For 15 years, the Workshop has received support from the Marin Community Foundation to conduct artist residencies at elementary schools in Marin County, primarily those serving San Rafael’s low-income neighborhoods.
In 2006, the Foundation expanded that support to include poetry residencies at Marin’s County Community School and at Juvenile Hall’s Loma Alta High School. They have continued to support poetry classes each year since, and for the past several years, we have been pleased to publish the selected work of those student poets in a colorful bound anthology.
Here, teaching artist Dana Teen Lomax’s shares her reflections on the residency, and a poem that knocked our socks off.
Leah: The Beauty of Recognizing Your Own Potential
This year, the Loma Alta residency was really different from previous years. The class was smaller than in the past, and the students and I had a chance to really connect individually. There was no place to hide, for one thing. For another, I’ve been concerned with “higher order” thinking more and more in the workshops. One lesson in particular really illustrates the deeper places we were able to go in these classes.
“The students have really made me re-think positions I have held, and they have been extremely real in our conversations. They have challenged me and themselves in the best ways, taking on the deeper questions about art and life. I respect them so much as thinkers and poets.”
I had the class read a poem by Josh Healey, “Grammatically Correct.” The students really came alive. The poem is subtitled “The Ghetto Poem,” and about halfway through, the students clamored to know if the writer was “black.” They would not rest until they knew. I tried to re-focus their attention to the craft of the poem, to the themes, to what it is “about.” Finally realizing that we had an opportunity here, not a stumbling block, we spent the next half an hour discussing the history of ghettos, oppression, feminism, and racism. The discussion was heated. The conversation had its difficult moments. And like any open-ended, provocative discussion, we all had a lot more questions at the end of the class than at the beginning. Is the author dead? Can people write from perspectives that are not their own? If they can, where’s the line? What ideas about the other sex do we maintain? Where did they come from? Do these ideas build community or make us feel isolated? In whose best interest were these ideas created? Who benefits if these ideas persist? This discussion started with a poem, but ended with the class really challenging and being challenged by their own ideas and projections. I left riveted and curious about what we had created that day.
In this class, one girl, whom we’ll call Leah, was a student who liked poetry, but hadn’t had the opportunity to write a good deal. Throughout the residency, Leah took every opportunity to learn the craft elements: metaphor, simile, personification, onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition. She seemed to literally absorb poetic techniques and then let them leak back out through her pen. The poetry classes gave her the chance to recognize her own writing talents and expand them. Bright and eager, she began to see herself as a writer and she clearly won the respect of the other students; she was like the Poet Laureate of the class. More than once I heard a student say, “Shh! Leah is about to read.” Leah’s ideas mattered — and by extension so did everyone’s, so did the class. Her poem in response to Healey’s poem and the day’s discussion is below.
Now that Leah has been set loose with her thoughts and words, I am certain that she will always have a pen in her pocket and am hopeful that she’ll choose risk-taking creatively, through verse, over other forms of risk-taking.
The Hood of Smoke & Mirrors
As an infant
I inhaled Oakland
Before my own blood
Gave me up for the pipe.
The system took me away
and placed me in
Middle Class money.
Safe and sheltered
in an artificial family
there was nothing to do
My hood was getting
my ass beat by my
two older brothers
learning at an early age
that nobody likes
Rather than learning to ride a bike
my brother taught me
how to sip the bottle at 10 years young.
Dysfunctional families can still love
so why was my hood so full of
My hood was
anywhere I could escape myself.
My hood was
a tunnel with a possible light at the end.
But that same light was more likely a
My hood is here
My hood is there
My hood isn’t me
My hood could be anywhere…