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Days Of Wine And Poems

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For half a week, educators revel in Sonoma Valley's lush vineyards and indulge in sumptous feasts. Even better, they learn how to whet their students appetites for verse.

On a clear, mid-July afternoon, I drive toward Northern California’s wine country, where waves of golden hills spread out before me. The landscape fades from lush green to pale yellow, and the aroma of fresh hay fills the air. I head toward Santa Rosa, site of the first annual Teaching Poetry Conference. Aside from enjoying the gorgeous scenery, I’m looking forward to this event because, when I’m not working as a publicist for an independent school or a free-lance writer, I’m something of a poet. Now I’ll have the chance to spend three and a half days focusing on poetry. I imagine myself strolling through a winery, sipping a glass of chardonnay, and reciting some fitting lines from Byron or Shakespeare.

The only problem is, like most Americans, I can’t recite a single stanza of poetry. This, it turns out, is a point that speakers at the conference will make repeatedly: Teachers must use every tool possible, from old-fashioned memorization to yoga chanting, to steep kids in verse and make it stick.

When I finally arrive at Sonoma Country Day School, I’m a little disappointed. The year-old, multimillion-dollar campus is surrounded by office buildings, and the school looks a lot like an upscale mini-mall; I half expect to find a Starbucks. But my spirits lift as I make my way through a marble-covered lobby and into a state-of-the-art theater in time for the keynote speaker, award-winning children’s author and poet X.J. Kennedy. He’s reading from his series called “Brats”:

John, while swimming in the ocean, Rubbed sharks’ backs with suntan lotion. Now those sharks have skin of bronze In their bellies—namely, John’s.

Teachers are key to American literary life, says conference co-founder Dana Gioia.
—Fred Mertz



It’s immediately clear why organizers chose this balding man in a lime-green blazer to kick things off. Kennedy is a poster man for verse. While his Dr. Seusslike rhymes don’t qualify as high art, his enthusiastic performance drives home what will be one of the conference’s mantras: Poetry makes life more interesting, even more fun. For the dozens of guest poets and workshop leaders, poetry is hardly quaint or irrelevant. It is a quintessential tool for better living.

And they’ve come from across the country to help this gathering of mostly high school English teachers figure out how to bring that message to classrooms.

“Poetry is not well-understood in our society or well-taught in our education system,” says Dana Gioia, the conference’s co-founder and an acclaimed poet. “It is an intimidating subject to learn and teach.” Still, Gioia (pronounced JOY-a) argues that poems are worth the struggle because they offer kids so much. Through the study of verse, students gain a better understanding of how words work and a sense that poems have multiple meanings, he explains. And they offer a way to deal with complex emotions. “Poetry can, in our life’s journey, help us develop our inner life [so we are] capable of mastering our outer life,” he says. “These are not small gifts to give to students.”

‘Poetry is not well-understood in our society or well-taught in our education system.’

Dana Gioia,
Poet, critic,
and founder,
Teaching Poetry Conference

Ideally, Gioia would like this gift to be wrapped in a specific kind of package: formal verse. He’s a proponent of the traditional, structured type of poetry that Shakespeare wrote and that beatniks such as Allen Ginsberg considered too restrictive, choosing to go the free verse route instead. An adherent of the New Formalism movement, Gioia believes contemporary poetry rambles too much. (Ironic as it sounds, in turning back to older models, New Formalists see themselves as rebels.) At the conference, there will be much talk of quatrains, sonnets, sestinas, and villanelles. And rhyming, among the leaders, is not merely respected; it’s revered.

Kennedy tells listeners to encourage kids to rhyme when they write poetry. “They should try,” he argues. “Students sometimes say: ‘I can’t stand this rhyming. It doesn’t let me say what I want to say.’ I say: ‘Yes! That’s it!’ It doesn’t let you say [easily] what’s in the front of your mind. That’s the magic of poetry.” I’m intrigued, but, like most participants, I had no idea the conference was going to offer a New Formalist bent. In the end, though, it will serve as only a minor distraction because there’s so much more going on at this conference than a push for traditional verse.

