Every New Year's Day, Janet and I have what we call our "State of the Union" meeting. It is a time for looking back at how we did the previous year, checking in with each other about our relationship, and sharing our priorities in each of several areas for the coming year. Prior to the meeting, we write out our goals, as well plans for how we will achieve them. During the meeting, we share what we have written, discuss, and then fill in our annual calendar with activities and events that further those goals. Much planning and organizing goes into preparation for the meeting, as well as openness to modification during the meeting. It's an intense, fulfilling and, we believe, necessary process in order to bring our dreams into reality.
You probably do some version of the same thing. If you don't, I recommend that you discover your own annual planning process—no matter how elaborate or how simple. At least write down your goals, what you intend to do about them, and share both with someone who cares about you.
Poetry has been a category that I have centered my life around more and more as each year passes. It has not happened by chance. It has been intentional. So I invite you to check in with yourself, as I pose the following questions:
There are multiple opportunities for any of the above categories within Marin Poetry Center for 2015. My wish for all of you is that write down your dreams and goals for yourselves as poets for 2015, and then that you do whatever it takes to achieve them.
One of my goals for 2015 is to be more of a spokesperson for poetry — locally and nationally. To that end, I share two items below:
Ennui By Becky Foust It hit her like a double bolus of morphine. Her problem was ennui. Envy of Envy. Pilgrim wished she could, but just did not care. Not about shoes, blow-dried hairdos, Ins to swank parties, flat stomachs and house lots, Toddlers locked and loaded on Harvard, Sugar in schools, or Land Rovers v. Escalades. (OK, maybe a little about the shoes.) She lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, but for, well, any quoi at all. And wasn't that its own sin? To have it all, and still be malign and vile, A wart on the face of esprit de corps? Perhaps she needed to dial it back: Booze and Prozac. Recall pain for a while. [First published in Notre Dame Review and nominated for a Pushcart in 2014]
December 28, 2014
Open Letter to The San Francisco Chronicle:
Upon reading "Best Of 2014: 100 Recommended Books" in the Sunday, December 28 issue of The San Francisco Chronicle, I was once again astonished that not one single book of poetry made the list. It's not that I've not been disappointed before by the lack of poetry books on the list, but I seem to have reached the stage in life where remaining silent about such a gross negligence is, at least, as incomprehensible as what the leading newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area, with its history of world-class poets, is thinking by ignoring this genre of books so crucial not only to contemporary literature, but to human culture.
So, what were you thinking? That 2014 was a bad year for poetry? That there were no collections published that measured up to the fiction and creative non-fiction books listed? Most poets I know feel that 2014 was a stellar year for poetry. Are you even aware, for example of Maya Angelou's tribute to Nelson Mandela, His Day Is Done, or Mary Oliver's Blue Horses: Poems, or Edward Hirsch's Gabriel: A Poem, or Gerald Stern's Divine Nothingness—merely a sample of the extraordinary creations from a few of our poets who are national treasures? In addition, 2014 brought us countless terrific works from poets lesser known to the casual poetry reader.
Or is it that you lack the discernment to judge what poetry books belong on your list of "100 Recommended Books." If so, just admit it, and enlist the help of countless qualified judges residing right here in the bay area — poets like Jane Hirschfield, Robert Hass, Paul Hoover, Maxine Chernoff, Kim Addonizio, D.A. Powell, Sharon Dubiago, Philip Levine, Peter Everwine, Susan Browne, Robert Sward, and countless others who would, likely, be happy to be a part of your selection process.
Frankly, I'm embarrassed for my poetry colleagues across the country to see this list, knowing San Francisco's heritage of great poets, and the current upsurge in the writing and teaching of poetry in the U.S. I'm embarrassed for our school children across the bay area who will open the pages of your book section and see no poetry books listed. What are they to think? Poetry books are not real books? Not literature? Not as important as fiction or creative non-fiction? At least readers of science fiction and fantasy were directed to sfgate.com for a separate list.
