Teaching Poetry in Times Like These
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, teaching poetry in times like these. At the beginning of the school year I often talk with a teacher of poetry. School after all is a proving ground for poetry; a bad experience can turn a student off forever, but a good experience can shape a student’s reading life for years to come. It might even turn her into a poet. Tina Boyer Brown’s work has appeared in Poetry Magazine. She’s the head of the creative writing department at the Chicago High School for the Arts, and she’s been teaching in high schools in Chicago for more than a decade. This summer, she was one of the lead teachers in The Poetry Foundation’s Summer Poetry Teacher’s Institute, which helps teachers develop lesson plans to bring back to their classrooms. She joins me form the Chicago High School for the Arts, which is already in session, so there may be some noise coming from the background. Hi Tina.
Tina Boyer Brown: Hi, how are you Curtis?
Curtis Fox: Very good, thanks for doing this. Our country is in a dramatically different place than it was at the start of the school year last year before the election, and I’m wondering about the effect all this political turmoil has had on you as a teacher of poetry. Are you doing things differently this year than in previous years do you think?
Tina Boyer Brown: The only thing that might be different, at least from my practice as a poetry teacher, is making more room for student voice. More opportunities for them to choose the work we’re reading.
Curtis Fox: And that’s directly in response to the political upheaval.
Tina Boyer Brown: Yes, student choice and voice are really important in my classroom to begin with. When groups of students or individual students feel marginalized in a new way and a different way, the only remedy to that is to allow them to find ways to express those feelings in whatever ways we can get them out. Poetry is an excellent way to do that, both writing and reading.
Curtis Fox: I asked you to pick some poems you might teach this year, I’m not sure if you will. One of them is a very famous poem by Langston Hughes. I’ve read it many times, and I reread it just now and it brought tears to my eyes. It is so right for this moment. I don’t think it needs an introduction. Can you just read it? It’s called “I, Too”.
Tina Boyer Brown: I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
Curtis Fox: That was “I, Too” by Langston Hughes. It’s very straightforward in it’s meaning and in it’s feeling. How do you talk about this poem in the classroom?
Tina Boyer Brown: When It think about teaching this poem and frankly any other, I introduce it with I’ll read it out loud and then I’ll ask the students to read it out loud.
Curtis Fox: First thing? You read it out loud and then ask your students to read it out loud before even discussing it?
Tina Boyer Brown: Oh yes, the discussion is last last last. Because something about a poem, if we start off with let’s find the dominant images, what is the enjambment telling us, and getting deep into the poetry vocabulary you lose the poem. That’s not the point. When we’re talking about what it means to respond to strife or political turmoil, or connect with the humanity we each have, if we go deconstruction first we miss what poetry is for. So I read the poem first, I ask the students to read it, and then we talk about what’s happening and do a very who what when where. Then I ask them to read it out loud again and look for patterns.
Curtis Fox: The first thing I would point out as a student of this poem is the first line: “I, too, sing America”. Why that “too”?
Tina Boyer Brown: Right, that’s part of finding the narrative of this poem and the story of this poem. That’s why this particular work keeps going back to me in this time. I hear it frequently. The students all belong, the children, their parents all belong, the adults around them are all part of what makes the nation, it’s existence. One of the things that is a requirement of being a teacher is affirming each student’s humanity and bringing work that does that, like this poem, “I, Too”, you too sing America. To be explicit about that through the work, the other conversations will come. They’re important, but the most important thing is there’s a reason to read this.
Curtis Fox: I’m assuming you have diverse students in your classes. How do they respond to this poem? And what are the various ways they respond?
Tina Boyer Brown: It depends on how many times they’ve read it already. Some students have read a lot of Langston Hughes by the time we see them in high school. So they’ll bring their own set of references and they’re own conversations about the poem with them in the beginning, and the other students will be encountering it for the first time. Any teenager knows these feelings.
“They send me to eat in the kitchen”; somebody sends me away, “But I laugh, I eat well, I grow strong”. That feeling of I may be rejected by somebody else but I’m growing, I’m celebrating, I’m going to have my place. The experience of having to establish yourself and not having other people see who you are as a person for something that you can’t control is one of the features of racism. Teenagers regardless of race cannot control their age. Adults around them may not be able to se them for who they are. So there’s a natural entry point for anyone to be able to understand what it feels like. I am a person with agency and a point of view, I belong here, I deserve respect. That’s one of the characteristics of a high school teacher, is understanding that and understanding the humanity of every child in front of them.
Curtis Fox: Let’s hear another poem. This one’s by Ross Gay who lives in my home town in Bloomington, Indiana and teaches at Indiana University. This one is called “Sorrow Is Not My Name”, after Gwendolyn Brooks. Is there anything you want to say about this poem before we read it, that you’d say to your class? Or would you just read it in your class?
