Monday, October 6, 2014

The Value of Poetry: Pure Gold

After I sent out a zany email to the Press Democrat to cover our upcoming California Poets in the Schools symposium, Voices of Gold, they decided to write a little feature on me instead. Oops. I became the news. Last time the PD did a story on me, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. The next time I had something big and newsworthy, 9/11 happened—just as I was going out the door to the Marin Poetry Center reading, and the coffee table book I was promoting, Writing the Rails—Best Loved Train Stories (Black Dog & Leventhal), was remaindered before it was released. Third time's a charm? These are my soft notes. It will be interesting to see how it will be shaped. It has a Sonoma County slant as those are the newspaper demographics. It took me two days to write this—like a cat writing my way out of a paper bag. Of course, now that I've sent it in (too late now), I see all kinds of rough segues, errors, and bits in need of revision. It is what it is...

What is the value of poetry?

The doctor poet-William Carlos Williams wrote: 'It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Poetry allows us to examine our emotions and and contemplate our thoughts. Wordsworth scribed: “Poetry is human emotion recollected in tranquillity.” Not that there’s much by way of tranquillity to be had during this day and age. In the process of recollection, poetry gives shape and form and meaning to those constantly chattering voices inside our heads, and renders them into an art form.

What can poetry accomplish that prose cannot?

Prose is to poetry as math is to music—you need both—but prose is analytical, expository, and tends toward the utilitarian. Poetry is like dancing with words. Poetry gives shape to our innermost feelings, and presents them in a tangible art form that others can enjoy, and get the Aha! epiphany. The ancient Greeks dubbed poetry as the mother of all arts. During a poetry lesson on “If…,” one of my kindergarten students at San Miguel School stood up and proclaimed: “If I were king of the universe, I’d dance for a living.” He got the Aha! moment.

Ironically I hated the study of poetry when I was young, because I didn't get it. I have dyslexia—which was part of the problem. But I was looking at form versus content, or meaning. As a writer, I’m not a big fan of metered verse, though we tend to speak in iambic stress. It took me a long time to make that full circle—which is ironic in that I coach high school students to recite poetry for the Poetry Out Loud competition.

CPITS poets create a personalized a standards-based grade level curriculum (California history, the ancient world, water cycles, or health ed.,) and infuse it with magic and mystery, often marrying theatre, music and visual arts with the literary arts.

How does the CPITS program capture—and hold—a child’s interest?

Through the immediacy and approachability of our CPTS poetry lesson plans, we offer poems from the great body of literature, as well as peer student poems, as models. It’s a mirroring process. We write our own poems based on other poems. 

Imagine being a student cut off from writing about your feeling and thoughts. With the current state curriculum standards, most student writing is expository, or fill in the dots, and there’s no room for creative self-expression. Then imagine these wild poets who come along, they take language, they damsel it up and shake it all about. Suddenly that stuffy poetry is equal parts theater and soap-box pulpit, coupled with innermost feelings fueled by wild imagination—and suddenly it’s all fun.

Most kids discover that writing their own poetry is liberating—especially those kids who traditionally don’t do well in school, or have trouble accessing the language arts curriculum. Because there’s no right or wrong way to write poetry, it’s a place where they can excel. Then, their poems are published in a school handout or a book—and suddenly poetry matters.

Suddenly you’ve kids with a vested interest in getting every word right, and every simile and comma in its exact right place. It happens like that. I was teaching in a tough East Oakland inner-city school where a fifth grader, Franklin, my star poet, was expelled. As he cleared out his desk, he eavesdropped in on the poetry lesson. He put his stuff down, grabbed some paper out of the trash, and madly wrote an amazing stream of consciousness poem that was later published in our 2012 CPITS anthology, Turning into Stars.

I wish there was a CPITS residency offered when I was in school. Since CPITS was founded in 1964, it could’ve been technically possible. It would’ve changed my entire relationship with school and with poetry. About the time I began to write poetry, I was also diagnosed with dyslexia. There’s a reason why I had so much trouble in school, and why did I have to wait until I was 30 to discover that I loved to write?

When traditional education failed, poetry taught me to think, and I went on to write essays and arts grants—I had seven California Arts Council artist-in-residency grant at Mark West School in Santa Rosa. And I became a feature writer for the Sonoma County Stump as well as for the West Sonoma County Paper (now the North Bay Bohemian.) None of it would’ve happened if I hadn’t discovered poetry.  

The reason why I’m in the classroom, is that, as a poet, I’m a role model. I can reach those kids who traditionally fall through the cracks, and show them how they can access their minds. Poetry creates a powerful tool for change and self actualization. A former student from Mark West School, who didn’t think poetry was important, called me up at midnight to read me a poem he’d just written out of the blue. Scott Meisner was a 21-year-old college student with a MBA who finally got the Aha! moment when he realized that poetry matters.

If the program isn’t at my child’s school, how can I help bring it there?

The best way to get poetry into the schools is usually through a parent volunteer, the PTA, or a teacher. At Alexander Valley School, a teacher, Peggy Maddock, brought poetry to the school—and now first grade teacher Shannon Hausman continues the tradition. Since 1991, I’ve taught an entire generation of Alexander Valley kids poetry.

There are numerous school and community funding sources that can be utilized to fund a CPITS residency. We are trained to work with teachers to locate and develop funding sources: including specialized school funds—from gifted and talented, youth at risk, library funds, etc; to state and local arts education resources: the Community Foundation of Sonoma County, and the California Arts Council. We’ve become gifted grantwriters in the process.

