“Poetry makes me look at everything in the world from a different perspective.
It lets my brain open and lets my imagination grow.”
~ Ben, 4th grade
Poem to the Barn Owl
I sense you breathing in the
of the abandoned barn,
throwing shadows into the
and gliding through the wise
Teach me the unteachable
moonlit dance of fire, ice and
Fierce as the sun, loyal as the moss,
and filled with memory,
you escape elusively,
your curiosity luminous
in this cool, autumn night
of silent sound.
~ 6th grader
Romancing the Word, Inside the Classroom
Anyone who thinks of poetry as quaint, as quiet, as something flat on a page has never witnessed a word artist work a classroom into a literary frenzy. That feat takes only minutes for irrepressible Irish poet Tony Curtis, who arrives in a third grade Anacortes classroom with a strumming guitar and wicked grin, warning children he is a wee bit “mad.”
Within seconds, words are flying, images bouncing off walls. “Everybody here knows the earth is round, right? It makes you a bit dizzy, right?” he begins, working the room at a fast-forward pace. He draws a picture of a one-haired newborn on the board. “Did you know poets can talk to babies…and trees…and flowers.
“Me, I like best to talk to babies. They have great stories to tell!”
He mesmerizes the children with his humor, lilting voice, swinging arms, and non-stop word play, challenging them to identify the five best words in the world, as determined by his own unscientific survey of 6,000 kids. “Penguin? Vacation? Sleep?” they ask.
“In the top five, with bubbles.”
Once the whole room is squirming, with hands waving like fronds, he tells the rest: smile’s number four, sausage is number three, noodles is number two and – ta-da! — bellybutton takes first place.
Bellybutton? The class explodes in giggles. What magic and power words have!
Curtis and other top poets from around the globe have become familiar faces in Skagit County classrooms over the past decade, sharing their love of language with more than 10,000 students through the Skagit River Poetry Project. Their names read like a who’s who of contemporary poetry: Lorraine Ferra, Elizabeth Austen, Billy Collins, and Kurtis Lamkin, who comes calling with a 21-string West African kora, plucking, pulling students into a lively groove, laying luscious lines atop the music:
ol men sittin in their lincoln
tastin and talkin and talkin and tastin
young boys on the corner
milkin a yak yak wild hands baggy pants
The Skagit River Poetry Project artists help teachers develop instructional methods and lesson plans, work one-on-one with students from elementary to college level in week-long residencies, lead group discussions, and share the accumulated knowledge of lifetimes spent romancing the word.
It’s a program with profound impact.
“The poets bring the written word to life,” says Anacortes High School English teacher Janet Clark. “The students are never the same. They want more – the poets leave them hungry for more.”
On a sunny spring day in Clark’s classroom, one teenager writes of stones she picks from the soles of bare feet. She writes of the single rock, on the windowsill, high up where children’s hands cannot grab it. Washington State poet laureate Sam Green is visibly moved by the images. He calls this a “poem of coming to terms” and compliments the student on her openness.
“Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mystery,” Green tells the Anacortes High School English class, citing an ancient Sufi saying.
The students nod. Vulnerability. Mystery. This