But most of all, I'm embarrassed for The San Francisco Chronicle, and for you, John McMurtrie. Your list of "Best books of 2014" is an insult to all poets, as well as to all students, teachers and readers of poetry. To see it as anything less is to participate in your gross oversight of this indispensable literary genre.Terry Lucas
Working Poet, Editor, and Writing Consultant
Mill Valley, California
At the close of 2014, we were delighted to see that MPC membership hovered around the 300 mark. Our annual membership drive commenced at the end of November. Under the able leadership of Laurel Feigenbaum, Membership and Correspondence Chair, and a handful of much appreciated volunteers, over 500 letters got stuffed and mailed.
Have you sent in your renewal?
If you haven't done so already, we look forward to receiving your renewal. With your support, MPC can break the 300 barrier in 2015 and continue to bring members the varied and rich programs you've come to expect. As a reminder, members who donate $30 or more above their normal dues will receive a free copy of the 2015 Anthology.
New and Old Faces on the Board
Francesca Bell has taken the reins as Events Chair from Roy Mash who served as interim chair from September to December. Francesca's soon to be published book of poetry, Bright Stain, was a finalist in the Poetry Foundation's 2012 Emily Dickinson First Book competition, a semifinalist for the 2012 and 2013 Philip Levine Prize, a finalist for the 2013 May Swenson Poetry Award, and a finalist in the Carnegie Mellon Press 2013 open submission period.
Former Board member, Alyse Rall Benjamin, has responded to the urgent call for an Anthology Editor. A serious student and writer of poetry, she will supervise the submission and selection process, while Casey FitzSimons will serve as Copy Editor. A frequent featured reader at San Francisco Bay Area poetry venues and author of numerous books of poetry, Casey served for many years as VP of editorial and production at Key Curriculum Press.
Michael Beebe worked cooperatively with me on the 2014 Summer Traveling Show and has gallantly assumed the role of Coordinator for the 2015 Summer Traveling Show. In addition to his skill as a poet and voracious reader of poetry, Michael brings a strong background in financial management to this detailed and complex project.
For 2015, we sensibly decided to divide the High School Program into four working groups: Outreach to High Schools, Readers and Judges for the Poetry Contest, Publication of the HS Anthology, and the Poetry Contest Award Ceremony. Paula Weinberger, agreed to coordinate these various efforts. The HS Program, now in its 26th year, has a loyal cadre of volunteers who have been active in various phases of the project. We are pleased to add Lexi Cary to this list. Lexi, a former HS Poetry Contest finalist, brings a much welcome youthful perspective to our endeavors.
Becky Foust continues as liaison to the Marin Poet Laureate project and serves as an invaluable advisor, consultant and contributor to MPC's current and future efforts.
Barbara Brooks, whose uncanny ability to capture the essence of our complex Board discussions, continues as Recording Secretary. Her monthly reports provide an indispensible archive and reference to MPC's history.
And of course, the person we all depend on and turn to, Roy Mash, continues in his official role as Webmaster and Treasurer, and his unofficial role as conceptualizer, efficiency expert and gracious provider of tasks too numerous to mention.
MPC is a volunteer organization. If you are interested in volunteering, please contact Laurel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to indicate if you have a particular interest or skill. Laurel has put together a Volunteer List and as the need arises, which it always does, she will contact people on the list.
Let us hear from you
MPC is your organization. Let us know what you like and don't like about what we're doing. Please share your ideas for new initiatives as well as ways to improve the programs we currently offer.Wishing you a healthful and productive New Year.
