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BOOKS AND THE CULTURE* Teaching Poetry in Edna It’s Lurking in the Bushes By Jane Creighton Edna Running beside her It is the only way Love her dearly James Woods JAMES WOODS is an eleventh grader in Edna, population 5,600 or thereabouts a town which, I heard before arriving, is “that gas stop” on Highway 59 between Victoria and Houston. James Woods lives in this town surrounded by rice fields and attends Edna’s only high school, which is approximately 25 % black, 25 % Hispanic, and 50% white. He has, of late, begun to write poetry. So have some of his classmates and his sister, Mary, a sixth grader, who, in a poem about slavery, said: Sometimes I dream that we’ll be masters And white people will be picking hay They’ll be beaten badly I’m so glad Black slavery is over today. There is an abundance of feeling and thought diversely expressed in both these poems that just begins to uncover the unmistakable, particular voices of students writing out of, or against, the imagination of their own time. What are kids trying to say? Is this an unburdening of sentiment by James and a reprieve from Mary? Is this an answer meant for the adults who wait to see if and what their children will write? The kids will write. Leave that question behind, in the hallway where I left it when I entered my first classroom in years to serve as writer-in-residence for the fifth through twelfth grades of the Edna Independent School District. I arrived in January with a car full of poetry books and “teaching” clothes to counteract my appearance as an illdressed Yankee from Brooklyn. I was Jane Creighton was an Artist-inEducation for the Texas Commission on the Arts in Edna from January through poetry, CERES IN AN OPEN FIELD, May, 1983. She has authored a book of 20 JULY 8, 1983 worried about language in January. I didn’t know if I could talk to people in Edna, didn’t know if I could understand what was said to me as a poet whose working community had been made up almost entirely of her noisy, urban peers. I didn’t know, finally, if it would be possible for me to revive in myself and instill in others a belief that poetry could have an active role in the way we go about thinking ourselves into the world. My first meeting with teachers was not entirely reassuring. We were to work together in class, which I hoped would mean they would be writing as well. They wished me heartfelt luck but let it be known that most of the kids didn’t know grammar well enough to grapple with the written word. Besides, how could I elicit writing when the work was not to be graded? The teachers themselves showed considerable insecurity about understanding poetry, an emotion I believe was aggravated by the fact that most hadn’t seriously read or taught it for years. Their push for the primacy of grammar meant, for themselves as well as their students, that expression was only possible after all the rules were learned. As teachers of rules, they had precious little time to engage in, therefore know, the full-blooded process. A bit like learning to swim without swimming, I thought. These worries dropped away within minutes of my entering the sixth grade. There is simply no time to bother about one’s own grammatical or geographical identity in a situation where thirty young people are waiting to do something. I began with a few remarks about the way poets get by making little or no money in their chosen profession, saying that the decision to write comes from the need to make sense of, and interact with, the world. I mentioned a project I was doing, a travel book about an experience I’d had in Asia. At that point Kim Montgomery waved her hand from the back of the room and asked, “If poets don’t make any money, how come you get to travel all over the place?” So I listed my job history landscaper, typesetter, substitute teacher, housepainter, artist in education. Savings, no family, etc. The same things I had told the Edna Herald about their new poet in town. Being from Brooklyn was colorful but not of endless concern. They wanted to know why I wore four earrings, did I have a boyfriend, did I like the President, and would I acknowledge in front of the teacher that I knew the words to “Sexual Healing.” Their questions were appropriate. They particularly watched the way I answered, treating my jokes and evasions as useful information. In poetry, as in this history we’re making, the real concern is not who you are, but how and what you do and say what makes you tick. What makes Kim tick is a suspicion of authority, classroom or otherwise. She coupled Reagan with a proper spelling of diarrhea and in her poems did away with a number of people who insisted on dieting \(“Hey Ms. Whatsyrname. What’s Maxwell forced Jimmy Carter to smoke peanuts, after which he became a “gross, perverse, weird, raunchy politician.” Chuck Kitchen, in a more neutral tone, composed an ode to television which he sang to us with monotonal clarity: I like to watch T.V. I watch it alot I watch it every day, day in and day out Chorus: T.V. T . V . –e–e The pleasures for me were obvious. The kids were clever and arrogant about their situation in ways I can’t remember ever having been. Hindsight may not be accurate, but it seems to me this class held a measure of awareness qualitatively different from the days when I put my fourth-grade head down on my desk and cried over the Kennedy assassination. I saw a certain kind of sarcastic, gleeful content in the students’ poetry which in 1983 I’m learning to expect from Edna as much as anywhere else. As a child in 1963 I didn’t know what unemployment was, but the students across age groups in Edna now have a literacy about economics and the dubious future forecast for many of them that belies the low performance public education has generally come to expect. This knowledge is not always power, par