It was standing room only at Naomi Shihab Nye’s reading at the San Antonio Book Festival last weekend, which should come as no surprise to those familiar with the celebrated poet, essayist, and novelist. On April 14, Nye stood in front of a different kind of crowd in the library at Sidney Lanier High School as she led a workshop for the school’s aspiring writers.
The event is part of the school’s 2nd Annual Sidney Lanier Poetry Festival, taking place throughout April, National Poetry Month. Last year, SAISD District 5 Board Trustee Patti Radle challenged the near-Westside school to make good on the legacy of the 19th century poet, the school’s namesake.
Kerri Ward and Tiffany Jenkins, who lead the creative writing program, rose to the challenge to start the festival and now the students have taken ownership of it, populating the month with readings – both in and out of school. Some even read their work aloud in front of the cafeteria at lunchtime, demonstrating the confidence and pride they feel in their work.
Community support for the festival is growing as well, local organizations and authors are lending their voices and time to encourage and challenge the young poets of Lanier.
Nye is one of those who have volunteered to share her art with the teenagers. Decades ago, when SAISD had an artist-in-residence program, Nye was assigned to lead workshops like this one at Lanier HS and other campuses. She still hears from students of that program who, decades later, have developed a life long love of poetry through that early exposure.
Nye has continued to find ways to be involved in local schools as well as institutions around the country.
“There are so many things that teachers and administrators can do for that exposure to the contagious power of language,” Nye said.
Those familiar with the writer’s varied works know that she has particular insight into the childhood and young adult experience. Her work speaks even more deeply to children of more than one culture. Her 1997 young adult novel, “Habibi,” tells the tale of a 14-year-old girl who immigrates from the United States to Palestine with her family. It’s semi-autobiographical, but fully resonant with most young adults who often feel tension between family culture and the culture around them, even if they have lived in the same city their entire lives.
“This age is intense and idealistic. That’s useful for poetry,” said Nye.
This touchpoint, the excitement, anxiety, and awkwardness of growing up, allows Nye to connect to San Antonio teens. She knows their context too, having spent part of her adolescence here. She went on to graduate from Trinity University, and continues to call San Antonio home.
At the beginning of the workshop, students shared poetry they have been working on in the creative writing program. One student’s work made a particular impact on Nye and the 30 students gathered for the workshop.
I don’t understand…
Why people are so selfish.
What drives their urge to hurt others.
The need to break an already fragile heart.
But I will never understand…
Why the broken return to their destroyers.
Why the beaten and bruised dog returns to its master.
Their need of them.
Their want of someone who takes from them.
However I do understand…
The feeling of loneliness.
Watching that heart be beaten, bruised, tortured, hated and being filled with rage.
Letting that rage drive you.
Speaking with purpose.
Using all of your strength to repair that damaged soul.
Letting that final piece slip into place.
Seeing the fruit of your labor.
Watching them beam and radiate light.
Standing there, hoping they will share that light with you.
Hoping your hard work will be rewarded.
You watching as they run toward the world.
Being left in the cold embrace.
Feeling your heart get consumed by loneliness.
– Anonymous Lanier HS student
This kind of emotional exploration and honesty is one of the many reasons that Ward and Jenkins continue to invest in the creative writing program. When the teachers arrived at Lanier they were both assigned to the writing intervention program, for students who had failed the writing portion of the standardized testing the year before. These were students who believed themselves to be bad writers.
In the course of the remedial curriculum, Ward and Jenkins showed the documentary “Louder than a Bomb.” The students reacted far more strongly than they had anticipated. They wanted more poetry.
Following the students’ lead, Ward and Jenkins began the creative writing program in the 2013-2014 school year. The 20 students hosted a poetry slam during the first Sidney Lanier Poetry Festival. They attended a summer seminar with Katherine Bomer of the University of Texas – Austin on the “writers’ workshop” format, which they have implemented in their classes at Lanier HS.
This year, 100 students participated, and Ward and Jenkins have noticed their themes beginning to expand beyond their internal worlds.
“This year they’ve moved a lot toward social justice,” Ward said.
Ward and Jenkins spend an entire unit exploring the art and issues of the Westside. They saw how students were able to take very localized issues and draw out the universal themes.
Dragonflies born in fire, and this I find ironic
That these little creatures given such a mighty name do not breathe fire or terrify. Instead they bend and bruise, break and bleed into shards of glass.
Elephants never lose a memory, but where do memories go when life fades away?
Memories don’t last forever and it isn’t death I ponder, but what memories will stay and which will go when I am six feet under?
Cheetahs feet with impossible built-in speed are still no match for the bullet’s hit.
We run and we run fast, but our past will hit us and it will either kill us or define us.
Lady bugs are fragile. They are small and innocent, but they are only bugs.
Like Humans are just humans. We bleed, we forget, we run
– Joy, Lanier HS student
At the workshop on Tuesday, Nye’s winsome and extemporaneous style drew the students into a collaborative buzz of creating, sharing, and experimentation with style and inspiration.
Nye explained her own sources of inspiration, which range from the great poets to the mundane details of her day.
She encouraged them to make the most of libraries to find poets that speak to them.
“I think its really important when you are young and reading to follow up on people you like,” Nye said.
Nye also challenged the students to find poetry in the everyday artifacts and tasks around them. She credited Sandra Cisneros with helping people realize that every day brings something worth writing down. Reaching into daily life for material makes it much easier to obey the great first commandment given to every aspiring writer: write every day.
“Every morning I just sit a write a couple of pages in a notebook,” Nye said.
She shared some of her own work, and introduced most recent book, “The Turtle of Oman,” for children. As she read her poetry aloud, she explained her process, and reflected on the realities behind the poetic phrases.
This reflection lead to the two exercises she had prepared for the students. First she read a poem by Gary Snyder, and asked students to use their art to explore the question, “How does poetry come to you?”
The students quickly produced short works which they fearlessly shared with each other. Nye complimented the students on their strengths and their peers applauded.
The next exercise yielded more short poems. After reading a few short works that use household chores as an impetus to explore, Nye had the students write three “chunks” of unrelated words. They listed chores, metaphors and questions. They then had ten minutes to produce three short poems connecting the lists.
“I want them to think of every day as packed with poems,” Nye said.
My t-shirt with pizza stains from Sunday night dances to the beat of the washing machine
While my earrings jingle plays memories into my ear.
Then words burst with excitement slide through a tunnel made of a pen’s ink.
-Janely, Lanier HS student
Again, the students met the challenge with enthusiasm, and, in true poetic fashion, deviated from the exercise to follow trails of inspiration that popped up along the way, and showed how humor and levity in poetry can be as appealing as nostalgia and outrage.
I witnessed the most horrifying death just the other day.
Yet no one cared.
I couldn’t believe how he just went to the most beautiful object in his eyes.
Not knowing he would fly to his death.
I give my full condolences to the fly who lost his life to a spinning fan.
– Roger, Lanier HS student
This freedom is something that Ward and Jenkins encourage.
“Our kids often feel like they don’t have freedom, like their voice isn’t heard,” said Ward.
The natural freedom of poetry, it seems, allows students to find their voice, and participate in a conversation that stretches all over the world and across time.
*Featured/top image: Naomi Shihab Nye poses for a photo during a poet workshop at Lanier High School. Photo by Scott Ball.