Paula Weinberger, MPC Chair
On Sunday, December 7 at 3:00 pm, Marin Poetry Center partnered with Mill Valley Library to present three poets in MVL's Creekside room: Maxine Hong Kingston, Fred Marchant, and Dean Rader. The idea for the reading came from East Bay poet Tiffany Higgins, a former student of Marchant, when she realized that Marchant would be in the Bay Area for an annual veteran's writing conference he conducts with Kingston, and so would be available to read with her here. (Marchant lives in Boston and rarely makes appearances in the Bay Area.) Higgins, impressed with the attendance at last May's Poetry World Series at the Mill Valley Library, approached MPC Board member and co-organizer of the PWS, Rebecca Foust, and together they planned the event, bringing in local Dean Rader as a third reader.
Booked for events through 2016, MPC was unable to offer a spot in its Third Thursday Series but agreed to co-sponsor the reading. Anji Brenner at the Mill Valley Library obliged by offering a spot in the library's Creekside Room where many MPC Traveling Shows are held. Anji did her usual wonderful job of outreach for the event, sending out PR (which listed MPC as co-sponsor), beginning in August of this year. Diesel Books sent a representative to sell books.
Given the time and day of the week and rush of the holiday season, this writer had trepidation about attendance, but the room, which holds about 120 people, was packed! Many MPC members were in the audience. Anji's brief introduction made mention of MPC and its programs and invited audience members to take MPC brochures and postcards available at the back of the room. Foust introduced Rader, who read first, and Higgins introduced Marchant, and then Kingston.
Each poet read for about 20-25 minutes—both published and new work—punctuated by the applause, laughter and sighs of an appreciative and fully engaged audience. The energy in the room was palpable and positive, and many lingered for up to an hour afterwards for conversation and book signing. Thank you to everyone including those of you who showed up in this busy time, for making this event a complete success! More information about the poets and their books can be found in the bios below.
Maxine Hong Kingston, the author of The Woman Warrior, China Men, Tripmaster Monkey, The Fifth Book of Peace, and other works, won the National Book Award, the National Medal of Arts, and the NBCC Award, among others. She is a former Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at UC Berkeley.
Fred Marchant is the author of five books of poetry, among them Tipping Point, Full Moon Boat, and The Looking House. His newest collection, The Day Later, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2016. He is founding director of the Suffolk University Poetry Project in Boston, MA.
Dean Rader's Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize. Landscape Portrait Figure Form (Omnidawn) was a Barnes & Noble best poetry book. Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry will be published in 2016 by Copper Canyon Press. Dean is a professor at USF.
A note about the Poetry World Series: organized by Rebecca Foust, Dean Rader, and Melissa Stein, the PWS has become an annual event at the MVL in May and at Litquake in October, featuring hosts Will Durst and Daniel Handler, a panel of celebrity judges, two teams of three poets who take turns "batting" to "pitches" (poetry prompts chosen by the audience), and our own Roy Mash as Time Keeper and Pinch Hitter. Check MPC Listings for the next PWS in May 2016.
In what has become a well-loved annual event sponsored by the Marin Poetry Center, the Rebound Players packed Falkirk on Thursday, December 4 with their seventh annual production of A Child's Christmas in Wales. Audience members were treated to a wonderful, live version of the famous piece by Dylan Thomas, adapted by Joel Eis as a Readers Theatre piece for four voices and guitar. Wearing its holiday clothes for the occasion, Falkirk was festooned with green garlands, and twinkled with white lights. Hot cider and cookies were waiting for audience members as they came through the door.
The players included Joel Eis, proprietor of Rebound Bookstore, MPC Webmaster and Board Member Roy Mash, MPC members Susan Zerner and Margaret Stawowy (who does Hospitality for MPC Events) and Stan Gibbs on guitar. They captivated the audience, speaking in character, caroling, and sometimes hamming it up in a production that lasted about 40 minutes. All the players were wonderful, bringing their characters to life and moving the audience to frequent laughter and, in this writer's case, a few tears. Susan Zerner's solo performance of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (amended to include a merry little Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, and others), was beautiful and deserves special mention. A Child's Christmas was followed by several short pieces and poems including an especially sinuous rendition of Theodore Roethke's "The Serpent." (If you ever have occasion to need a vampire voiceover, Margaret Stawowy is the one to call!) Other short pieces were "Rules" by Karl Kuskin (performed by Susan Zerner), "Messy Room" by Shel Silverstein (Joel Eis), "The Hippo" by Theodore Roethke (Roy Mash) and "The Little Boy and the Old Man" by Shel Silverstein (Margaret Stawowy).
