Monday, October 24, 2011


Finally the edited interview appeared in the CPITS newsletter, but no one sent me a link. Go figure. Here's the vertical response link:  

And you can also access it via the November Newsletter on the CPITS site:

CPITS Poet teacher, Maureen Hurley reading student poems at Watershed Festival, Oct 2011

MAUREEN HURLEY INTERVIEW (with Terri Glass) In November issue of CPITS enewsletter. (Unedited).

1) You became a CPITS poet teacher many years ago. Who were your mentors and what was the organization like at the time?

In 1978, I volunteered for an arts education conference at Sonoma State, The Child in Changing TImes. Sonoma County CPITS Area Coordinator, Michael Dow led a workshop circle on the main lawn and it was there I wrote my first poems. It was a matter of being at the right place at the right time. I did not actively seek out CPITS. Michael Dow tapped me for CPITS and in 1979, I began training with another Sonoma County poet, Lee Perron—who was my mentor for 20 years. 

In those days, Sonoma County CPITS—we called it SOCPITS—had only a few poets on board and it was a very small rural program. Poets collectively earned about $4000 a year, total. Can I even remember their names? Rocco Tripodi, Pam Raphael (Singer), Zara Altair, Andrea Granahan....

Carol Lee Sanchez was living in Petaluma. Will Staple moved away to Grass Valley. Gail King dropped out. Mike Tuggle and Susan Kennedy were still in West Marin, but they soon moved north. Duane BigEagle and Kathryn Harer came to Sonoma County later, under Zara' Altair's AC tenure. Only Pam Singer and myself are part of that original SOCPITS team. We both trained under Lee Perron. Pam dropped out of CPITS for a while, but bounced back. I don't think Susan Kennedy is still teaching CPITS. So, Pam, Duane, Will and I are still carrying the SOCPITS legacy forth.

I don't think Michael Dow was ever interested in expanding the SOCPITS program into what it is today—so Lee Perron sort of took over Michael's AC duties. Under Lee's tenure, SOCPITS annual revenue quadrupled in size—primarily through arts education funding—multi-artist grants from the National Endowment from the Arts (NEA) and the California Arts Council (CAC). Our "Art is the 4th R" program at Healdsburg School District was a pilot project of the NEA and helped to shape arts and education guidelines. I, and other CAC artists—including Louis Valdez and Juan Felipe Hererra—were selected by the NEA to develop the national evaluation process. So we were the guinea pigs for the arts.

My first real CPITS residency at Healdsburg, I taught calligraphy and poetry to RSP/ESL students—so I've always mixed my art forms. (I was the resident calligrapher at Sonoma State—I did all the signage for events). At our CAC grant in Windsor, I taught art classes, but I did lead some crossover poetry and art classes. 

What I learned from Lee was to dream big. In the 1980s, I was awarded six CAC individual Artist in Residency grants at Mark West School District—and I also was awarded a pilot CAC Artist in Libraries grant at Napa State Hospital. 

Napa was one strange experience. I wanted the ground to open up and just swallow me whole so I wouldn't have to teach—like during the first days of teaching CPITS. I was terrified. I trained longer than most poets (20 sessions) because I was very shy (don't laugh!) as I had no self-confidence. Art turned me ever inward: reflective, introspective. Poetry gave me a voice, a persona, a hat—my life's work—it gave my life meaning in the broader sense. It made me a citizen of the world.

The statewide CPITS program was still tied to San Francisco State. When I came aboard, Carol Lee Sanchez was Statewide Coordinator. We had a meeting at Gail Newman's house—she may have been the SF AC. Carol Lee taught us to draw upon our communities (think local, act global). As ACs, we are mutually independent and as an organization, we are inter-dependent upon each other—this is why the yearly symposiums are so important to this unique poetry tribe called CPITS.

I also worked with John Oliver Simon documenting his Poetry Across Frontiers project. Being in Mexico, seeing the CPITS lens from the other side, and working with the Mexican poets, was riveting. It launched my own poetic Sputnik into the USSR after John & I split. Which led to my training Soviet poets, and also training Dutch poets at Poetry International in Holland. 

