Here’s a scene from 1992. A girl with big hair blown in the style of the ’80s is asking Stanley Kunitz about the frustrations of trying to write.
“Have you ever tried to make your poetry more appealing? Do you find yourself doing that in order to appeal more to the reader?”
She’s sitting at a long table with about 40 other teenagers, paper plates in front of them piled with pizza crusts. A wispy-haired Kunitz, peering down from the far end, focuses intently on his questioner. When he talks, his hands are perpetually active (“an agitation of the air, a perturbation of the light”), bare wrists extending past the sleeves of his tweed jacket, big knuckles, the incandescent paper of his 85-year-old cheek burning with inspiration and the rosiness of age.
“The ideal is not even to care whether there’s an audience,” he says. “The first task of the poet is to create the person who will write those poems. What you try to do with your life is transform it. And in poetry, the transformation of the life means that what you are concerned with is making a legend out of your life. And one’s whole life, all the years you spend in writing your poem, are years in which you are constructing that legend about yourself, which is not confession, and which is not autobiography. And if you create that legend about yourself, which is meaningful both to yourself and to others, people will want to read what you have to say. Because we’re hungry for those secret truths about experience, which nobody else gives us, except through the medium of art.”
I hover in the background as this exchange unfolds. I know how extraordinary it is, but I don’t have time to dwell on that. I have to keep an eye on the clock, watch for raised hands, make sure the shy kids get their turn to ask questions. It’s my job.
I direct a program at the 92nd Street Y in New York City that’s made me the lucky witness to hundreds of similar encounters between writers and students—Russian poet Irina Ratuschinkaya telling the kids how she wrote her poems on squares of toilet paper when she was imprisoned in the Gulag. Salman Rushdie describing how, after a fateful phone call on an evening in 1987, he ran around his house pulling down the shades at every window.
It’s called the Schools Project, and it’s an outreach program of the Unterberg Poetry Center that began in 1987 with a two-year pilot grant from the Lila Wallace Foundation. Every year it gives hundreds of high school students the opportunity to talk to poets, fiction writers, and playwrights and hear them read from their work. It’s a unique job. But it shouldn’t be. Anyone can create a program like this in any city or town. There are colleges with reading series everywhere, and writers all over the country who’d love to discuss their books. Most important, there are kids everywhere for whom meeting writers and talking to them about their work can bring literature to life. I think the Schools Project is a model for literary outreach that could work anywhere.
My students come from 15 public high schools across the five boroughs of New York City. They’re mostly African American, Asian, and Latino. Every year I pick out 12 events from the Poetry Center’s calendar of 30-some Monday night readings. I try to choose writers who will be of particular interest to high school students, but I also have to consider the school calendar and the schedule for exams and vacations.
The week before the Poetry Center evening, I visit classes to introduce students to the work of the writers they’ll be meeting. On the day of the reading we send vans to the schools to pick up students and bring them to the Y, where we give them a pizza supper followed by the 30-minute discussion period with the writer. Then there’s the reading—complete with a reserved section for the students in the Y’s 900-seat auditorium—and the gift of books donated by the publishers of the featured writers. At the end of the evening, the van company takes kids home—delivering them to their doorsteps.
Transportation is the program’s major expense, but this is New York City, after all. The Schools Project has donors ranging from FedEx to private foundations. (It’s good for business to support public education.) This support enables us to offer the program to schools for free.
My main concern when I visit classes to prepare students for all this is to make them feel part of the world of writers and writing. I try to find the thread connecting the writer’s work to their experience. Before they met Adrienne Rich, for example, we read her poem “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law” and talked about the courage it takes to challenge authority, the pain it can cause. Then the students wrote about “Why I Had to Disobey.”
Because I’m tired of hiding myself inside pieces of a sample of a soul that people want me to be. I had to disobey because I have to be myself, I have to be free, I want to experience things and suffer the consequences. I had to disobey because I’m tired of being considered nobody. I just had to breathe the air that my pain created and stand up for myself.