Saturday night's performance closed with a surprise appearance by a young man in the audience, Tristan Andrew, who leaped to his feet to render a flawless recitation of "The Night before Christmas." The performance was reprised on Saturday, December 6 at Rebound Bookstore in San Rafael. The Rebound Players' A Child's Christmas in Wales delivered everything you want in a holiday event: great material, high-caliber and professional performances, and an atmosphere that was festive and heart-warming. I'll be marking my calendar for this one next year. You should, too.
In September, nearly 45 of our member poets gathered to celebrate the launch of the 2014 MPC Anthology, Stones. During a lively read-around, poems included in the anthology were read, with a rapt audience hanging onto every word. Peg Pursell, Anthology editor, was acknowledged for her fine work, along with Kim Marcellino, assistant editor. Sparkling wine and a fabulous lemon cake (thanks to Margaret Stawowy, refreshment volunteer) kicked off the evening. Published poets each received a complimentary copy, and many books were sold after the reading. Anthologies are still available for $15 at every MPC event.
On October 16, Robin Becker and W.S. DiPiero were featured readers. Robin, a Liberal Arts Research Professor of English and Women's Studies at Penn State, read from her recent book, Tiger Heron. Her poems reach into core human experiences, including the death of parents and relationships with other creatures. She spoke of grief over the destruction of ecosystems, and talked about hearing stories from her Ukrainian grandmother, who spoke Yiddish. She graced us with villanelles and couplets; her poems are known for their contemporary formalism.
W.S. DiPiero is the winner of the 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and has been the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and many other awards. He lives in San Francisco, although he grew up in South Philadelphia. He read from Tombo, his 11th book of poetry. His poems do not look away from suffering; he serves poetry with an unflinching eye, with lyrical, explosive language. The title poem comes from an experience in the local Safeway: "…I smelled myself in my aging body and felt my silly bones collapse again. I wanted Tombo's dispensation to save this faint believer and the indifferent world that rivers through and past me…" DiPiero is also well known as an essayist, and is an accomplished translator of Greek and Latin poetry.
In November, we were introduced to two young poets whose unique voices embrace and transcend diverse cultural backgrounds. Denusha Lameris is the daughter of a Caribbean mother and Dutch father. She read from her recently published book of poetry, The Moons of August. Her poems have a luminous, spare quality, both universal and personal, with penetrating phrases such as "the bone of longing" and "the dark bed the beloved makes inside our bodies." Lameris's poetry sparkles with gentle wit, while never far from moments of profound loss. Zubair Ahmed, born in Bangladesh, came to the United States in 1988. Many of the poems in his book, City of Rivers, reflect the disconnection between his present and past as he searches for a new equilibrium. His language is sparse and searing. For example, in describing his hollow bones, he invites us to "sit in them and light a fire". Although the rivers Zubair referred to are sources of his unique experiences, they also help us feel a connection to our own roots. His language may be simple, but his words swell with implicit meaning long after one has finished listening.Many thanks to Paula Weinberger for reporting on the November readings.
Greetings Marin Poetry Center members and poets,
On Saturday, November 8th, contributors to the book Changing Harm to Harmony: Bullies & Bystanders Project, and community members committed to change regarding bullying and its consequences, gathered at the historic Larkspur Library to listen to and read poems, letters and other writings on that theme. It was an intense afternoon of shared experiences of being bullied and/or of being the bully or the bystander. What follows is a letter from a high school teacher who has read the book, as well as excerpts from essays written by some of the participants and attendees in response to the event.
