Poetry: Pass It On

Today’s prompt from the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Program’s online version of “Spring and Fountain” (think Robert Frost’s quiet and lovely “You Come Too” ), asks me to select a poem from the packet of 20 curated for participants for my focus today. Oh, these poems are varied and beautiful and moving. The opening day’s email says on the final day, we will be given a list of the poets after the fact, so we will not be predisposed to make judgments or have expectations based on name alone. Perhaps this is what I love most about Dodge, the democratic encouragement of poets.

I have written about the Festival before, about experiences I have had there when I have been able to sit in a small, intimate audience with such generous poets as Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, Marie Howe, Kate Ryan, Yusef Komunyakaa…the list goes on.

In 2010, the October that the biannual festival first moved to Newark’s urban setting, I awoke early to travel there. I knew I would miss the bucolic setting of past events, but I was excited more than ever to meet a poet my son Sam had recently introduced to me, Aimee Nezuhkumatathil. He had given me a copy of Miracle Fruit, her debut collection, from his modern American poetry class. Isn’t this why we send our kids to college, I had often thought, to have them teach us?

When I set out early that morning, I’d had to return home at the Parkway entrance, having forgotten the book. Briefly I debated doing so, losing the 20 minutes, but I wanted to return Sam’s book with the poet’s signature. I have a few precious signed copies of books that I know, were my house on fire, I’d grab: Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, without a doubt, but Fred Chappell and Donald Hall, too. I’d given him a signed copy of  Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe by the wonderful Vera Williams when he was six. He knew early on what I value: writing.

When I arrived I scanned the program to find Aimee’s venue. The urban festival featured poets in various buildings centered around the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) where the large auditorium filled with poetry-lovers for these three full days celebrating poetry. Aimee was located in a small building, in a small room. It was her first festival appearance; she was not yet one of those “big names” who garner a large space. I loved that. There were maybe a couple dozen of us there in uncomfortable chairs. I now wonder what had brought them to hear her. I clutched Miracle Fruit tightly in my hand.

She began by telling us that most people she met wondered about how to pronounce her last name, and then said, “You all know The Lion King, right?” She then sang  “Ne-zu-ku-ma-ta-til” to a the popular “Hakuna Matata,” then added “no worries.” With that consummate icebreaker, she won our hearts and new fans. Afterward she graciously signed the proffered book, pleased to be asked, warmed by the way I’d come to it. (I only wish I had bought that copy I now own beforehand!)

I don’t know who has written the poems in my packet this year, but I do love that after I have connected with them all throughout this week, I will have other poems to share with students. While I will miss the Dodge Festival 2020, I remain an emissary for poetry! (Check out #TeachLivingPoets.) I’ll sing out new names along with those of old friends whenever and wherever I can.


Today is Tuesday, and I should have been writing my post, but what I decide to do instead is visit other bloggers through the Two Writing Teachers site and listen to others. Then I’ve responded, I hope thoughtfully, the way I would’ve wanted from my students, practicing what I preach. And after listening to five people, I return to my inbox for a break—real listening takes effort as does conscientious response—to see today’s “Shelter in Poems” offering “blessing the boats” by Lucille Clifton.

blessing the boats

Lucille Clifton – 1936-2010

(at St. Mary’s)

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

During my 2018 year of memorizing a poem each month, I had written about my connection with that poem. Just seeing my husband’s photo of our bay front, boats still chugging out to earn a living aware of the unpredictability of the sea, and rereading this story from one of those moments—and students—I’ll never forget, brought me here today.

Building a Better Metaphor

My colleague and I looked at each other as yet another workshop presenter at this past Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE (ALAN) conference referred to Rudine Sims Bishop’s groundbreaking essay, “Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors,” published 30 years ago. In her essay for the Horn Book “Why Stop at Windows and Mirrors: Children’s Book Prisms,” author Uma Krishnaswami asserts that:

“A prism can slow and bend the light that passes through it, splitting that light into its component colors. It can refract light in as many directions as the prism’s shape and surface planes allow. Similarly, books can disrupt and challenge ideas about diversity through multifaceted and intersecting identities, settings, cultural contexts, and histories. …Through the fictional world, they can make us question the assumptions and practices of our own real world.”