I've taught PITS residencies to students in the Ukraine, to psychiatric workers in the Netherlands, and in Montana schools with Susie Terence and Daryl Chinn. So I've seen PITS in action from the ground up, as a field poet, as a master CPITS poet teacher, as an Area Coordinator, as a board member, and as an out of state—perhaps, out of mind—poet ambassador. 

Suffice to day, Carol Lee's dream model still holds. Sure, we've had challenges keeping the nation's oldest poetry in the schools program afloat, but we're approaching our big 5-0. What other independent arts organization can boast that? 

I know from the inside out that poetry really matters. It changes lives. So, it's ironic in that I hated poetry as a kid. But then, my grannie was always reciting poetry to me along with all the Irish ballads sprinkled with healthy doses of W.B. Yeats. How many kids had The Lake Isle of Inisfree or the Rime of the Ancient Mariner recited to them?. So, poetry was always in my bones. It just took a while to shine through.

2) You have been an Area Coordinator in Sonoma and now in Alameda. How long did you AC in Sonoma and what were your highlights of that experience? What is like to oversee Alameda?

Mark West USD was among the first Santa Rosa school districts to embrace CPITS. Significant in that Santa Rosa was a tough nut to crack. Without CPITS residencies in Sonoma County's largest city, SOCPITS was destined to stay rural—only in the outskirts.  

My decade-long CAC residency (and other funding) began as a tiny CPITS pilot residency. I got a call from Principal Ida Victorson—when I heard that Virginian accent, I realized my hippie clothes just wouldn't do. So I raided Goodwill, found an old silk dress, lopped it off into a blouse, got a pleated skirt and some faux-pearls on credit. I got the job. I had to push-start my VW Bug wearing heels and nylons, but I landed the contract. Talk about dress for success! 

The Mark West residency ran much longer than the CPITS contracts and the CAC residencies—we hosted a poetry and art exchange with the Soviet Union that eventually included many Sonoma County artists and poets—and it was funded right up to the Soviet Putscht in 1991.

I also became an AC circa the early 1980s. Zara sort of eased the AC mantle off onto my shoulders before I knew what was happening. I was able to use my success at Mark West to expand the program. We went from a tiny county program in the low $teens to $53k in 1988, and became one of the strongest and largest CPITS programs in the state. The expanded program suffered a setback during the recession in 1990, but it recovered with a little boost from the Sonoma County Community Foundation grants.

As Sonoma County AC, I invited many new poets into the program: Luis Kong (he resisted for years—and eventually became Statewide Coordinator), Arthur Dawson, Jonathan London (the children's author), Lynn Watson, Terry Ehret, Mimi Alpert, Jim Byrd—Jabez "Bill" Churchill (he resisted the longest but as we all know, resistance is futile); Lynn Marie deVincent, and Scott Reid finished training with Arthur Dawson. We had 20 working CPITS poets when I stepped down as AC after my car accident in 1997 and Arthur Dawson took the helm. 

By comparison, AC-ing Alameda County is like wrestling with a huge tentacled squid—much harder to pin to the ground. It's so large, and amorphous—and mostly urban. I'm afraid Gertrude Stein was right: There is no there there. It's so much harder to sell the program in an urban environment because there are no discrete communities to tap into. No real sense of tight-knit community—like in rural areas. I've still got my training wheels on. 

I've worked in Alameda off and on since the Poetry Across Frontier days—I wrote an Oakland Cultural Arts Council (OCAC) grant with Tobey Kaplan in 2004 that augmented CPITS matching money. I also received a OCAC artist in schools grant to teach art at Cleveland Elementary School in 2008-09 after two years of SPARK Arts funding from KQED dried up. Without outside grants, arts funding would be virtually non-existant in California. But even those resources are drying up. The Walter and Elise Haas Fund certainly revitalized Alameda, but now schools are far too broke to even attempt at matching the grant.

I think also, the protracted downward spiral of the economy has eroded all arts programming in a way that the Jarvis-Gann initiative (Prop 13) never envisioned. California is dead bottomth in the nation for per capita public arts spending for art and education. A sad accolade.