Over the next few days, many of the workshop leaders will offer practical classroom suggestions, and guest lecturers will help participants savor the more abstract, philosophical aspects of poetry. Of course, a couple of big questions have to be answered. Does poetry resonate with 21st-century kids? And will these teachers, as inspired as they are while here, be able to fit verse into packed schedules and crowded classrooms when they return to their schools?


Thursday, July 19

On the morning of the conference’s first full day, the lobby is buzzing with chatter. The atmosphere is decidedly casual, with some folks dressed in flowing floral skirts and others in cargo shorts. Dana Gioia immediately stands out.

In a Navy blazer and crisply pressed slacks, Gioia, 51, exudes charisma. It doesn’t hurt that he has a unique look, with a slightly olive complexion that suggests his heritage—Italian, Spanish, and Native American. Gioia is working the crowd like the pro he is. He’s a published poet and critic who first attracted the literary limelight in 1991, when his Atlantic Monthly essay “Can Poetry Matter?” ignited debate on the role of verse in contemporary society. At about the same time, he left his post as a vice president at General Foods, where he’d made a considerable amount of money, to commit himself full time to poetry.

Now Gioia is a bit of a missionary. And he’s been working for some time to put together a conference for teachers that’s equal parts inspiration and practical suggestions. “We wanted to offer [educators] a conference that is intellectually substantial and spiritually uplifting, something that not only provides helpful information but also that reinforces their vocation,” Gioia will explain later.

Kate Hamblet warms up in a class on getting kids to perform poetry.
—Fred Mertz



At the moment, though, he doesn’t know if his goal will be achieved. “What am I feeling right now?” he muses, between handshakes. “A sense of both satisfaction and terror. We’ve been planning this event for two years.”

Gioia began organizing conferences in 1995, when he and fellow New Formalists launched an event for poets at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. After he moved from a suburb in New York to Northern California and enrolled his kids in Sonoma Country Day, he began talking to headmaster Philip Nix and his wife, Susan, the school’s development director, who are poetry fans, about offering a conference there. This time, though, he wanted to reach out to educators. English teachers, he says, are “among the most important people in American literary life, and the most neglected.”

Certainly this is not the only poetry workshop for U.S. teachers. In fact, dozens are held around the nation each year: Some are offered as part of English conferences, and others are consultant-led sessions at individual schools. Few, though, are free-standing, days-long events like this one. And none, according to Gioia, emphasize the recitation of poetry that he believes is key to turning kids on to verse. “The pleasure of performance is what first attracts children to poetry,” he writes in “Can Poetry Matter?” Above all, he believes, kids are drawn to “the sensual excitement of speaking and hearing the words.”

Gioia’s conference offering obviously struck a chord with educators. It was publicized last year on poetry and education Web sites and in teacher publications, and 110 participants enrolled, about 25 of them from outside California and some from as far away as New York. Many of the conference-goers work at private schools, and nearly all signed on out of personal interest, not to fulfill any professional-development requirement. (Although, with some extra work, they can get continuing-ed credits from a nearby university.)

The level of commitment here is high. Among the most dedicated teachers I meet is Paul Marking, a 54-year-old bilingual instructor at Lincoln Elementary School in Santa Rosa. Marking, one of the few participants who work with ESL students, is so thrilled, he’s brought copies of his students’ poems to share. “This conference is what I’ve been looking for,” he says. “I’ve been teaching kids to read poetry, but I want to move into teaching them to write more. I’m hoping to get some tools to be a better teacher of poetry. . . . I want to write with the kids and to learn together with them.”

Several teachers at the conference had to struggle to convince their principals to pay the $300 enrollment fee. ‘I had to justify it. I had to tie it to the standards,’ said one.

But Marking, like several other public school educators here, is frustrated that he had to struggle to convince his principal to pay the conference’s $300 enrollment fee. “I had to justify it. I had to tie it to the standards,” he complains, pointing out that, in his case, this is a particular shame. “Most of my students respond immediately to poetry. In Mexico, they have a culture and history of reciting and memorizing poetry.”

