Why Teach Poetry?

I’ve written poetry all my life, but I first began identifying as a poet in my twenties. (To read about how and why writing poetry and being a poet are not the same thing, see Eavan Boland’s long thoughtful essay on the subject, “The Woman Poet: Her Dilemma,” in Object Lessons.) Abandoning the idea of being a working poet after college, I trained as a nurse, and it was while I was practicing nursing (and recovering from a divorce) that I began to write poetry very seriously, taking classes at SF State and joining the Palo Alto based group Waverly Writers. Also during this period I discovered my temperament was better suited to teaching than to nursing. I finally put these several parts of my identity together in my early forties, when I began teaching poetry with California Poets in the Schools (www.cpits.org).

The best thing about teaching poetry is being engaged with young people who are open to and still close to the magic and beauty (and rawness) of the world, who have their experiences and feelings immediately available, and who have an urgent need to have their unique voices heard. I love sharing what I love with young people who haven’t already decided, as have so many adults, not to love it. The hardest thing about teaching poetry is that it is an essentially extroverted and social—almost performative—experience, while writing poetry is an introverted, private, quiet process that requires long periods of solitude. To teach poetry is to have less time to write poems. (Again, Eavan Boland has written an important essay discussing the “requirements” on today’s poets to be public people – teachers, speakers, publicists of their own work; “Islands Apart : A Notebook.”)

As part of my current work, “teaching” poetry, I’m serving as the second Poet Laureate for the City of Cupertino. This role links the public persona of the poet to civic responsibility. A PL’s duty is to promote poetry both as an art form and as an important component of civil public discourse. While this public appointment leaves even less time for private writing, I have had the surprisingly enjoyable opportunity to write occasional poems for my city.

The life of a poet is changing with the times. Poetry is changing. But of course this is inevitable and we shouldn’t fear the process. Teaching poetry lets me be part of the process in an altogether different way than writing poems does. Why wouldn’t I want as much access to poetry, in all its guises, as I can find?

To read about my writing process, read “Virtual Blog Tour : Suburban Poet Sleeps too Much.”

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