3) You have been active in Poetry Out Loud for the past few years.  Wasn't one of your students a runner up in the state competition for 2011?

I've had two POL state runners-up from Contra Costa County: Cheryl Evans from Deer Valley High School in Antioch (third place) in 2010, and Mark Reifenheiser from Diablo Valley High School in Concord (second place) in 2011. I took over from Tobey Kaplan for Cheryl's coaching. Neil O'Neill and Alison Luterman also contributed to Mark's successful POL experience. 

I also coordinated Alameda County POL as well. I was a latecomer to POL. I never expected to like POL—but it does dovetail into our CPITS work. I often tell my shy CPITS student poets how my POL students very nearly won the state finals—how performance is also an important part of poetry, and they tend to jump right up and give fantastic readings themselves. Cheryl is now taking Speech and Debate as well as Elocution in college. POL judge Brandon Cesmat featured Cheryl's own work on our CPITS blog. She made Al Young sit up and listen—I think we're going to hear more from Cheryl in the future. 

4) You are a visual artist and photographer. How does these other mediums feed your poetry and vice versa. Do you combine these art forms in your teaching?

I'm a visual learner and I tend to see metaphor as a visual experience. I'm a cross-over artist, my undergraduate degrees are in painting and drawing—with a minor in clay. I'm also dyslexic. So art allowed me to access language.The words come later. But not always. Sometimes metaphors just pop into my head. Now it's a synthesis. One art form informs the other—they're a continuum of personal metaphor from the visual to the aural realm.

People were always trying to peg me as either a poet or an artist—not both. Even with my CAC grants, I was asked to choose between mediums—or forfeit my grant—there were no multi arts discipline grants. Finally Philip Horn from the CAC came down to observe me at Mark West School. He said, "I get it now, you really do blend both art forms. But you need to make that clearer in your grants." I knew what I wanted to do, I just couldn't think of a way to write about it. After a bad car accident in 1980, I found out I was dyslexic—which answered a lot of questions. It's amazing I got those grants as I could barely write—other than poetry. I literally cut and pasted fragments together to string together sentences. I was mighty glad when Apple came along. With my Apple IIc, I could cut & paste on the screen. A revolution of thought.

While finishing my BA in Art at Sonoma State, I took an integrated Expressive Arts course—and earned the equivalent of a 2nd BA, but the program was disbanded. That experience of working with my peers, and having to go out into the community launched my poetry career—as a CPITS poet, as a poetry festival organizer and as a cultural worker. I studied with SSU's incomparable Red Thomas, Mac McCreary, and Elizabeth Herron in the School of Expressive Arts—a radical interdisciplinary experiment that was associated with the psychology department. Faculty functioned as artists in residence as did the students—we designed our own course of study; and I also studied poetry with David Bromige in the English Department—to keep things balanced. Or so I thought. LOL. But then David checked himself into the looney bin and there we were, a graduate class teaching ourselves and each other. I taught a seminar on Yeats. Pern in a gyre. We were spiraling out into the community.

Those experiences launched me into a photography job at an alternative West County newspaper, The Sonoma County Stump. Again, it was a question of right (or wrong) place at the right time. Soon I was writing stories—snipping and gluing fragments to make coherent sentences (pre word-processing days), but then, the paper folded. So Simone Wilson and I frogmarched each other down to the only other alternative paper called The Paper, and coerced them to take us in. 

I worked for The West Sonoma County Paper until 1996—before its last name change to The Bohemian. That's where I learned to write—on the job. One of my former Mark West students, whom I worked with from Kindergarten to 5th grade, Gabe Meline, is now the editor of The Bohemian.
I also co-chaired two poetry series: Public Poetry Center at Sonoma State, and The Russian River Writers' Guild—for 20 years. I documented hundreds of poets on film—including for the Napa Valley Poetry Conference (NVPC), and Poetry International. Perhaps the most outrageous event was when we decided to hold a NVPC in The Bahamas—with Nate Mackey, Bob Haas, and others. I taught the CPITS model to Bahamian poets.

