Poetry Out in the World! or My Little Summer Trip

I just recently returned from a little summer trip. It was not a vacation, as I spent the first nine days working (save for two travel days, which frankly, sometimes feels like work). If you are a teacher of something, check out Educational Testing Services Advanced Placement scoring opportunities. Part of your hope in the future of humanity dies in a way that may or may not grow back (depending on your natural level of positivity or ability to repress memories), but it pays decent, they foot the travel, put you up in a swank hotel, and feed you all day. No joke, ALL DAY. I’m talking three squares with two food and caffeine-filled breaks, and nonstop candy in front of you while you work. Somehow, while there, the little sensor in my brain that lets me know I’ve had enough turns off (I think it’s all the bad grammar in the language composition exams I read, or maybe the twenty-five versions of illegible teenager handwriting that short circuits everything), and I consume three times as much food as I do in my normal life. Frankly, in retrospect, once I’m back in the real world, I’m pretty impressed with myself. But also a little horrified. But mostly impressed, like my body becomes some kind of monstrous food receptacle.

Aside from those aspects of the job, one of the things I love best about AP scoring (aside from getting to see my AP buddies who – thanks to social media – are now my all-the-time buddies) is going swimming at the end of the day. Once they’ve unlocked the doors hundreds of teachers shove their way out of the building, and while others run to the hotel bar, I make a bee-line for the pool. I *love* swimming, particularly outdoor swimming. I don’t really swim for exercise (though as an adult with other adults around, there isn’t much you can do other than laps), but for the feel of the chlorine stinging my eyes, the cut and rush of water as I Superman my hands and push off the side of the pool and let my body coast below the surface, the warmth of the sun on my face when I dead-person float. When we were kids, my sister and I spent a lot of time at the pool in the mobile home park, and of all the things from my childhood I’d prefer never to go through again, swimming isn’t one of them.

This year’s AP scoring trip was different though, not just because it moved to Kansas City, MO, but because it moved I got to meet up with friends I made last summer at the Macondo Writers Workshop and do poetry stuff. Let me tell you, sitting at a table for eight hours a day reading essay after essay is fairly exhausting work and a lot of people just go out for three drinks then turn in, but having the opportunity to spend time with the Latino Writers Collective after work hours was the highlight of my trip.

Last summer I had the good fortune to meet Miguel M. Morales and Gabriella Lemmons, two Midwest-based poets who happen to be a stone’s throw from my AP digs. Once I knew where the scoring would take place, I got in touch to see if they wanted to do something, and Miguel (currently presidente del Colectivo de Escritores Latinos), the generous and writing-centered man that he is invited me to be a guest participant for a Collective reading and join them in their annual poetry workshop with the youth program Harvest of Hope.

I always get incredibly nervous before readings, especially when I know a bunch of other writers are going to be there, but my nervousness near vanished when I arrived at The Writer’s Place. Right when my friend (and unpaid chauffer) Amanda and I showed up, we were greeted, taken around and introduced to everyone. There were refreshments and casual chatting. The vibe was so welcoming, even though most of the people there were regulars already acquainted. And then the reading began and ¡Híjole! Amazing. Such lovely writing and beautiful stories.

My AP roommate and another AP friend gave up an hour or so of their free evening to be supportive and they said later how much they enjoyed the reading, in particular one mentioned a poem by José Faus, a litany about Kansas City, and the poem “I'm Big and I'm Brown All the Way Down” by Miguel (which is as hilarious and lovely as the title indicates). After the reading, we talked writing and poetry form, which was awesome. Then before I left, Collective member and radio show host of ArtSpeak, Maria Vasquez Boyd asked me if I’d be willing to do an interview for her radio show. Hells fuckin’ yeah! I said (j/k, I didn’t say that, I was much more composed & professional, that’s what I felt inside though). We planned it for the last day I’d be in KC.

Next event was the poetry workshop with the Harvest of Hope Leadership Academy kids. I’m going to be upfront and say, there are good reasons why I teach at the college level rather high school (even though I, at times, have the sense of humor of a 14 year old boy), one of which is the ability to say, “act like an adult or get out.” In college, adulthood is legally true, and that level of grow-the-fuck-up-ness can be a kosher response depending on the student’s behavior, but not in high school. Those kids are not adults (though many of them have adult problems, as I did) and they don’t need another person yelling at them (as I didn’t), and I am what one of my best friends, Elizabeth, used to call a “sensi-cat” – e.g. a very sensitive person. This includes primarily the capacity to get very emotionally invested in people and situations (i.e. troubled kids who remind me of myself, my sister and our childhood friends). Even though I have always had the ability to be (at least briefly) professional and even-tempered in a work situation, I – like most people, I assume – have a breaking point. And I know that breaking point would come quickly in the face of daily bully cruelty, ignorant parents, narrow-minded administrators and colleagues, and just the mind-blowing brokenness of the U.S.’s educational system that is more concerned with test-taking than actual learning.