During this time of dire funding for the arts, we’ve some great breaking news: thanks to a California Arts Council /Artists in Schools grant, Sonoma County CPITS poets will offer long-term, in-depth poetry writing residencies at four schools in Sonoma County. Contact the Sonoma-Napa CPITS Area Coordinator Meg Hamill,, or the San Francisco CPITS office, (415) 221-4201, for more information.

CPITS, a collective of professional poets who bring literary craft into classrooms statewide, is one of the nation’s oldest visiting writers program—and this weekend we’re celebrating our 50th anniversary October 10-12 at IONS Earthrise Retreat on the Sono-Marin border. If you’re an artist and want to work in the schools, or you’re a teacher interested in enriching your language arts curriculum, our CPITS Symposium, Voices of Gold, is an excellent resource and training ground. We’ve ten more spaces open for day-use folks, either Saturday, or Saturday and Sunday. Two more IONS rooms just opened up if they need to stay over. The view from the ridge is breathtaking and the food is fabulous.

Our keynote will be former California Poet Laureate Al Young. On Friday, an intensive “method writing” workshop will be led by Los Angeles poet and screenwriter Jack Grapes. The symposium will also features spoken word artist Josh Healey and visiting poets from around the state who will share proven strategies to deliver hands-on and out-loud poetry in schools.

If you’d like to become involved as a teacher, poet, donor or school, please find us on the web at to help build the future for young writers in California. Statewide CPITS residencies reach more than 25,000 students, and trained CPITS poets offer time-tested teaching tools to enhance literacy, and foster creative problem solving and self-expression. Poetry workshops are held at public and private schools, juvenile hall, libraries, after-school programs, hospitals, multilingual settings and other community venues.

And if you can’t come to the symposium, you might want to order our inaugural CPITS lesson plan book, “Poetry Crossing: 50 Lessons for K-12 Classrooms.” Edited by former CPITS AC, Phyllis Meshalum of Sebastopol, it’s a large format ready-to-roll writing lesson ideas for all ages.

For follow up: Phyllis Meshulam
Sonoma County & Napa County CPITS Area Coordinator
Meg Hamill

PRESS RELEASE/ event for calendar listing

California Poets in the Schools 50th anniversary Symposium
Oct 10 to 12, at IONS Earthrise Retreat, Petaluma, CA

Dear Dan Taylor & Linda Castrone

Tthanks for the Facebook followup. Duly appreciated.

FYI: CPITS holds its annual workshops in northern and southern California ion alternate years. I've been a CPITS poet since 1979, and was Sonoma/Napa CPITS Area Coordinator for a decade (or was it 2?—I trained a lot of poets including Terry Ehret. Dana Lomax, Jane Hirshfield, and Arthur Dawson); after me Arthur Dawson was AC, then Phyllis Meshalum and now, Meg Hamill is the new Area Coordinator for Sonoma/Napa counties.

We've two books that will be released at the event as well: So I'll give you several bits/angles to choose from.

Two CPITS Poetry Books Hot off the Press: If the Sky Was My Heart, and Poetry Crossing: 50 + Lessons for 50 Years

I can send you a more formal press release in a bit—but I just wanted to get the info to you ASAP for calendar, etc. Hence the "we" slant. I've also included some graphics, and we've a photo release for Andy—the student—he's featured on our brochure. Any publicity you can give us would be most appreciated!


# # #

Voices of Gold: California Poets in the Schools Celebrates 50 Years of Poetry, Oct. 10-12 at IONS Earthrise in Petaluma

NB: Katie Watts from The Press Democrat wrote: The press release is SO well-written, I have to congratulate you. After 20 years in journalism, I am a fan of great press releases and I see them so seldom. Thorough, funny, literate -- you are a calendar editor's dream come true. Here's my editor's comment on where we want to go with the five questions, included partly because I enjoy her sense of humor. The questions would focus on ways to create fabulous poetry, engender a love in children and the value of doing both. Hopefully s/he will wax poetic while also being concrete.

I replied: I used to work for the Sonoma County Stump, then The Paper (which morphed into the West Sonoma County Paper, then The Bohemian). I managed to make the grade past all the editors/owners, except the last one... Now a CPITS student of mine, Gabe Maline is the editor! So, I knew nothing when I joined the printed world, I was poetry editor at the Stump with Bliss Buys and Joe Leary. Simone Wilson—who knew how to write a press release was my partner in crime. I happened to have a camera. This harkens back in the days of upright typewriters.

When the Stump folded, we went to Nick Valentine and Elizabeth Poole and convinced them to take us on—we were so totally faking it. I continued on as a photographer and late shift PMT camera woman (Phil Osborne, a student of Ansel Adams, trained me). I still didn't know what I was doing behind the camera—I just did it.

Then Ron Sonenshine left me babysitting his Bodega beat while he was on vacation. All hell broke loose as my first story (page 1) was Suck Mud. The big illegal dredging controversy in Bodega Bay. I was in waaaay over my head with no snorkel—but managed to pull it off.

And Nick began to give me arts assignments. And that's how I learned to write—in the trenches. Scissors and gluestix were my best friends. I wouldn't have learned to write prose at all if it wasn't for poetry. I'm dyslexic—I shouldn't be able to write...but poetry led me to prose. I didn't know the difference between a noun and a verb...but I digress...

OK, so I'm procrastinating...

Ghosts of symposiums past:

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