This column appeared in the Tri-Valley Herald on January 22, 2008.
I recently accepted an invitation to speak about poetry to several honors English classes at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton. I suppose my credentials as a past poet laureate of Pleasanton and my decade of teaching writing at Las Positas College helped assure English teacher Wendy Garner that I might have something interesting to say.
It also didn’t hurt that my 15-year-old daughter, Melissa, wanted me to address not only her class, but several other classes as well. It’s not every day a teenaged girl wants her dad around when other teens are present, so I was happy to take up the challenge.
While I’m used to talking about poetry with college students, I was initially uncertain at the thought of standing in front of sophomores.
What, exactly, would I say?
Ms. Garner had asked me via email to share some of my own poetry, as well as the process I use for writing poetry. But which poems would I select? Would the students relate to my work? Would teenagers even care about the poetry of a baby boomer?
The key, I knew, was to present whatever I said with passion, high energy, humor, and yes, technology.
So when I stepped in front of the first class, I did what any wise professor would do to capture the youngsters’ attention: I clicked on a video from YouTube.
Up came an animated poem by former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins. The students fell silent as the short video mixed visual images with Collins’ spoken poetic words. Next I showed a PowerPoint slide listing elements of good poetry. Another slide gave examples of haiku.
Then I transitioned into one of my own poems. Projected on the screen, the poem recounted the funeral after the shooting death of a young woman. The poem refers to a “dead sister” named Natalie.
Because I wrote the poem, the students assumed as I read the somber verses that I had lost my own sister to murder.
As I finished reading the poem, I noted that my sister’s name is Laurie and she lives in San Francisco "and is very much alive. This is a fictional poem.”
As the room instantly lightened, I described how poets have the ability to explore though words the common experience of what it means to be human. Even if we have not lost a sister to death, we can tap into that experience and examine it through our work.
Next I shared a lighter poem, a published sonnet I’d written about how great life would be to have an English accent.
“By the way, how many lines are in a sonnet?” I asked the kids.
The students muttered various numbers.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I expect to hear a clear answer, and it’s 14. So how many lines in a sonnet?”
“Fourteen!” the students recited back.
“Can there ever be 12?”
“No!” they said.
“So how many lines in a sonnet?” I asked again.
Along with sharing two other poems I’d written, I recited a few famous poems I knew by heart during the 50-minute talks. I encouraged the students to memorize their favorite poems, and I pointed out that I’d recited Hamlet’s soliloquy so many times over the years that my daughter memorized the lines when she was a little girl, and knows them to this day.
As each presentation drew to a close, I encouraged the classes to consider registering for the upcoming Poetry, Prose, and Arts Festival (www.PleasantonArts.org) taking place in Pleasanton on April 5 and 6.
Now in its 7th year, the festival has been so successful that it has expanded to two days, offering workshops in poetry and prose for both adults and teens, poetry for younger kids, writing contests for all ages, book signings, performances by musical and dramatic groups, a fine arts exhibit, even a keynote address by award-winning poet and essayist Jane Hirshfield.
While I appreciated Ms. Garner’s enthusiasm and an invitation to return to the school next year, I felt I’d connected with students when a week later I received 67 handwritten notes.
While each note is wonderful, one from a young man echoed many other students' remarks, suggesting that I'd bridged the generation gap. He wrote quite simply, “I like your ink, Mr. O.”