Thinking of education in this way reminds me that I am one in an incredibly tiny statistical anomaly: the percentage of Latin@s overall in the U.S. (as of the 2014 census) with a bachelor’s degree is only at 1.42% of the overall population*. The percent of adults (all races) in the U.S. overall with a PhD is a mere 1.5%, leaving the percent of Latinas (actual mujeres with degrees) at – wait for it – 0.031%. That’s right folks, less than 1%! And that’s todas las mujeres, not just the working-class, single-parent-raised, 1.5 generation college students like me.

Okay, all that is to say, I feel my presence in higher education is actually a necessity**, one better suited for my all-the-time-personality, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t relish the chance to work with high school-aged kids, especially those that need the most support and encouragement, like the amazing kids at Harvest for Hope.

Harvest of Hope Leadership Academy is a program designed to support and empower migrant students to finish high school and pursue a college education. The students are given the opportunity to stay for three weeks on the University of Kansas campus where they take classes, get the hang of dorm life, and visit other colleges/universities to view their options. As one might imagine, these are primarily students of color. Annually, the Latino Writers Collective meets with the kids for a poetry workshop where the students are given a poetry writing activity and then encouraged to share. Before arriving I was told there would be tears, possibly lots of them. Because the students have a hard life already, are in an unfamiliar environment, have been away from their families (many for the first time) for at least a week or two by the time the Collective meets them, and have crazy teenage hormones, emotions run high; the workshop is also designed to help show them a way to express their feelings through writing. I’m a grown-ass woman and I often still cry while writing about things that are close to my heart.

When we arrived, we were given student “hosts” (mine were two very energetic young women with lots of plans for their future, far more optimistic than I was at that age) who helped us get dinner in the cafeteria and then ate with us. After, we went to a large room where we talked to the kids about what we do, read some of our own poetry, and then shared an epistle writing activity where they were encouraged to write a letter poem to anyone or anything they liked. After some ho-hum pretending to be too cool for the activity, they got to work and when they began sharing, I understood why Kleenex was on the supply list for the evening. These kids are fa-mazing! And so open. Many of them shared their poems or asked a writer from the Collective to read it out loud for them. Some of the poems were written in English, some in Spanish, some were letters to mothers or people they had a crush on. Some were written either about or to themselves. One young man wrote a poem to his younger self reassuring him that though much of what he wished for would not come true, there would be other good things in life, and that he would stay strong. Another student, a young queer kid, came up to me after I read a few of the Dear Carole poems to say how much he “really really” liked the poems and wondered if and where he could get a copy of them. Afterwards, the students asked us to sign books, gave us T-shirts, and wanted to take pictures with us.

The kids took all the pics, so all I have is this one of the shirt and card. Will be happy to update if any of you cool kids happen upon this post and want to send them to me!

One of my lovely hosts reading her poem about the sky

Though I didn’t cry buckets of tears (I have a bad habit of getting kinda stoic to avoid the full impact of whatever feels I’m having. Also, there was crying, but apparently not as much as in the past) the whole evening was incredibly moving, a truly transformative experience and reminded me, once again, the power of poetry, how it facilitates communication, and the healing work of writing.

Two days later was the interview with Maria and Miguel. In amongst the many thoughtful questions she asked us, one was to speak to how we see our role in the community and with youth. At best I get the opportunity to work with non-college students once a year, but the experience with those wonderful migrant students made me hunger for more of that in my life. Getting to be part of the community building and service work The Latino Writers Collective does showed me that I want more of my relationship with writing to be sharing with the greater community. What the Collective does is so important, and you could see it on the faces of the kids when we left.

After the interview (which was a fantastic, reflective cap to that leg of the trip!), Maria gave me one of the best compliments I’ve received in a long time. She said in preparation for the interview she had read some of my blog posts and thought, “she’s one of us.” She then joked about how after meeting all of them maybe I wouldn’t want that, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. People write for a lot of reasons: personal catharsis, experimentation, recognition, but I write for communication; both to translate and articulate my own thoughts and feelings, but also in the hopes that doing so will help me find community. Being considered kin to the dedicated, community-conscious writers in The Latino Collective was a precious gift I won’t soon forget.

Top left to right: Miguel, me, Maria

*****

*As of the 2013 census, Latin@s made up 17% of the overall U.S. population, so I’m guessing a year and a half later, the number has risen, in part due to the birth rate discrepancies between whites and Latin@s.

**For more about this, here is an interesting read, and here is another one.

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