when I was a child. One was the county coroner. He said the chemicals he used on corpses always made him thirsty.

The second visitor was a well-known Kentucky writer, someone my mother said was considered something of a legend. This man did provide a valuable lesson, though probably not the one he intended. I don’t remember anything he said about writing, what sticks with me thirty years later is that he was about my grandfather’s age, seemed nice, maybe a little uncomfortable, and he was wearing red-and- white-striped boxer shorts. I know that because the legendary writer had forgotten to zip his pants.

When I visit classes, I often feel like I’m less a writer than a motivational speaker with a very specific subject and audience. Plenty of kids are scared of writing because it seems full of rules that are alternately complex, vague and arbitrary. As a result, many of them see writing primarily as an opportunity to fail.

I tell students (and teachers) that writing isn’t really about rules. It’s about finding words to communicate what’s in our heads and our hearts, in our memories and imaginations.

I read them poems by George Ella Lyon, Frank X Walker or Anne Shelby (who happens to be my mother) and remind the kids that those writers grew up in Kentucky, too. I make sure the students understand that everybody has trouble writing the first line, and we all fear red marks from the teacher and bad grades (in whatever form they may take). I try to get the kids to write something—something fun, something wild, something real, without fear of judgment or correction. I tell them that no one owns writing. Sure, it’s important to understand the expectations of the teacher, the school or the state, but writing is everyone’s—yours, mine and theirs.

Admittedly, my approach doesn’t always work, at least not during my actual visit. But sometimes, I’ll see a little girl pick up her pencil and surprise herself by the words that come out of it, and she’ll realize for maybe the first time, that this writing stuff can be fun.

Moments like that weren’t part of any fantasies I ever had about the writing business, but they are part of its many unpredictable rewards.

Graham Shelby is a writer and professional storyteller in Louisville. He can be reached at

Categories: Literary Arts | Tags: , ,

Why I teach poetry by Kathleen Driskell

When I was eight years old, my third-grade teacher, Miss Walker, asked us to write poems. I scribbled mine, handed it in, and went out to the playground to swing with my friends. When I arrived at school the next day, as I hung my little yellow coat on its hook along the wall in our classroom, Miss Walker called to me. She said I was going to read my poem over the morning announcements.

She held my hand and led me down the hall and into the principal’s office where I was sat in a chair and scooted up to a heavy oak desk. A squat silver microphone rose up in front of me. Miss Walker laid my poem on the desk. I can still remember how plump and creamy her hand looked as she smoothed out the paper. She nodded and I read:

War is bad.

It makes me sad.

When my uncle gets home

from Vietnam,

I will be glad.

There are so many moments that can change the course of a life, it seems impossible to point to a specific instance and say that’s it, that’s the place there. If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be me. But I’m absolutely certain reading my little poem to the entire school caused my life to veer into an unpredicted direction. After that day, I was going to “be” in the world in a different way.

Miss Walker’s kindness, her recognition of me that morning, set me on the way toward being a poet. She is but the first of many writing and literature teachers who have helped me find my intellectual life. I’m moved to share with my own students all I have been given.

The Greek roots of the word poetry mean to make or create. Some folks paint, some play violin, some knit, some cook, some make cars run again, but human beings are meant to make something.

Poems can’t make sense of the inexplicable, but they can teach us how to make the inexplicable meaningful to our own lives. Poems are eloquent responses to all that we can’t understand, like a beloved uncle, a kid himself, in a faraway war in a green jungle.

When I turned ten, two tall men in Marine uniforms pulled up in a dark car and knocked on my grandfather’s door. Forty-some years after the death of my uncle, this scenario continues to occur on the front porches of Americans across our country.

My undergraduate students in creative writing class may never become poets who go on to publish. Perhaps they will not become writers of any kind, but they will leave my classroom to become citizens of a world that is often inexplicable. I can’t teach them the specifics of anatomy or legal code or the intricacies of corporate communication theory, but I can, through teaching them how to read and make poems, give them a way to be more wholly human, more creative,  and show them that these qualities are just as essential when caring for the sick, defending the accused, or trying to figure out what is actually the bottom line. Poems can help us make our way through our own lives. Poems can teach us how to be fully alive.

Kathleen Driskell’s most recent book of poems “Seed Across Snow” (Red Hen Press, Los Angeles) was listed as a national bestseller by the Poetry Foundation. Many of the poems in “Seed Across Snow” are about her family’s experience living in an old country church that was built before the Civil War. She teaches creative writing and helps direct the brief-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University in Louisville.

Categories: Literary Arts | Tags: , ,

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