— Joseph Zaccardi
I participated in the launch of Changing Harm to Harmony: Bullies & Bystanders Project. Although I had heard most of these poets read their work before, this event, this book, and this reading, were different. As contributors began to open their hearts and tell their stories, a strong current of connection traveled throughout the crowded room. Difficult, listening to the raw pain of it, to recognize how familiar it all was, for just about all of us had experienced some form of bullying, as victim, perpetrator, or both. At the same time, it was comforting to sense our commonality, to understand that we are all in this together and have a stake in addressing these issues.
As a poet, I've always been appreciative of work that risks vulnerability. Peeling back the layers to an exposed self is an act of great courage, and when it is done with grace and art, as in the diverse voices of this anthology, it reaches out to the reader and invites connection.
I've also been deeply interested in "the shadow," those repressed parts of ourselves that are so threatening to see and acknowledge, and that are often associated with shame. I believe the theme and organization of Changing Harm to Harmony, which includes many anonymous pieces, has facilitated an opportunity for contributors to look in the mirror and express themselves openly.
I am grateful that copies of this important book were donated to teachers at Ensinal High School in Alameda, and to professionals working with prisoners at Salinas Valley State Prison. The message and impact of Changing Harm to Harmony is now traveling far beyond Marin.
— Rose Black
More Than a Book Launch: Seeds of Change
When I walked up the Larkspur Library steps to hear the launch of Joe Zaccardi's Changing Harm to Harmony, I knew I was going to receive more than poetic inspiration. I'd seen Joe prepare for this day for two years. I'd admired his quiet industry. How carefully he arranged his timeline, presented a public panel discussion of his poet laureate project on bullying, and those who are bystanders. He'd gathered five thousand submissions, personally read each one. He'd arranged readings throughout the country over this next year. At his launch on Saturday November 8 he just as thoughtfully explained his entire process for his anthology. He did what we poets wish all editors would do with our work, show sensitivity in selection, take the time to make it right. Have clear guiding principles for his choices, intensity and individuality. He thanked all who sent work, all who helped with art and layout, his right and left hand advisors. His personal touch of having two words that characterize the poet speaking at the bottom of each poem: magic.
And then the poems began. One by one, thirty poets read one poem each to a packed room — poems about being abused, being an abuser, about changing that situation to one of less harm, through life's occasional transformations. The audience sighed, people cried, faces around me showed recognition, relief, anger, sorrow. The poems heard all together achieved even more. The poems, so personally tended and given to us, lingered.
As I left, I felt a kind of victory. Those words spoken were spotlights on each life mentioned, each spirit reaching up to life. Because poets told the truth, others listened and cared. We all won. I came down the stairs almost marching.
— Donna L Emerson
My reactions and experiences I had after attending the Changing Harm to Harmony book launch:
I continue to hold the energy I felt as I walked into the room for the book launch. Readers felt honored and fortunate to have what they wrote in the book and to be part of this project.
The book feels like a strong step in making a difference in the Bullies and Bystanders Project. Plus, Dick's cover and what he says on the back cover feels so right for the book — a great pairing.
I strongly want this to make a difference, and feel the counselors and teachers who lead and interact with the students who harm, who are harmed, and who are bystanders need to be well trained, since they are there for the long term. This is a process that takes time, and I worry about how leaders and teachers can exacerbate problems if they don't have the time, ability, and compassion for the kids and for their families.
Joe, I admire you and thank you for choosing this as your project as the Marin County poet laureate.
— Stephie Mendel
Bullies, Victims, and Bystanders
What — you've never been bullied? You're kidding! Lucky you to have lived so bully-free while the rest of us still suffer its pain.
And, of course, you've never been a bully — right? How about your dad or mom? Yes, even parents have bully moments that come on a bad day's finger-snap. All it takes is a puddle of frustration and a tittle of parental power.
Help change harm to harmony by confronting ourselves as bullies, victims, and bystanders.
— Alan Cohen
I experienced the anthology launch as part of the restorative justice movement. This joins with the civil rights, feminism, sexual rights, and other movements.