Before the workshops begin, Marking and I sit down in the lobby for breakfast, one of the many finely catered meals at this event. Sonoma Country Day School, the conference’s official sponsor, can afford to put out its best linen. Many of its students come from the wealthiest families in the area, a few of them winemakers. All the meals feature glistening bottles of olive oil straight from Napa Valley and gourmet dishes such as gazpacho and pork loin. And the dinners, of course, feature plenty of wine. In the end, the event will cost approximately $40,000, according to conference co-founder Susan Nix. Participants’ tuition won’t begin to cover the expense, so the rest is paid for by contributions, including in-kind donations. The school, for example, provided its facilities and such services as planning, logistical support, and fund raising for free.

With breakfast and motivational words from Gioia to sustain them, participants are off to their first workshops. Along with about a dozen teachers, I settle in to the “Teaching Poetic Form” session, which is led by R.S. Gwynn, a New Formalist poet and an English professor from Beaumont, Texas. The full-bearded, full-bodied Gwynn, who leans back with his hands folded over his belly, looks more like an instructor of fly-fishing than poetry. But he knows his stuff. Using a textbook he authored, he walks us through the various forms; then we try to identify some on our own. It all goes pretty well, considering that most participants had no idea how to differentiate between the more obscure poetic forms before coming here. Though Gwynn’s pitch for formal poetry is low-pressure, he admits that he’s here to debunk the common belief “that the people’s art is free verse.”

Maggie Festine wonders if her kids can relate to verse.
—Fred Mertz



After class, I look for Marking to get his opinion on the workshop he chose for his morning sessions, “The Art of Teaching Poetry.” He walks out looking slightly annoyed. “My teacher’s gone over mostly basics—‘What is poetry?’ But I’m waiting for the specifics,” he complains. Still, he withholds final judgment because there’s a lot more ahead: Each day offers two lectures, two workshops, and an evening reading by a guest poet. All of this makes for 10 hours plus, every day, with no opportunity for a catnap. Mealtimes become welcome chances to relax and schmooze.

   Over dinner tonight, the teachers let off a little steam: At one table, the topic shifts from jogging to nude beaches to how “fine” such-and-such a guest is. I chat for a while with Kate Hamblet, an enthusiastic 9th and 10th grade private school teacher. Hamblet, who at 32 resembles a fresh-scrubbed lacrosse player, has come all the way from McLean, Virginia, in the hopes of drawing more of her kids to poetry. So far, she’s pleased with the experience. Unfortunately, other participants aren’t sure they’re going to get enough of the concrete classroom advice they need. But that will change as we plow ahead into Day Two.


Friday, July 20

The second full day turns out to be the best, as the workshops all kick into high gear, full of interaction and loud, laughter-filled readings.

“Making Poetry Come Alive: Performance in the Classroom,” for example, is starting to look like a New Age retreat. Poet Kathrine Varnes is teaching her students how to do yogalike moves and breathing rituals to relax and inject more energy into performances. “HIYYAH!” she cries out and has the class repeat what she calls “the big yawn.” “HIYYAH!” we shout, exhaling hard at the end. We all laugh but willingly follow along. Then she puts us through a series of stretches, bends, and singsong exercises. “This helps relax and warm up the vocal chords,” she explains.

Varnes, who teaches English at the University of Missouri-Columbia, comes prepared with lots of practical tips for improving students’ poetry performances. Among other hints, she suggests: “Put a pencil behind the eye teeth, and have students read the poem that way until you tell them to take it out. Then ask them to keep reading. This helps with muddy consonants and weak articulation.” For readers who recite in monotone, there’s the “la-la” method: “Have the student deliver the poem in nonsense syllables while still giving emotional inflections.” And, she adds, “When you notice improvement, offer tons of praise.” Varnes also distributes handouts featuring selected readings and sample lessons.

Gioia, in fine spirits, at a winery reading.
—Jan Lawson



I slip off for a while to observe the session Hamblet’s attending on Shakespeare. Her instructor, Ellen Mease, offers some interesting wisdom to the class of mostly high school teachers. “This poem is about sex,” says Mease, as she introduces “Sonnet 129.” A professor of drama at Grinnell College in Iowa, Mease is barefoot and saunters around the class with her hand on her hip. “One good way to capture the attention of students is sex, sex, sex.” This morning, Marking also gets more of the concrete direction he’d hoped for from his instructor, Susan Core. Core, who organizes poetry retreats in Tennessee for teenagers from the Bronx, recommends that participants get kids to practice random acts of literacy. One of her favorite techniques is “guerrilla poetry,” which she explains as: “Take a piece of paper, write a poem on it, put it up, and expose the world to it.”