Tina Boyer Brown: I would say I want them to think bout the way the tone changes.
Curtis Fox: Okay, we’ll be listening. Here’s “Sorrow Is Not My Name” by Ross Gay.
Tina Boyer Brown: No matter the pull toward brink. No
matter the florid, deep sleep awaits.
There is a time for everything. Look,
just this morning a vulture
nodded his red, grizzled head at me,
and I looked at him, admiring
the sickle of his beak.
Then the wind kicked up, and,
after arranging that good suit of feathers
he up and took off.
Just like that. And to boot,
there are, on this planet alone, something like two
million naturally occurring sweet things,
some with names so generous as to kick
the steel from my knees: agave, persimmon,
stick ball, the purple okra I bought for two bucks
at the market. Think of that. The long night,
the skeleton in the mirror, the man behind me
on the bus taking notes, yeah, yeah.
But look; my niece is running through a field
calling my name. My neighbor sings like an angel
and at the end of my block is a basketball court.
I remember. My color's green. I'm spring.
Curtis Fox: That was “Sorrow Is Not My Name” by Ross Gay. I think I heard the tonal shift in that poem. I’m not sure where it occurs, but it begins rather darkly and ends with great optimism and life. I’m not sure where exactly in the poem. How do you open a discussion of this poem with the students?
Tina Boyer Brown: I would ask them to look for images in the poem and characterize them. This is the sort of thing that would be well suited to something like a venn diagram, the two circles with the shared space in the middle. You could put a list of the positive images on one side and images that have a darker or negative connotation on the other, and the middle of the circle is the ones that can do either. Just to see what they think.
Curtis Fox: It’s a poem with death looming in the background. There’s deep sleep, there’s a vulture, there’s a skeleton in the mirror; I would say that’s on the negative side of things. But there’s lovely things like he’s talking about the basketball court, his niece running through a field, his color is green, I’m spring. That would go on the other side of that venn diagram. What’s in the middle?
Tina Boyer Brown: The turn. It’s that what you’re looking for and what you’re trying to figure out is what goes in the middle, so where is the turn of the poem? “Then the wind kicked up”. There’s a shift in the sound too. The feeling of “up” is the feeling that’s lifting, and literally up of course. And “after arranging that good suit of feathers”. Good suit of feathers is contrary to every description of a vulture. When Ross Gay takes what we believe of this animal, the baggage of the vulture and image of the death bird, and writes “arranging” — it’s very careful — “that good suit of feathers”. Even though good suit is something you wear to a memorial, the feeling of the end vowels, the rhyme in good suit, it feels positive. That’s a sonic effect, but also it anthropomorphizes the vulture even more. Then again, “he up and took off”. Which if you’re dying, it’s down not up. That’s your turn.
Curtis Fox: Do you talk about why this poem was written? What’s the impulse behind the poem? It’s hard to know that, but it begins “No matter the pull toward brink.” Something has happened in the poet’s experience, it’s not clear if it’s a personal tragedy or a personal problem or a political problem, do you talk about that? Do you bring that up?
Tina Boyer Brown: We would. We talk about it in terms of what are the possibilities. I do not tend to approach poetry form a biographical perspective, though I think it’s important to know that these writers are African American and that’s one of the reasons we’re reading them right now, because they’re making very different things out of the history that’s echoing right now. These are three different ways to approach the history.
Curtis Fox: This could be — we didn’t mention that when we first introduced Ross Gay that he’s an African American poet, and it does effect the way you might read a poem like this. Maybe, maybe not.
Tina Boyer Brown: Maybe. I don’t always talk about the race of the poet, but I often do just because students need to see themselves in the work. I recently met an excellent teacher. One of the things she does at the beginning of every school year is she looks at her roster, and then gets together other materials, poems, literature to make sure that every chid in her class sees themselves represented in the literature they read at least every semester, if not every quarter, which is an amazing practice and an ideal practice. Poetry is for everyone, it is for you specifically, which ever child is in front.
Curtis Fox: I wish I had you as my teacher when I was much younger. Thanks for coming on the podcast.
Tina Boyer Brown: Thank you Curtis.
Curtis Fox: Tina Boyer Brown is a poet who teaches at the Chicago High School for the Arts. This past summer she was one of the lead teachers in the Poetry Foundation’s Summer Poetry teachers Institute. If you’re a teacher, there are tons of resources for teaching poetry on our website. Click on “Learn” and then “Educators” to see what’s there. We love getting emails with your comments and suggestions, email us at [email protected] or write a review in the iTunes store. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.