Olga García Echeverría
When we say poetry, it is really the vision for all voices. That's really what it means. People ask me, What is poetry, Juan Felipe? I say, It is freedom. That's what it is. That's what everybody has, and when you use your own voice, your own personal voice, freely, the real you, then we're all united.
--Juan Felipe Herrera
From the 21st U.S. Poet Laureate Inaugural Reading
Once a week, I venture south on the 110 towards San Pedro. My destination: Gulf Elementary School in Wilmington, California. My mission: creative writing workshops with 5th graders.
On the days I visit the 5th graders, I rise before the roosters crow. I sip on strong coffee in the shifting morning light. I pack energy snacks and a hearty lunch. It's an hour-plus drive from my home to Wilmington. On some parts of the commute, traffic clears and I fly. On others, the highway's arteries are clogged. I nudge forward like a slug, past downtown, the 10, the 105, the 405.
I know my exit is approaching when I spot the billowing white smoke of the oil refineries, a Wilmington trademark. These industrial chimneys coughing up smolder and fumes are hard on the eyes and lungs, but lately I've begun to envision the large pipes painted in rainbow colors, puffing out fat cumulus clouds. Soon it will rain poetry, I think. And as soon as I park my car and enter Gulf Elementary School, it does.
“Ms. Olga! Ms. Olga!” a preadolescent voice yells.
When I turn, a group of kids with wide sonrisas are waving their arms up into the sky as if they're flagging down airplanes. In an instant, this boisterous morning saludo shakes off the lethargy of post-traffic-trauma that has settled on my body like a heavy winter coat. I feel lighter—dare I say younger?--via these kids' enthusiasm. I wave back as if I were disco dancing. It's gonna be another great day in Wilmington, y'all.
During the next 5 hours, I'll meet with about 120 of these loud little people who smile a lot and ask such interesting off-topic questions...
“Is it true that if I drink coffee, I won't grow?”
“Can you please bring us a Chinese calendar next week?”
"What's your favorite taco?
“Do you believe in purple llamas?”
These are the brown, bilingual children of Wilmington, lovers of pizza, Cheetos, donuts, and tacos. They talk a lot and make their way through the day with a glazed look of wonder in their eyes. Do I believe in purple llamas? This could very well be my long-lost tribe.
I meet with five different classes during my visits at Gulf Elementary. I have about an hour with each group. 5th grade time, though, is a vortex. It's a location, a colorful crowded room full of desks, chairs, books, posters, activities, and awesome teachers who master Silence Signals. The teachers I work with orchestrate silence with a hand, a countdown, a clap, a stare. I watch in awe. Without a Silence Signal in the 5th grade, I have learned, you have to project your voice like a football coach or an opera singer. Without a Silence Signal your words may get drowned out by the beautiful buzzing of bees. To be honest, I am a sucker for noisy classrooms. Art, after all, rattles and strums and stomps and sings. In my college classes, I pull teeth to get students to share opinions and interact; here with the 5th graders, the rambunctious classes are, in my opinion, signs of success. (All this to say that I have not mastered the Silence Signal).
When you're on 5th grade time, the minutes fly by faster than hummingbirds. “Less Is More” rings true week after week. The writing exercises need to be short, focused, and fun. If you loose them and they start to wander like a disoriented flock, good luck. I aim to keep the 5th graders engaged, all of us moving forward together as we graze on leaves of grass, poetry.
We practice Six Word Memoirs, sensory description, similes, metaphors, haiku, acrostic poems. We read and discuss Sandra Cisneros' “My Name” and then ponder why our parents named us what they did. What were they thinking? Are you named after someone? Whose name did you inherit? If your name were a color, what color would it be? If you could rename yourself for fun, what new names would you choose for yourself and why? Every week, we attempt to do as Juan Felipe Herrera's poem instructs, “Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way...” We gather, we read, we play, we write, we blossom, we flourish.
Along the way, even when one is flourishing, there are inevitable poetic mishaps. Some of the kids write memoirs with 5 or 7 words instead of 6. Syllable get miscounted. Line breaks and margins collapse and poems landslide off the page onto the desks. Someone's assignments disappear. Words are misspelled in both English and Spanish. Kids go overboard with the glitter glue. Students steal each others' lines and arguments ensue, “Hey! I said that first!” One student, ecstatic at having successfully completed her first haiku, yells out, “I wrote a jacuzzi!”
And yet, all of these things are part of the journey. Imagine what would happen to the creative spirit if we kept interrupting it (silencing it) with corrections? Three of our essential rules at Gulf Elementary are...express yourself, be creative, and have fun! There are other rules, of course, but these are the essential ones.
Last week, I invited poet and teacher A.K. Toney to join and guide us in the making of poetry books out of paper lunch bags. Ever since I learned the art of making paper bag books from A.K. back in 2014, I've been a paper bag convert and worshiper. (You can read a previous blog on A.K. and his poetry books at http://labloga.blogspot.com/2014/09/passion-power-and-paper-bag-poetry.html)
Much can be said about the day A.K. visited us at Gulf Elementary. The kids absolutely loved his charisma, humor, and 5th grade charm. We participated in call-and-response chants about honoring our words and the trees we write on. We broke up each class into two large groups. I took one side of the class, A.K. the other. Like the poets that we are, we went with the flow and handled paper bag emergencies and glitter glue catastrophes with calm. At times we needed a bullhorn to be heard, but it was exhilarating watching a room full of eager hands folding, cutting, pasting, creating.
After the last class left and we finished cleaning and packing up all our supplies, we laughed at the intensity of it all. It was a day full of mini-tornados and electrical currents. Whirlwind and lightning. I laid down on the floor for a few minutes to catch my breath and center myself. A.K. lifted his arms towards the ceiling, stretching. Yes, the 5th graders worked us to the bone. Yes, it was beyond WILD. But this is part of the gathering and the flourishing; this is what poetry-book-making in the hands of 5th graders looks like.
Poetry classes at Gulf Elementary are made possible by Amy Eriksen and Angels Gate Cultural Center, LAUSD, Principal David Kooper, Gulf staff, the awesome 5th grade teachers (Ms. Peralta, Ms. Uchida-Smith, Ms. Solache, Ms. Reiland, and Ms. French) and, of course, all the children who show up, open themselves up to poetry, and participate weekly.