Summer Writing, It Happened So Fast or Summer in the City (Writing)*
That’s a weird, undecided title, but I'm not sure which is catchier. I’ve had summer songs stuck in my head of late (for fairly obvious reasons). The first one is a reference to “Summer Loving,” the opening song from one of the movies my sister and couldn't get enough of as kids, Grease. The second part of the title is definitely more accurate in that I am currently working as the creative writing faculty for the West Virginia Governor’s School for the Arts (GSA) which takes place this year at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia’s second largest city (and for some of the students attending, the largest city they have ever been to). Which at this point has certainly been “hot town, . . . / back of my [our] neck(s) getting dirty and gritty.” (Like, no joke, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt so desperately the need to shower every night before bed).
Apparently teaching 5 and a half hours and walking the equivalent of 6 miles to and from our classroom in the downtown Marshall Visual Arts Center and campus proper, along with other various activities every day will create that reaction. Despite the hot and grit though, I couldn’t be happier to be part of this venture.
Each summer, select students from across the West Virginia come together at a major university for intensive study in the art discipline of their choice, while also being exposed to (and asked to participate in) other art forms. It’s kinda hardcore. To even be considered for the program, students moving into their junior year of high school are required to have a certain grade point average, at which point they put together an application packet with a sample of their work, letters of recommendation from teachers or mentors, and lastly they audition in person with the teacher in their discipline.
Before the start of our three weeks together, the last time I saw the students was when our GSA circus of admins and instructors drove to various centralized towns to hold the auditions. In those individual meetings most of them were very nervous and quite a bit awkward. It was a hard decision to pick only twelve writers -- so many of them were talented! -- but after the first day or two of GSA, I knew I had made good choices. The students have been motivated and engaged, always participating and sharing. They’ve made wonderfully (and sometimes shockingly) smart observations about the literature we’ve read. They particularly liked Stacey Waite’s poem, “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken for the Delivery Boy by Two Members of the Girls Youth Soccer League at the Marriot Hotel,” from the collection Butch Geography. On understanding the complexity regarding gender identity in the poem, most of them immediately reverted to using third person pronouns. I didn’t want to weird them out, so I didn’t shout with unbridled joy and surprise, impressed that they exhibited that cultural awareness on their own. Often times when teaching my college classes, gender identification and preferred pronouns are topics that require explaining and debate (though, in my opinion, there really isn’t much to debate – you call someone what they would like to be called and refer to them in the way that they self-identify. End of story. Though I know that’s not the way world operates. Yet). That these students exhibited this awareness and maturity gave me greater hope for the future of the state and country.
I share that as only one small example of what a great group of intelligent, future writer-scholars I’m getting to work with. So far, they have rolled with every weird thing I’ve asked them to do, including sitting in a big hippie circle in the middle of the downtown Pullman Plaza doing calming breathing exercises and then going around with their notebooks touching trees, grass, light poles, benches, bricks and concrete. I was participating in the exercise too, so I didn’t notice anything other than the velvety under-skin of the thin trees where the bark had curled out and the plasticity of the small oval leaves on the ground-covering bushes. Later in the afternoon though, the wonderful documentarians Jared and Aaron, who have an uncanny omnipresence (“I think they just materialize,” one of the students said), told me that the poor lay-people trying to enjoy a calm Saturday morning at Starbucks watched in fascinated horror at these twelve teenagers crawling on the two and half foot brick walk, rubbing blades of grass against their cheeks, and caressing the tall ridged lamp posts in between jotting down who-knows-what in their notebooks. “They thought the students were all tripping,” Jared said. “One woman saw the students and took her daughter’s hand and led her away from the area.” Having that information pleases me to no end.
I have little more to say about this experience just yet, as we are only a week in. But every conversation I have with any of these students in any of the artistic disciplines here (dance, vocal, instrumental, digital/media art, studio/visual art, and creative
have all made me feel a bit better about the future of this country. I haven’t seen any bullying or name calling. For the most part, all the students I've spent time with are delightfully strange and eccentric. Both in action and appearance (which is pretty difficult to do as a teenager; the drive and payoff to conforming is so strong). And speaking of being "strange and unusual," I don’t know if this is a new trend or not, but I’ve never seen so many students wearing giant, wide-brimmed hats and carrying umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun. It’s as if they all collectively broke curfew to stay up and watch Tim Burton movies. (A breaking of the rules I would fully support.)
*This post was written about four weeks ago. I kept meaning to post it, but then time got away from me with all the GSA fun and work (kept accidentally writing "word" -- very telling typo!). I'll have at least one other GSA post begun during the time and finished from my after perspective.