The anthology is launched at a time when oppression by bullying and intimidation has gained national attention. We are illuminating dark corners with new approaches, language, legal processes, education and intervention in schools, athletics, religious groups, and in families as a societal transformation.
— Richard Cruwys Brown
Not Really A Woman
Although I have told many over the years about my experience, it wasn't until I shared it at the Larkspur Library launch that it released energy in me. Instead of feeling isolated and different, I felt a sense of freedom. I breathed easier, knowing that my poem had its place in a collection of similar experiences. I held my head high, knowing a community heard the pain I went through. The support and understanding I got at the book launch made me feel powerful and strong. I felt even more determined to share my poem so that more people know what happened.
Participating in the reading makes me believe change is possible.
— Eva M. Schlesinger
Let me first identify myself as a dear friend of Rose Black. She has shared so much with me about your project, which I understand was very successfully launched here in the Bay Area on November 8th. I teach high school English at Encinal in Alameda and this is a topic that we are always addressing. I want to thank you for your generous contribution to my classroom. Rose gave me the five copies of the book and I was touched and moved by this gesture. I have already explored it cover to cover and the material is outstanding and so relevant to what so many of my students are facing. We will use it well. I am in the process of designing activities around some of the pieces and will, of course, have my own students come up with a contribution to the cause. I think we will put together our own little anthology before the end of the year.
— Jeanie Maggi
"Yes, I remember your letter. I think about it all the time," my former workplace bully confessed as we walked along a Berkeley street during one of our chance encounters twenty years after my supervisor fired him for harassing me — a gay employee. He sighed, "I really regret what I did to you."
I had informed him that my twenty year old "Dear Jacob" letter responding to his apology letter was about to be published in the anthology Changing Harm to Harmony, edited by Marin County poet laureate, Joseph Zaccardi. I invited my former bully to the book launch, but he caters Saturday.
One by one, thirty poets and writers approached the podium in the Larkspur City Council Room to read from the book. People in the audience stifled tears. I cringed when the victims, the perpetrators, and the bystanders of bullying broke their silence and spoke about their experiences for the first time. I recited "Dear Jacob."
I carry in my black valise a copy of Changing Harm to Harmony for a journey that may last months or years. If I ever encounter my bully again, I will give him this book and thank him. The last time we met I made this prediction of restorative justice: "People around the world will read my letter to you for a very long time."
— André Le Mont Wilson
For My Middle School-aged Daughters
The book launch and reading of the new anthology, Changing Harm to Harmony, was so moving, I wanted to share some of the letters and poems with my middle school-aged daughters. Their schools, beginning in the early grades, have promoted various No Bully and conflict resolution programs. We also talk about these things at home. I wondered what impact some of the voices in the anthology would have on them. They listened far more attentively than they currently do to me (it's the age!), and asked for more. Here is what they said: relatable, really moving, liked it a lot, not just what you hear about at school, believable, not too poetic, easy to understand, poetry I care about, deep. They felt that hearing about being bullied by those who had experienced it touched them in a deeper way than the abstractions, however helpful and well-intentioned, of the school programs. Real experiences from real people. They both decided they wanted to be more aware and to stand up even more for those who are vulnerable. I have tears in my eyes as I type this.
— Janet Jennings
Memory of Both Sides
Something about the poems of Linda Lancione and Kate Peper who were present at the reading in Larkspur and of Gerald Fleming who was then in Paris that grabbed me immediately.
Linda's scary evocation of family, particularly of a terrifying brother, how he returns to torment as a De Niro character from a horror movie approaching her in a restaurant where "the crazy are always in charge." Such hopeless inevitability of the past-present!
Gerald Fleming's "Looked At Him," the first poem in the book, mentions a lawyer who, later in life, feeling badly about besting a boy in a high school fight, finds and writes the boy, now grown, and feels "a great weight lift" when he sends off his note of apology. The lawyer's own suffering grows or perhaps begins with his "victim's" surprising reply, "I see that you have not changed a bit."
