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Monday, April 4, 2011

Notes from the Field

March 31, 2011, Luray Gross

LURAY GROSS works extensively in schools and the community presenting workshops and performances for all ages. Luray is the author of three collections of poetry: Forenoon was published in 1990 by The Attic Press in Westfield, NJ, and Elegant Reprieve won the 1995-96 Still Waters Press Poetry Chapbook Competition. The Perfection of Zeros, was published by Word Press in 2004. She was the recipient of a Fellowship in Poetry from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. In 2000, she was named a Distinguished Teaching Artist by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and was the recipient of the Robert Fraser Open Poetry Competition Award from Bucks County(PA) Community College. She was the 2002 Poet Laureate of Bucks County and resident faculty at the 2006 Frost Place Festival and Conference on Poetry in Franconia, New Hampshire.

“Is this going to be a true story?” Jake asks as soon as I announce that I have another story for his class of second graders.

“It’s true that it’s a story,” I answer, but of course that’s not what he means and I know it. I go on: “Have you ever heard that a story is a golden lie that hides the truth? See what you think when you hear it.”

“Once there was a boy who decided to fool his father.”

“What day is tomorrow?” I ask, interrupting myself in that way a story can tolerate.

“April 1st. April Fool’s!” I have only 50 minutes for this session which will include poetry writing and reading aloud as well as storytelling, so I don’t mention the image of my mother that suddenly surfaces - Mother first thing each April 1st she somehow managed to trick us with a silly remark. Instead, I go on with the story telling how the boy decides to hide from his father, and while he is looking for a hiding place, sees a peanut on the ground.

“Wouldn’t it be great to hide in a peanut?” he thinks.

No sooner thought, than done; he is in the peanut shell, which gets swallowed by a chicken, who gets swallowed by a bush cat, and so forth. For each animal I add a characteristic call and gesture. The more outrageous the story becomes, the more obvious it is that the question of truth has fallen away before the forces of delight and anticipation: What creature will be next? How will the boy get out of the peanut? Will his father find him?

When the story comes to an end, boy and father reunited, we immediately begin a collaborative retelling of the story.

“I bet you could tell that story to someone,” I say. How does it begin?”

Of course the class, working together, is able to retell the whole story, with everyone participating in the “Buk, buk, buk” of the chicken, the “Yowl, miaow” of bush cat, the “sszzzz” of python.

It’s time for my transition: I tell them about Dr. William Carlos Williams, a poet very good at finding poems wherever he was, who was prone to jotting lines down on prescription pads during his forty years of medical practice in West Rutherford, NJ and how sometimes between patients, he would tap out lines of poetry on his office typewriter.

I have two brief image-based Williams’ poems in mind for sharing today: “Between Walls” and “The Great Figure.” I introduce each with a story - first the story of the doctor doing his rounds at the hospital and noticing between the building’s wings something green among the cinders from the coal furnace. Not a thing can grow there; what is that bit of green shining? A piece of a broken bottle, the poem tells us, a beautiful thing for anyone who has the eyes and the temperament to notice.

Another story: I invite the children to imagine Dr. Williams walking down the street at night. It’s raining, and suddenly - all at once it seems - the sounds of sirens. Out of the darkness a firetruck comes rushing, the big golden 5 painted on it, gleaming in the city lights. I speak “The Great Figure,” once and again, the second time inviting the children to close their eyes and see the scene, hear the sounds he mentions and others they know might be there. When we speak our images, one the students lightly clenches her fists and shakes them, “I heard the wheels rumbling! and I felt it!”

It happens that Williams’ friend, Charles Demuth, made a painting in response to “The Great Figure,” and I’m lucky enough to have a poster featuring the painting. Now we look at its somewhat abstracted image of the poem, noticing all the visual elements of the scene, from the bold gold “5’s” to the poet’s name partially hidden in the geometry of the painting. The children are looking closely, excited about their discoveries. We’re ready to leap into our own poetry talk and thinking.

“So, I’ve been thinking, where do our poems hide? I allow a bit of quiet before improvising a line or two: “Sometimes mine hide in a wave that rises up and crashes down.....sometimes they’re hiding in the wrinkles on an old, old lady’s face...sometimes...”

The hands come up: "Mine hide in my brother’s smile.” “Mine hide in the sun!” “You could find them at the baseball stadium.”

We must make the move to individual writing soon, while the images are being born. “Okay, let’s go to desks and each write a poem describing some of the wonderful, exciting, beautiful, or silly places your poems could hide.” Fortunately the teacher has already placed fresh writing paper on each desk. I write the governing question on the board: Where do poems hide? and give them two possible beginnings: “I find poems in/on/under....” or “My poems hide inside...”

Inside a peanut? I ask? It’s a little joke, but Ryan goes on to write a funny informative poem about peanuts, which begins, “You could find a poem in a peanut, a very tasty legume.” It turns out that he has just finished a report on George Washington Carver. One of the glorious things about the creative imagination is that anything, virtually anything the child knows or wonders about can be material for his or her creations. After all, the story with which the class began has reminded us that anything can happen.

The class settles into writing and after a few minutes their teacher and I circulate, gently asking permission to “eaves-read,” reassuring a reluctant child, encouraging them to sound out words, inviting children to whisper read what they have so far. I am delighted and wish we had more than 8 minutes left for reading aloud. But that is what we have, so we invite the new poems or parts of them be heard! One boy has his hand up. This is the fourth day I’ve worked with these students, and I’m pretty sure that he has various special needs. Generally shy, he has volunteered to read first each day. Today he writes of delicious places for poems to hide: donuts and pies and M&M pancakes.

We hear short poems, long poems, virtuosic lyrical poems and bare bones matter of fact poems. Here are a few of their lines:

“Poems hide inside the video games I play with my dad.”

“Poems hide inside a flower taking a shower.”

“The mysterious dark follows me like a spy.”

“Poems hide under tables and chairs, under stairs and beds.”

“Poems hide inside a smile of a little child smiling at a bunny with fur as bright as snow...”

“I find poems in an apple tree, a fire gleaming bright as can be....”

As one girl wrote, “They hide inside anybody.”

Yes, poems and stories and music, dances and paintings. They are all there waiting to be found and to satisfy and delight their makers as they experience the truth that we are all capable of making something new and powerful out of our words, thoughts, and feelings.

Note: For one version of “The Boy Who Tried To Fool His Father,” see Judy Sierra and Stefano Vitale’s Nursery Tales from Around the World. The Williams’ poems can be found at Search by the poet’s name.