Writing poetry fires up Burke High School students
Ah, poems, those jigsaws of words and imagery configured just so. Who knew they could help a guy write one heck of a history paper?
January Little, a Burke High School junior, once loved to write short stories. But as he got older, the writing fire dwindled, and he let it burn out.
Then, his AP English 2 class joined Poets in the Schools, and Jonathan Sanchez handed him a banana. Write a poem on it. Yes, right on the yellow hide.
That’s all it took.
“I thought, ‘This is amazing!’ ” January recalls.
Sanchez was at Burke working with Poets in the Schools, a project he founded with the Lowcountry Initiative for the Literary Arts. For six years, it has brought professional poets to Burke for in-school workshops and a chance for students to see their poems published in annual volumes. The newest one came out last week.
But back to the banana.
January wrote about a girl he had a crush on. Then, he went home. He tweaked. He added. He moved, removed and perfected his words. From the banana came a poem, an outlet and a renewed love of words.
“Kids’ imaginations are so powerful,” says January, a North Charleston resident. “We just love to think about the craziest things.”
His muse rekindled more brightly with each workshop. Then he summoned its power while writing papers not only for English class but also for history and government. Facts and research are great, he realized, but a little voice, a little toying with the words, can hook a reader.
For instance, he was assigned a paper on Queen Elizabeth’s impact on England. “I wrote the facts and then went back and put a little January into it,” he grins.
Trouble is, he says, many kids don’t channel their ideas into words. So the words don’t serve them back.
“Poetry really gets us interested in writing and then reading because once we write, we want to read what other people have written. Then reading increases vocabulary, which I believe is so important to being educated,” January says. “If more people did this program, we’d have a very smart school.”
Poets in the Schools began with a grant from the College of Charleston. Six years later, more than 1,000 Burke students have attended 250 workshops and produced 5,000 creative works.
Now, the program is in need of a good transition. LILA’s director moved away. So did a key teacher at Burke. And the program needs money.
Poets in the Schools has subsisted off grants and fundraisers. Early on, it operated with about $25,000 a year to pay teachers and to publish the students’ poetry in books. Last year, that was trimmed to $10,000.
“It’s basically a bunch of writers wanting to do writerly things,” Sanchez says.
But without money to pay, it’s hard to find teachers, who include poet Richard Garcia and state Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth, because most writers already struggle to make ends meet.
Sanchez expects to raise some donations after last month’s YALLFest, the large young adult book festival he organizes. And Wentworth hopes LILA can partner with the Charleston County School District to continue connecting students with professional writers and College of Charleston creative writing students.
If the school district is committed to literacy, then writing and reading should walk hand-in-hand down that road, Wentworth insists.
“There’s a lot going on at once, but I feel like good things are happening all around,” Wentworth says. “And the Burke project is at the heart of what we want to do.”
Write the weird stuff
The banana is nothing. Sanchez likes to give teens the weirdest writing prompts he can think of, anything to turn off their inner censors and tendencies to conform. In poetry, as in life, unique is good. It’s you.
O’Kellia Corbin, a Burke senior, says the notion set her creativity free.
“I liked to read poetry,” says O’Kellia of North Charleston. “But I didn’t know that I liked to write it. I overthought it. Now, I try to paint pictures with my words.”
Sanchez encourages students to think specifics. Don’t write a vanilla treatise on love or loss that anyone could have written. Make it unique. Make it personal. Make it yours.
“I love to see people write about their ordinary lives with specifics,” he says. “There are a lot of things from their ordinary lives that are interesting, real things.”
One student wrote about teen pregnancy by describing her own C-section. Another wrote about heartbreak at the corner of America and Reid streets.
“They are interesting and creative, and that’s the kind of writing I want to encourage them to do,” Sanchez says.
Then students learn to clean it all up, to apply rules of meter and syntax, grammar and spelling.
The bonus: Each year, selected poems are published in a book. The seventh volume arrived last week at Blue Bicycle Books, where all volumes are available.
“We were like: ‘Oh, my God!’ ” O’Kellia says with a laugh. “I felt it was an accomplishment. Someone would read my poems besides my teachers and my peers.”
Wentworth recalls one workshop when a student read a poem aloud about her father’s death. A rowdy group of teens hushed. They listened. They cared. Far too many understood.
That is what writing, and sharing, poetry can produce, Wentworth says.
“It’s an opportunity to share in a way that may not happen under other circumstances,” she says. “Students can be open and honest and produce something they are excited about.”
Another student shared his poems with Wentworth as he wrote, although he would barely speak a word in class.
“When you are a teenager, under any circumstances, it is tough,” she says. “This is an opportunity to say, ‘What’s going on in your life? Write it down.’ ”
Sampson Duggins loves poetry, always has. But working with Poetry in the Schools teachers meant working with pros, seeing his poems in print — and his face on the 2011 volume’s cover.
“I want people to read my poems and say, ‘Wow!’ I want to inspire someone going through something or help them read something special,” Sampson says.
He was surprised by how many Burke students attended the workshops and also loved to write. He has found peers who understand what it means to pen a personal poem and then share it.
“There are some things I don’t want to say right now. So I write them down. It can be about what’s going on with me or something I’m feeling,” he says. “If someone reads it later, then it’s OK.”
Sampson wants to become a police officer and work with those struggling or in jail. He could show them how writing can help deal with problems.
“It’s about letting things out, talking about the world, making things interesting,” Sampson says. “Even if you don’t know how to write, even if you’ve never written a poem, you will be surprised at what you can write.”
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563.