Personally, I have been bullied (psychologically) and, as much as I hate to admit it, was the aggressor in too many fights I waged as a young teenager. Other readers helped me remember the little punk who, at every opportunity, would call this very tall very skinny boy either "monkey" or "banana." He signed my yearbook (not his photo, but my own) with the word "Banana."
However, also, as with Gerald Fleming's character, I chose my own fights relatively carefully, and now, I must reflect upon the humiliation I caused. Kate Peper in "Duplicity" counsels us closet-cowards to "Never nod or smile in recognition/at the part of you like her, that trips/over words or walks alone."
I am forced to realize that there are two sides to every issue. Here, these are both hurt and fury. Prior to the Larkspur reading, although I had two heartfelt poems in the book, I had not considered this nor felt it in this manner. At 70, I live with at least the memory of both sides.
— Ed Coletti
Thoughts on Changing Harm to Harmony Anthology Launch, November 8, 2014
We read in the broad light of early afternoon. Each writer spoke about dark and sad events. The sunshine had a calming effect on the diverse stories and poems. This is as it should be.
Recently I found a carton of mildewed stuffed animals and infant clothes stored in my basement. The smell made me want to toss everything into the garbage immediately. Instead, I set out a blanket on the backyard lawn and everyday spread the toys and clothing out to bask in sunshine. After two weeks, the nauseous mildew odor had left. The toy animals could rejoin the family home.
This seemed to happen at the reading. We'd spread out our moldy hurts in warm afternoon sunshine. Our experienced harm changed. An invisible peace floated above as we shared these hurts.
— MJ Pramik
For whatever reason, I emerged from the wee hours of childhood on a quest. (Perhaps we all do.) Alone on a rainy afternoon, or catching butterflies in the summer fields, or deep in the throes of a fever dream, I had bumped into some mysterious inhabitants of my inner realms, and I intended to get to know them better. And so, it was with great expectations that I entered the University Grand Hall for my first lecture in Psych 101. Perhaps I would get my first glimpse behind the curtain of human experience, to look in on its unadorned figure. But in his first lecture, my professor leaned into the podium, cleared his throat, and pronounced: "Psychology is a science, and ... [dramatic pause] ... as a science, its purpose is to predict and control ... human behavior."
I, who had a fondness for science and math (my SAT scores leaned in those directions), was horrified. Were Darwin's investigations into the mysteries of evolution aimed at prediction and control? Were Einstein's meditations on Gravity and Time for the purpose of predicting and controlling them? When Archimedes ran naked in the streets, did he shout, "I am in control of my bathtub's misplaced water!" ? No, he roared, "Eureka!"
In spite of this deadening introduction—or maybe, defiantly, because of it—I continued my studies in psychology through the masters level. But I veered in worrisome directions for my professors whose holy grail was quantifiable evidence. I spent most of my free time at the "touchy-feely" Counseling Center, exploring aspects of consciousness that behaviorists wholeheartedly dismissed as tricks of the imagination. And instead of designing an easy-to-manipulate experiment with the department's formidable lab-rat population, I focused my thesis research on creativity.
With this ironic touch: a National Science Foundation Grant funded it!
National anxiety around the US's ability to "compete globally" was similar then to now. With Sputnik, the USSR had beat us into space, which prompted a brief but steady stream of money into research on what makes a person creative. And what most studies unearthed (including mine) was unsettling to the empirical soul. The essential traits of a creative mind included suspension of one's critical faculties and an open door to the unknown, the unlikely, the unwieldy... the unpredictable.
Once again, national anxiety over our "ability to compete globally," which is the buzz phrase in educational debates, is rearing its fretful head. In recent international tests, American students placed shockingly low in science and math, and were first in only one category: self confidence. This revelation has sent politicians and educators in a desperate scramble to stay at the forefront of our brave new technological world. Thus, a new educational gold standard has been conceived and sent out onto the white waters of the American classroom: STEM. A curriculum devoted to Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math.