* * *
To keep my hopes alive
And to keep my friends
To see that I could follow through until the very end
I had to jump in the car even though it was too late
Because I knew that if I followed
What my mother had said my heart would surely break
I just had to see for myself
The spectacular sights that took my friends
Away from me each and every night
I don’t teach poetic form to the students in the short time I have, except by example. They’re free to respond to assignments however they choose—in paragraphs or stanzas, in dialogues. I do try to phrase the assignment in a way that enables them to see how much they have to write about.
When short story writer and essayist Richard Seltzer and poet Rafael Campo, both physicians, came to the Y for an event called “The Literature of Healing,” I gave them an assignment called “What the Doctor Didn’t See.”
He didn’t ask if she was
Or if she wanted to
stop the treatment
which was driving her
to her grave
He didn’t ask if she
Only assumed she was
* * *
I went to the hospital to be cured. The wound was so big, but the doctor couldn’t see the little knife that made it. The little knife means a lot to me. It has a name and everybody calls it love.
* * *
What the doctor didn’t ask was not important. The way his cold hands touched my neck to feel my glands and the gentle manner in which he treated me made my flu feel a whole lot better without any medication. So it’s not important what the doctor didn’t ask.
For Daniel Halpern’s visit, I picked a poem called “Photographs” to read with my classes. The poem begins:
I’ve never felt this way before, he said,
his last words, so the nurse said.
I went behind the curtain and touched his hand.
I thought of the drunk woman
who jumped into my car
as I waited for my parents
outside the restaurant the day we learned
of my father’s illness. She lifted her dress
and said, Want to feel something
you’ve never felt before? . . .
The students took Halpern’s opening line as their cue:
At first I was a bit nervous and shy but I just had to do it, I really don’t
It was so long ago. I was afraid and anxious. I thought that something could go
wrong between the both of us.
For none of us had ever done it before but I really had known what I was
doing for sure.
The pleasure and joy that moment had brought to me, I really had to take her
But after a while of happiness and fun, nine months later a child was born.
I was so shocked. I did not know what was wrong then, but I was a young
father at the age of 10.
* * *
My father died swimming
Died in the waters of a pool.
It happened in the summer,
So I wasn’t in school.
When I found out,
I said with a sigh,
“I must never
Believe in God,
He let my father die.”
So I’ve sinned and sinned and sinned,
Never listened, never prayed.
I’ve been that way for four years,
Since the Third Grade.
You see how easy it is to unlock the students’ own stories and, by doing so, show them that what writers write about are the things that matter to them as well. The idea is to demystify literature while at the same time making it more real: a mirror of what happens the following Monday night when they meet the writer.
A lot of the kids I teach have never heard of a literary reading series. Some have never even gone to a cultural event in Manhattan. They’ve never seen a place like the 92nd Street Y, with its jewel-box concert hall and the names of Moses, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Beethoven inscribed above the stage. I think in many ways the exposure to this world is the most valuable thing the Schools Project gives them. My favorite comment on student evaluation forms—well, maybe second to “Maya Angelou is my best writer”—was from a boy who wrote, “Now I understand how people entertain themselves.” (“I have awoken to the wonders of modern literature” was pretty good too, but I’ve always feared that funders would think I made it up.)
Many of my students don’t have books in their homes. The gift of a book, especially one written by someone they’ve met and talked to, is a prized possession. Afterward I hear things like “I passed it on to my brother” or “my parents are reading it.” One summer I was recognized by the girl serving me at the counter of my neighborhood bakery. She’d recently graduated from a Schools Project high school. She said she had just finished the books “by those two British ladies, what were their names?” Pat Barker and Hilary Mantel.
Adrienne Rich, Maxine Hong Kingston, Billy Collins and Kay Ryan, Edward Albee, Doris Lessing, Richard Wilbur, August Wilson. The writers who’ve spoken to my students are illustrious, but often the kids have never heard of them. They ask the same questions of everyone, big or small, known or unknown:
How did you get started?
What advice do you have for young writers?
What about writer’s block?
How do you get your ideas?
They ask the questions we all want to know, as I was once again reminded on a warm April evening in 2002. Salman Rushdie stood in front of the students at the pizza table, his shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows. That first tentative hand went up: “Were you scared when you found out the ayatollah had pronounced a death sentence on you?”
Photo of Craig Raine by Nancy Crampton