   Core is a firecracker, with her thick-as-honey drawl and candy-apple-red lipstick. She’s thrilled with how her workshop’s going. “I’m so excited my cheeks are flushed,” she cries out at one point. She’s not alone in her enthusiasm. Participants are glad to be getting practical advice, and if today’s sessions are any indication, this fall they’ll have a decent shot at enticing their own students to read, write, and recite poetry.    After the workshops, I hang out with some teachers as they chat about the role of literature in schools and kids’ lives. Maggie Festine, who teaches English at Jesuit High School in Portland, Oregon, has spiky Joan Jett hair and a punk attitude to match. She’s spent most of her 28-year career in public schools, which gives her a certain perspective on her private school students. “My kids are very sheltered. They know it,” she says. “As for teaching literature, including poetry, the problem is they don’t know how to empathize with suffering.”

For the guest poets and workshop leaders, poetry is hardly quaint or irrelevant. It is a quintessential tool for better living.

This contrasts strongly with Marking’s experience. Earlier today, he showed me a poem by one of his 6th graders, whose best friend had been shot by her friend’s drug-addicted father. It ends: “I have dreamed of a warm dark place where I see myself crying softly for Laura but I won’t see her till after death. . . . I have seen the death of this poem.” “She’s a fantastic poet,” Marking told me. For this girl, as for many of his students, poetry is a crucial outlet for healing, he explained. “This young woman is steeped in poetry as part of her way of life. The school’s poetry magazine provided her a different forum for self-expression. Her poetry is its own reward. It sustains her on a daily basis.”

After the busy day, folks are ready for a little R & R, and it looks like this evening will provide it. We’re taken by school bus to Iron Horse Vineyards, which boasts rose bushes and trumpet vines. As we arrive, each guest is greeted at the entrance with a flute of brut rose. A public school teacher from Los Angeles gazes out at the rows of grapevines and sighs. “I never cared for the Romantic [poets],” she says, “but I’m sitting here thinking: You know what? They were definitely right. Life is great.”

Gioia, who dreamed up tonight’s idyllic event, will say later: “I don’t think we do enough to spoil English teachers. I wanted to give them one evening of luxury.”

After stuffing ourselves with smoked salmon, fresh Gouda, and cherries, we’re seated in an old corral and treated to readings by Gioia and other poets, including Diane Thiel and Dave Mason. Maybe it’s the cool evening breeze or the occasional hummingbird nuzzling a blossom, but the next few hours are splendid. OK, the wine has something to do with it. The crowd is definitely buzzed. One participant even gently heckles Mason, who quips: “Whoa! That’s the last time we take you to a winery.”

But when Gioia takes the podium, the atmosphere changes. He’s a mesmerizing performer who punctuates lines with a thrust of his left hand. He recites one of his comical pieces in perfectly mimicked accents, then shifts easily to deliver his somber verses in hushed tones. It’s clear he has some fans in the crowd. At one point, a woman begins reciting along with him, stopping only to mutter: “Oh, my God, yes. This is so beautiful.”

Dinner offers a break from 10-hour days packed with workshops and readings.
—Susan Nix



Then things get even more intense. Gioia reads “Planting a Sequoia,” a poem he wrote more than a decade ago for his first son, who died, at the age of 3 months, from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. He reads the last lines: “I want you to stand among strangers, all young and ephemeral to you,/ Silently keeping the secret of your birth.” A few people gasp. One teacher sobs uncontrollably.

By 9 p.m., it is pitch-dark outside, and the crowd is exhausted but inspired. Gioia certainly has driven home the notion that poetry, and hence poetry education, is essential to the human experience. Participants board the bus and head back to their hotels. But the evening is not over for workshop leaders and other special guests. Tonight, like every other night of the conference, they follow Gioia up the winding road to his hilltop estate. There, until midnight, they read poetry, play music, and drink port. As they debate everything from Plato to existentialism, the sense of support and security is palpable among this flock of Gioia’s peers and admirers.