This banner flies even from our elementary schools. Drive through Fairfax, and find St. Rita's School proudly festooned in those letters. Who can argue, of course, that our future won't be thronged in technology? Even now, the left-brained fitness required to make one's way through a day's worth of digital mazes is daunting. And it seems likely to grow only more fierce.
But a curriculum so heavily weighted on what can be measured and manipulated, predicted and controlled, certainly gives pause to the neglected interior, to the artist in us all. Thankfully, a right-brained contingent has risen up and wedged an A for the Arts into the mix, creating a counter movement called STEAM. But I'm not sure the arts have found their rightful place in the story. I'd like to suggest we dig a little deeper, we citizens of the Over World of Technological Wonders. That we get down to the roots, without which nary a stem will rise.
What are the roots of human life? And what practices tend them? For one thing, roots do their work under ground, in the dark. They draw water and essential minerals to the plant; they nourish it and keep it juicy. So, perhaps the roots of human experience are the aspects of a person that must be left to their own devices and remain in the dark. The parts that drink from underground springs and bring forth the visible expressions of life—growth, and ultimately, blossoming.
And perhaps the water our human roots drink, that which keeps us nourished and juicy, is wonder. Aha! Have we arrived at poetry? Isn't wonder where all poems begin? And doesn't science also have its roots in wonder? As is often the case, Albert Einstein, our nation's Master of Math and Science says it best:
The finest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion, which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.
I recently attended a panel discussion among ecologically minded scientists whose mission is to integrate a sense of "spirit" into the necessary scientific rigor needed to bring our world into a healthy balance. One among them with countless degrees across scientific disciplines, summed it up like this: "The only thing that will save our planet is a deepening sense of awe."
And what discipline deepens awe, if not poetry? Poetry is the wonderer's art form. It makes its home in the immeasurable and the unanswerable, it revels in fiddling with the impossible. I have been a Poet in the Schools for over 15 years, a privileged witness of what can happen in a classroom with only pencils, wide-lined paper, and a model poem or two—often one we write together, on the spot, on the board. That is to say, I've had my share of glimpses behind the curtain where the unadorned figure of human experience does her wild dance.
Children are made of awe. I have never met one who wasn't over-pouring with wonder. They love to be surprised and are perfectly happy going back to square one. If you ask a gathering of children what the weather is like inside their desk or which color is best at keeping secrets or what sound the heart makes on the first day of summer, no further explanation is needed. Every one of them will raise their hand and wave it hard. They understand the world of odd connections. And they literally applaud when it's poem-making time, which is something worth giving our attention to. Metaphor making, the antidote to compartmentalization, the art of slipping over boundary lines ... brings joy, the personal "Eureka!"
And so, it is a sad state of affairs that in recent years as budgets wear thin and school boards and foundations look for places to cut, poetry seems to be among the first dispensables. From a certain perspective, I understand it. There is nothing glitzy about poetry. In fact, it's probably as low-tech as one can get. And besides, almost no adults like it anymore (present company excluded!). For many, it was that weird discipline nobody could make heads or tails of and couldn't wait to outgrow.
And yet… Given the right introduction (i.e., let's spend some time wondering together), whole classrooms of children stand and cheer when the teacher announces Poetry Time. They know it's time to tune back into their own mysterious roots, hidden from view, and to listen to the never-thought-before ideas those roots bring up from the dark. It's time to wonder again. To ask the questions that have no answers. To shine their own small lights on what will never be measured, controlled or predicted.
But from this seeming chaos, all Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math… all stems are born. And these children might, in fact, bring poetry along with them into their adulthood days… for the sheer fun of it. And poetry, with its metaphoric connections that hint at an ultimate unity, might turn out be one simple remedy to relax our anxiety over "global competition." It might remind us of the joys of cooperation and the appreciation of differences… it might keep us capable of amazement.