Sunday, May 19, 1996
Ode and Young; At Workshop,
Students Discover Poetry and Themselves
by Jacqueline Trescott
a trim column of white shirt and blue-striped pants, was reading
her poem "Wise Words." The words seemed to rush out of
My poem knows
the ways of the world/ It can live, she said, the curl of her dark
hair kissing her chin. People in the audience may have wished Zulaikha
would slow down, but the 15-year-old was racing on. The force of
having a lot to say had overwhelmed her in the last few months.
When she paused, the onlookers cheered. The occasion was an evening
reading last week at the downtown Borders Books. A lacquered black
lectern had been set up beside the high shelves of show business
books. Elvis and the Beatles stared down, frozen in their youth,
as members of a younger generation -- Michael, Devin, Jeremiah,
Rickey, Ayanna, Brandon, Tiffany, Zulaikha, Jevon and Brooke --
read their own words, some for the very first time in public.
poets were all students from Hart Junior High School, on Mississippi
Avenue SE, who became part of a workshop last fall organized by
the D.C. WritersCorps. Most had never met a published writer before
Nancy Schwalb, a slight woman with a coaxing manner and a fistful
of Margaret Walker Alexander's writings, walked into the workshop.
Schwalb is part of WritersCorps, a collaboration by the National
Service/AmeriCorps, the National Endowment for the Arts and arts
agencies in the Bronx, San Francisco and Washington. Besides visiting
schools, writers who participate in the program have fanned out
to hospitals, libraries, jails, shelters and community centers,
carrying out a mandate issued by President Clinton in 1994 to make
a difference by teaching.
In the creative
writing classes at Hart, nearly 300 students are studying poets,
poetic forms and the synergy between poetry and music. They don't
get any school credit; eventually an anthology of their work will
be published. Six of them were named finalists in the local Parkmont
Poetry Festival, the highest number of any junior or senior high
To hear some
of the students tell it, they have come alive because they have
discovered something inside themselves.
it would be fun," Zulaikha says of the course. She had written
the obligatory school essays, but no poems. "The words just
started coming out. Then I started reading [published poems], and
I liked trying to figure out what the poet was saying underneath
the words." In five months she embraced a whole new world,
discovering the works of Georgia Douglas Johnson, Langston Hughes
and Ishmael Reed.
bare classroom, the learning process uses a couple of approaches.
One is to read a well-known poet who writes about issues the students
face. After reading Rita Dove's "Flash Cards," a reflection
on math drills, Tiffany Kelley submitted a work called "My
Problems Are the Zenith of My life." When she read it at Borders
last week, audience members were falling out of their chairs with
laughter. The teachers, said Tiffany, are "the top and the
bottom," yet They make my life a bowl of corn flakes/ That
have been sitting/ In milk for an hour. At another session, Schwalb
played the Fugees' remake of "Killing Me Softly" to illustrate
the use of metaphors and similes. Rickey Lewis submitted "As
Drifting Waves": I think about my life as it passes me by/
the sound of the sorrow as/ it taps upon my window pane.
how frank they are," Schwalb says. "There is a boy who
is always writing about his failed love affairs. That is very brave.
What they are doing is recognizing their ideas. They are figuring
Now the young
poets are facing their public. Up front is Jevon Billups, 15, his
T-shirt, black jeans and sneakers smartly coordinated. This is his
first reading. For practice, he stood in a corner of the bookstore
and read his poems aloud. Then, making eye contact with people in
the back row, he demonstrated his performer's flair, letting his
face take on expressions of self-deprecating humor. His predecessors
had simply glued their eyes to the page and read.
poetry was boring until he actually started writing. He immediately
like Schwalb's classroom style. "She gave us a poem and told
us we had to write one like it. Now that was interesting,"
says Jevon, who's called "the Bishop" because of his seriousness.
In the school
sessions, he liked Schwalb's directive to write about his feelings.
After listening to John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," and
a poem about Coltrane by Michael Harper, Jevon hit a Scott Joplin-style
reverie in "Feeling the Music": I feel as if I were playing
an upright piano/ about a hundred years old/ and every chord I hit
is beautiful/ and makes a new song.
he thinks Schwalb has gone off the deep end. Like the afternoon
she gave them a series of poems about rivers. "She told us
to write about any river, real or not," says Jevon. His mystification
didn't last long. When he read "The Niagara in You" last
week, his listeners were rapt with approval. I see a source of power/
that electrifies a great body/ When I'm dark you add color/ I don't
need your help/ let me be me.
the class has become not just a weekly exercise but an expression
of the self she had locked in. "The poems were alive,"
she says of her writing. "And [the experience] was getting
away to a place where I didn't know I could go."
ARTS; Pg. G09
LENGTH: 900 words
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