"The arts are what help us make a coherent whole out of chaos. In two years I was on the road 13 months all over this state, and am more convinced than ever, that people are looking for what poetry has to offer. They just don’t know it. Most people who say ‘No’ to poetry don’t know what they are saying no to." ~ Sam Green, former Washington State Poet Laureate
Recently, poet and educator Laura Shovan sent me a poem by Sam Green and said, "I thought of you when I saw this."
Laura posted one of his other poems, "If You Had To," a couple of weeks ago as part of her ongoing Poet Laureate Series, which sparked an interesting discussion about how poetry has long been a "hard sell" when it comes to mainstream thinking. Why do so many people reject, out of hand, the one thing they need the most?
Of course I loved the poem Laura sent me — so much so, that I asked Sam for permission to post it here. He couldn’t have been more generous or gracious, even providing some backstory, which just happens to perfectly show how poetry can work its magic, if only people are given the chance to see what it is and what it can do.
I was visiting a small high school, and going to English classes, which is usual. The teacher of the culinary arts class asked if maybe I could visit her class for two days, since she thought it’d be fun. I agreed. Poetry transcends classes (I’ve had good luck with some science classes, for example), after all. The day I was supposed to visit the class, though, turned out not to have been a good choice. The school was in the state football playoffs, and most of the kids were gone on a rooter bus. That left only five highly disgruntled kids who really wanted to be on the bus with their friends, but who couldn’t be (for reasons I never quite got). What was clear was that they didn’t want to be in class that day. And the teacher — a fine poet herself — was feeling in a low place, wondering about her usefulness, her ability to connect — all of those things that even gifted teachers worry about from time to time.
She confided all this to me after class. I’d planned on maybe having the group write poems about food. As it was, the kids would barely talk with me, they were so sullen. So I tackled each of them with a simple question: "What do you like to cook?" I had to drag details out of them: "Do you sing or dance in the kitchen?" "WHAT?!" One by one I got some story, concrete detail by concrete detail. The kids were relieved when the bell rang. I had a long conversation with the teacher, who offered to let me off the hook for the next day, but I said no. I went back home (the house where I was staying), and wrote the poem, speaking about each kid as I went, using the information they’d given me, and came up with the poem, "Grace."
Next day, the rest of the class was there when I showed up, all full of stories about the game (they’d won!), and not all that interested in me as a visitor. I got them quiet and said I’d like to start with a poem. They smirked. I read the "Grace" piece, and could see each of the students from the day before realize I was speaking about them, and doing it as though what they had said to me mattered. "Hey, that was me, man!" "That was so totally cool." Kid talk for, "Something just happened that I didn’t expect, and you have my attention. Try not to lose it." The teacher, too, was grateful.
Samosa by pavangupta/flickr.
WHAT THE CULINARY ARTS TEACHER KNOWS ABOUT GRACE
for Georgia Johnson
It is there, she believes, in the way cookies slip
from a greased pan, still limp
with the heat of the oven, chocolate chip,
music on the radio, a student’s body moving
with the beat; in the scent of coriander
on a girl’s palms, the print of her thumbs
at the edges of dough, samosas taking shape, each
the size of a bite, the way desire is measured.
She thinks of grace in the sound of a heavy knife
in a boy’s hand, slicing the skin
of a salmon, slabs of pink meat
laid out on the smoke house racks, the heat
of alder coals, smoke turning flesh sweet
as sugar spilled into coffee the workers drink
to stay awake; in the long, thin strands
of pasta steaming on a white plate, the freight
of red sauce heavy with basil and oregano, allspice,
garlic and the white crystals of salt, of soft
bread stained with butter. Grace in the soup
zapped in a blue bowl laced with tapatillo
and lime, tortillas rolled with the weight
of a mother’s whole life behind her and fried
crisp. It’s in the chancy edges of knives,
forks with bent tines, the tarnished handles
of spoons that strike the side of a bowl
with a joyous sound. What daily saves her is the grace
that includes the hands, the ones that reach,
that gratefully receive, that pass the gift around.
~ posted by permission, copyright © 2008 Sam Green. All rights reserved.
Tortilla Soup by Thomas Kelly.
Oh, my. Those "tortillas rolled with the weight of a mother’s whole life behind her" blew me away, along with "the tarnished handles of spoons that strike the side of a bowl with a joyous sound." That pretty much sums up the purpose of this blog, especially on Poetry Fridays: to "pass the gift around."
Some of us may have had similar experiences in or out of the classroom, the joy of sharing our love for poetry and seeing someone "get it." I’m keeping Sam’s story and poem within easy reach — what a great reminder and wonderful inspiration. World, hear me: poetry is not a luxury, it taps into the essential part of what makes us human.
In an excellent article at TDN.com, Sam said that kids feel they have "unempowered hearts," and are "constantly looking for avenues to express themselves." He goes on to say: "Poetry is a ‘utilitarian tool,’ it makes people better citizens and better neighbors . . . The literacy of the tongue doesn’t go very far unless you have literacy of the heart."
Special thanks to Sam for everything he does to promote poetry, and to Laura, for sending "Grace," for passing the gift to me, so I could share it with you. ☺
♥ You’ll be pleased to know "Grace" will be included in Sam’s next poetry collection, which will be completed sometime next spring. His most recent poetry book is The Grace of Necessity (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2008).
♥ Read about Sam’s interesting and "unconventional" life on remote Waldron Island (no regular phone service, running water or electricity), by following some of the links on the Washington State Arts Commission Poet Laureate page. He built his own log house, grows his own veggies, and with his wife, founded Brooding Heron Press and Bindery. Before moving to the tiny four-square-mile island 25+ years ago, they sold everything and decided to live a life devoting 24 hours to poetry. Sam’s internet service is powered by solar panels. How cool is that?
♥ Click here to watch a poetry reading filmed on Arts Day 2008 in Olympia, Washington.
Today’s Poetry Friday host just happens to be Laura Shovan at Author Amok. I think she deserves some extra chocolate chip cookies, don’t you?
Have a good weekend; strike the side of your soup bowls and make a joyous sound!
*Culinary sketches at the top of this post from Captain Blaubeere’s flickr photostream.
Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.