She makes the case that “Surely diverse texts, like glass are capable of operating in complex ways…” that “…refracting light—and readers’ expectations” offers a richer understanding of the potential for all readers who enter a book.

ALAN held its 2014 assembly In National Harbor, Maryland, its theme: “Is the Sky the Limit? Using Teen Literature to Forge Connections in a World Increasingly Without Boundaries.” We were there. The program announced “Celebrating  Our True Identities” from 10:45-11:25, a panel focused on the experiences of transgender teens. My colleague and I looked at each other. We had the books in our ALAN giveaway box, but I seriously doubted whether I would “talk” them, “sell” them to my eighth graders once I returned to the affluent and bubble-like community in which I taught.

Then the panel began. Arin Anderson, author of The Not-So-Secret Life of a Trangender Teen sat beside his mother as the two of them shared their stories of Arin’s transition to male. Katie Hill spoke about her experiences and her book Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition, and Susan Kuklin whose Transgender Teens Speak Out recounts the stories of six teens who are transgender or gender-neutral.

As I sat spellbound— and I experienced an epiphany. This is literature for all readers, riveting and important. These stories are for anyone who wishes to read them, ready to engage, there to “shed new light on the world for all readers” (Krishnaswami). My eyes were opened that day, and when I told my son about my wake-up, he responded, “I’m surprised it took you this long, mom. That’s one thing I learned in New Orleans pretty quickly. This world is wide open to everyone’s choices.”

This year’s ALAN box contained three titles that I avoided reading because, who knows? Residual book blurb bias? I have finished them in the last two weeks, (pandemic silver-lining),  and can’t wait to feature them on my upcoming vlog Shelf Life. They are:

  • Birthday by Meredith Russo
  • We Are Lost and Found by Helene Dunbar
  • The Infinite Noise by Lauren Shippen

They “…place diverse characters at these crucial intersections and give them the power to reframe their stories,” yes, but equally important, if they know they’re available, adolescents will choose them and love them. Minds, like light, can bend.


Crossing the River

Easter was the holiday. My father used to solemnly tell us as we gathered around our large dining room table for this special family meal after church that, while we all love Christmas (presents!), and the birth of Christ is the beginning, without Christ’s resurrection after his crucifixion, Easter, we would not be free to enter the kingdom of heaven and eternal life.

I think of the hymn we would sing with gusto: “Up from the grave he arose/With a mighty triumph o’er his foes… .” Ours was not a particularly religious household in the every day. My mom never attended our Sunday services but stayed behind to prepare some lavish brunch for our return, and likely to savor a respite from her six demanding progeny. It was my father, the one who practiced daily devotions, seated in the bedroom wing chair, who mustered us into the car and drove across the Willamette River to Hinson Memorial Baptist Church each Sunday.

This particular Easter Sunday I remember claiming the sacred front-and-center spot, sandwiched between my father and my older sister on the car’s wide bench seat. I was maybe eight, which would make my sister Mary 14. No wonder she had little patience for me.

I was wearing anklets with lace inside shiny white patent leather buckle-shoes. My dress was lavender and white with an intact sash because, being brand new, I had not yet worn it to school and playground. White cotton gloves snugly fit my folded hands in my lap—Easter finery, yes, but no seat belt—and no rowdy behavior allowed whatsoever in the hallowed seat!

We had just crossed the bridge and were merging onto Morrison Street when a car barreled into the intersection and my father slammed on the brakes, propelling me into the dashboard. In the recoil that followed I slammed back, and looked over to see my shock on my father’s face. A few beats later, I saw the streaming blood from the opened gash on my forehead.

I have no memory of my father’s exact words he said. What I know is that my father told me to put my gloved hands to my forehead while my sister helped. He did not falter but calmly drove us to the hospital for stitches. He scooped me up and left Mary with my younger siblings. When I think of this accident, I harbor no traumatic images. My daddy, as always, came to my rescue.

A dear friend who celebrates her 34th birthday today lost her father suddenly on Saturday. I ache for her and am so far away. What I know is that only time passing will provide the balm for her pain and the solace of memory, true salvation, will arise when she least expects it.