I ask Gioia about the cozy group of lecturers, all of whom he has handpicked for the conference. “What I wanted to do is to hire faculty who collectively model the values I want the participants to emulate, and one of those values is community,” he explains. “I’ve learned this through trial and error through the years. If you have a faculty that likes and trusts each other, guess what? The students begin to like and trust each other.”


Saturday, July 21

The next morning, everyone is noticeably relaxed and moving slower. The crowd has thinned because three jampacked days are a bit too much for some participants. This is a problem organizers plan to fix as they arrange the schedule for next year’s event.

I join Festine for her last afternoon class, Gioia’s workshop, “Poetry’s Role in Education.” On a large flip pad, he draws a pie chart evenly divided into quarters and labels them “experience,” “performance,” “analysis,” and “emulation” for the ways students learn to appreciate poetry. Soon he’s talking about the benefits of poems, some of which are concrete, such as improved grammar, vocabulary, and public speaking. Others are less tangible.

“Poetry either initiates or facilitates some sort of unfolding within a young person,” Gioia says. Then he quotes biblical passages on good teaching. “In some way,” he adds, “[poetry] is about teachers touching on something verging on religious. It’s about the faith in the unseen, the faith in the future.”

‘Poetry either initiates or facilitates some sort of unfolding withing a young person.’

Dana Gioia

Festine emerges thrilled. “He was so inspirational!” she squeals. “He validates who I am, who I am as a teacher, and my love for students, for kids.”

She’s less enthusiastic about other aspects of the conference, though, disappointed that she didn’t acquire more classroom tools from her sessions. Still, she’s pleased overall and feels inspired. “I did meet really interesting people who love what they do,” she says, then blurts out, “I’d come back.”

Other participants are satisfied, too. “I liked having this time to be steeped in poetry and the process of writing about and reflecting on poetry,” says Marking. For him, the downside was a lack of less traditional forms; he’d have liked workshops and readings that cover hip-hop and rap. “What I really got out of [the conference] was the importance of performance and memorization,” he adds. “I’m definitely going to work toward having my students recite, rather than read. After you memorize, it’s something for you to keep.”

Hamblet was impressed by the conference’s faculty members. “It was great to be exposed to so many modern poets,” she says. “The highlight for me was hearing the poets themselves talk about poetry and being poets. Now I need some time to integrate all these new ideas.”


Postscript

Over the next few months, Hamblet has that time. And in September, with the conference a fading memory, I check in with her and other teachers to see what they’ve been able to retain and pass on to their students. Hamblet tells me she’s swamped by beginning-of-the-year details, but she’s determined to use at least some of what she learned at the lectures and workshops. “Certainly one take-away lesson was the importance of hearing poetry over and over, everywhere and often, for kids to learn and to love,” she says.

‘I think poetry helps sudents understand life and be a part of life. I think it helps them center themselves and to explore their own questions. Poetry can help affirm that where they are in their own lives is OK.’

Maggie Festine,
English Teacher
Jesuit High School
Portland, Ore.

Marking’s also had trouble turning his attention to poetry. “I’ve been doing testing full time so far,” he explains. But he has been reading poetry on his own, which, he says, “will provide a backdrop to the many things I plan to do.”   

Festine, on the other hand, hit the ground running. Instead of waiting to teach her usual poetry curriculum later in the year, she’s already emphasizing the use of verse. She starts her 11th and 12th grade English classes with poetry readings based on student selections. The teenagers, whom she described at the conference as disconnected from poetry, are responding well, she reports; they’re rifling through books to choose pieces. And when she does teach more formal lessons in the spring, Festine intends to use much of what she picked up during her stay in Santa Rosa. “The conference has changed my teaching,” she says.   

And poetry, she adds, has helped her class deal with the September 11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath. Though she and her students have not looked for poems that specifically address the ongoing terrorist threats and the war abroad, she believes literature offers strong support during difficult times. “I think poetry helps students understand life and be a part of life,” she explains. “I think it helps them to center themselves and to explore their own questions. Poetry can help affirm that where they are in their own lives is OK.”

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