Poetry Love in the South Bronx

I recently received a bundle of letters from the kids at St. Luke’s School in the South Bronx. I delivered a poetry presentation there in the spring, using Jacqueline Woodson‘s BROWN GIRL DREAMING and Kwame Alexander‘s THE CROSSOVER as mentor texts.

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St. Luke’s is located in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. “Mott Haven has changed a lot in the past couple of decades, but it is still full of good people who struggle mightily to overcome difficult economic challenges.” (St. Luke’s newsletter)

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My mother, Kitty Cronin, attended St. Luke’s as a child, the daughter of immigrants who were trying to make their way in a new country. Many of the children I met at St. Luke’s are navigating that same path, decades later.

Kitty Cronin

Kitty Cronin, back in the 1940’s

The seventh and eighth graders I spoke to were vibrant, earnest, and they fell in love with the two texts, which I gave to their teacher as a gift.

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Their interest in poetry and love of literature are apparent in their notes, which I will treasure.

SLS pic Kitty

I sent them a note in return– telling them I got to meet Kwame Alexander at a writing conference (New England SCBWI).

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I told Kwame about the kids who loved his book in the South Bronx, and he sent his greetings, which I passed on!

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Can’t wait to go back to St. Luke’s next year!

#poetrylove

Writing as Service

A friend of mine recently used the term “writing as service.” Bells starting chiming in my brain.

Writing can be seen as many things: a creative outlet, a hobby or job, a business and source of income, a way of connecting to others. But the concept of writing as a way of doing service in the world* was both familiar and new to me, all at the same time.

The concept of writing as service is a balm to my soul when the “business” of writing starts chafing too deeply, when I find myself thinking too much about agents and editors and publishers and manuscript wish lists. Those noises begin to drown out the creative hum of actually writing. And those noises start to create negative associations, blocking the connection between “writing” and “pleasure.”

Teaching creative writing to an under-served population is a form of service. When I go to the Barnstable County Correctional Facility and teach writing to incarcerated women, I feel inspired, blessed, and lucky to be a writer. When I taught a recent poetry workshop at St. Luke’s School in the South Bronx, I was enriched by the experience: by the kids who blossomed as they wrote, by the ones who sought me out to make a momentary, personal connection, by the adults who wanted to talk to me about writing. Again, I came away energized, refreshed, inspired.

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Writing something that serves as a mirror or window for another person also feels like writing as service. I’ve had that experience, too, with my essays, with work I have shared in writing workshops or elsewhere. That chime of connection rings deep in my soul. I’m sure you’ve had that, too.

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As I navigate the crooked and sometimes bumpy path of being a writer, I will keep this concept of writing as service close to me. I will use it to keep me grounded, to drown out the “static” of the writing life, to focus on the important quests: putting words on the page, and using my writing to somehow enrich the world. That, I’m convinced, will sustain me for the long road ahead.

(Thanks to Elisabeth Booze for our conversation about this term!)

Making the Invisible Visible

Like most writers, I crave quiet time to get lost in my latest project and just let the words flow. Yet it’s my time in the world, especially my teaching time, that feeds my spirit and sense of connection. I teach creative writing in the women’s unit at the Barnstable County Correctional Facility on Cape Cod. It’s a powerful experience each week to enter through the gates of the prison, bringing my notebook and writing prompts with me. One of last week’s prompts was this: “You are ten years of age. It is December. What are you thinking about?” One of the women wrote in vivid detail about the joy of “Christmas tip time,” when her parents would rip open tip envelopes and count the money received. As she read her words aloud, we all leaned forward, listening to the details of her father tallying the total each December, comparing the figure to Decembers past, as the children helped to count. She read to us that it was a time when her parents, who delivered newspapers on Cape Cod, were most happy. They would use the money to buy a new (to them) car for about $500, which would enable them to replace their current clunker and deliver papers for yet another year. She read with pleasure; it was the memory of a happy time. Her account jarred me, making visible all of the invisible people who make our world function with their labor. She gave us all a gift that day with her writing: the gift of seeing and appreciating the not-so-glamorous work that people do, service that is often low-paying and unappreciated. I’m approaching the holiday season with a new awareness and appreciation, and I have the prison writing class to thank for that.

I was recently featured on a local cable arts program on Cape Cod. I got to chat for 15 minutes about teaching at the prison, children’s books, and my own writing.