It's a challenge to try and teach both art forms in one residency as there's so little time—poetry and art each demand their own. Often at the end of a residency, I'll schedule an extra session and teach kids contour line drawing to create illustrations for their poetry books. I also use a lot of visual metaphor props for writing prompts—writing from paintings, photographs—ekphrastic poetry.

Pocahontas—from Pocahontas, by Annie Leibovitz

5) Do you have a favorite anecdote about teaching poetry to young people?

You never know when something will resonate, or when you'll get closure. Teaching poetry is an alchemical process. You just hold your breath and wait. As W.B. Yeats scribed: Poetry is the music of what happens.

One time I got a call from Scott Meiser, a student I had in 5th grade at Mark West School. He wasn't into poetry—he was on the MBA track at college, and out of the blue, one night he sat down and inexplicably wrote a poem. He tracked me down and read the poem to me over the phone (he was in love for the first time), and then he said: "I finally got it, what you were trying to do.And I just wanted to thank you." Closure. He was 22.

Another time I was teaching a poetry unit to K-3rd grade students at The Higham Family School (Waldorf) in Santa Rosa. We met once a week in the fall, and we sat in a circle in a windowed garden room filled with sunlight and plants.

We were studying whales and the environment and we often let science inform our writing. I had one rather rascally 2nd grader named Trevor, who hated to write. He was a real rugrat—always squirming off in opposite directions. Trevor hadn’t written anything particularly spectacular during the 8-session residency; and it was our final day. Countdown.

I begin each class with typed student poems that we workshop the previous week's poems so that editing is an integral and ongoing process. Then we "freewrite" for five minutes, read a few freewrite poems—that generally reflect back on the previous week's lesson, and then move onto the day's poetry lesson.  

For some reason, during freewrite, something finally clicked—maybe it was the whales. Or the prism casting rainbows.Or time itself. I remember Trevor asking if he could continue his freewrite even though our five minutes were up. I said “Of course!” and continued on with my lesson, never dreaming he was hatching such a marvel. When Trevor was done writing, he wanted to share his poem. You could see he was about to explode with anticipation. 


This body is to ask
this question of the mind: 
Is the sun to shine on the day of my death?
Is the hole in the universe to stay as big? 
Tell me, tell me, where is the answer? 
Where is the answer to lie in today’s hands? 
This is the breath, to breathe this air.

—Trevor Yeats, 2nd Grade, Higham Family School, Santa Rosa
From THIS BODY IS TO ASK: Sonoma County Students and Artists in Residence Marsha Connell and Maureen Hurley (©1993)

And when Trevor read his poem, it transported us out of this world—we were all stunned into silence, it was that kind of good. When he read his poem, we completely forgot what we were doing, and it generated a lively discussion of the earth and the depletion of the ozone layer. 

What's amazing is that the poem didn’t come out of a specific lesson plan; it was an offshoot of several topics we’d been discussing. Students imagined themselves as animals, the earth, the moon, space—asking the Who Am I question—delving deeper into metaphor. The week before, we’d written poems in response to Chief Seattle’s letter to the earth and Thomas McGrath’s Letter to an Imaginary Friend. 

At the end of his poem, I told Trevor that there was a famous Irish poet, William Butler Yeats—who was his namesake. And that Trevor's poem reminded me of Yeats' poems. That's when Trevor told me that he was the great-grand-nephew of W.B. Yeats! I was flabbergasted. For a moment the ancestors breathed through Trevor and I was lucky enough to catch it combusting on paper. 

As Beat poet David Meltzer said: Poetry is a two-way mirror. The inside looking out. The outside looking in. You have to be ready to reassemble the pieces. This is what we do. That's why it's such important work.

Maureen Hurley

I think the poem was also featured in the 1992 CPITS statewide anthology. The title was the name of my Sonoma County student poetry and art book for the Soviet Union. You can still find copies of it on Amazon, Google, and online booksellers. What amazes me is how far and wide the poem (and book) has traveled. 

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