September 15, 2011

Roadside Poetry

Earlier this week I lead my creative writing students through the creation of a four-line, twenty-characters-a-piece poem inspired by one of the four seasons. Why? Oh, because of this small little fantastically awesome thing that’s happening up in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, called Roadside Poetry. I’d stumbled upon RP's website and mission in August, and I immediately knew it was something I’d use in my classroom. I mean, a short poem, a challenging riddle-like form, a stretch of pavement, and four billboards? Surely one of those would get teenagers writing. It had worked for me.

The happy news is that my own submission to Roadside Poetry has been accepted for this autumn. In a few short days, the beginnings of 90,000 sets of eyes will drive past my verses and maybe, hopefully, read them, think about beauty instead of dinner, see the leaves instead of their cell phones, consider change as an image instead of a stress. Paul Carney, the coordinator of Roadside Poetry, said that he wanted people who ordinarily do not read or encounter poems to have access to moments like that. On this day, I cannot think of a more kind-hearted aim. We are all so busy, aren’t we? So burdened by finances and work pressures and family members who deserve more than we can give. A poem—a short, simple one that speaks about the natural world—can be a brief reprieve, if we let it. If we let it in.

Serendipitously, my husband and I, and all of my relatives on my dad’s side, are driving northwest in a few weeks for my cousin’s wedding. I was already looking forward to the trip. Crookston, two hours past Fergus Falls, is new country for me, and if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I make friends with a fresh landscape pretty easily. Now? Let’s just say October will be a good month. Paul told me the trees will be beautiful then. So I’ll take photos. Of the forests. The farms. The wide open spaces. And, you know, um, those four shiny billboards that end in my name.


September 6, 2011


Today I have returned to my students. I'm always surprised, after the exhaustion of spring, to discover how much I've missed them, how excited I am to be back in the classroom, teaching.

I've spent the past month preparing for the next nine, and somewhere between notes on A Farewell to Arms and rethinking my lead-in lesson on perspective, I reread the critical thesis I wrote two summers ago. I called it "Landing: A Focus on Place in Flyover Fiction." In it, I examined first place--how it's created in writing, effective techniques, etc.--and second those writers from my flyover state who seem to have a handle on such things. I wrote it as a writer for other writers. But this time, because of the headspace I was in, I read it as a teacher, and my planning from that day on changed.

Later, I read in the most recent issue of Orion Erik Reece's essay "The Schools We Need." He talked about many things, but the paragraph that stood out to me was this:
"When students learn about artists from their particular watersheds, they begin to feel their own home place legitimated, validated. Localizing knowledge makes the curriculum more relevant to students' own experience, and it can instill a sense of pride about the places where our students live. 'When I was growing up in these mountains,' wrote Kentucky novelist Lee Smith, 'I was always taught that culture was someplace else, and that when the time came, I'd be sent off to get some. Now everybody here realizes that we don't have to go anyplace else to 'get culture' -- we've got our own, and we've had it all along.'" (34)
Reading this felt a bit like a sign, some confirmation.

So, yes, I will still teach Hemingway and the research process and how to select the very best word. But this year, in every way I can, I will not just be a writer of place, but a teacher of it too. I will say, "I know you think this town is small, that this state is nothing compared to New York and California, that you and those who understand your local experiences count for so very little when held next to THE WORLD. But no. It's not true. Your voice matters. And here are a few names of other Minnesota writers who will tell you so: Robert Bly, Joyce Sutphen, Louise Erdrich, Bill Holm, Paul Gruchow, Patricia Hampl, Sigurd Olson, Jon Hassler, Lief Enger, Kao Kalia Yang, Faith Sullivan, Jude Nutter, Tim O'Brien, Sinclair Lewis, Charles Baxter, David Treuer, Garrison Keillor, Vince Flynn, Joyce Sidman, Judith Guest, Amanda Hocking, Larry Sutin, Alison McGhee, Kate DiCamillo...