7 Days in New England

It’s easier and faster to get to Europe from Vancouver than it is to travel to Boston. That said, when I found a $330 all-in flight I jumped on it. While I was there the Muslim travel ban flared. Watching Logan airport fill with people who believe in the right to religious freedom and the democratic right to communicate with the government was double-edged. I felt angry at my country and proud of it at the same time.

On Friday Jan 27 I drove pre-dawn to Phillips Academy Andover to visit Lou Bernieri’s 10th grade poetry class. Lou was not only my 12th grade English teacher (responsible for assigning Clash lyrics, Noam Chomsky and Paolo Freire) but he taught me again as an adult through the excellent Andover Bread Loaf Program (ABL) after I began facilitating classes at Thursdays Writing Collective.

The two week ABL residency brings public school teachers to campus and opens the mental doors on how best to connect with kids through a fire for literacy. A crucial arm of the larger student-based Andover Lawrence Bread Loaf Project, this teachers’ residency decenters classical pedagogy.

The meat of the program happens a few miles away in Lawrence, an old mill town and cradle for the union movement (bread and roses!), which is home to waves of immigrants, most recently from Central America. The ABL program engages hundreds of schools kids in a paired residency during the summer but facilitates earth-shaking spoken word and writing events, many taking place at El Taller, a restaurant/community space in Lawrence.

The program trains up kids to take the mic, continue their studies and pass on guidance through assuming leadership roles. Found out more here. And throw any amount of money at them. This is where the goodness is happening and we can protect and nourish it.

Lou taught me in 1987/8 and on Friday morning we met again in the archway of the same building, Bulfinch, where I was his student. I sat down at one of the writing desks, probably the same one I sat at decades ago. Good to see the graffiti is consistent. Lou and I hadn’t rehearsed what would happen – just a friendly “read a few poems and let’s do some writing.” I remember the novelty of having a visitor. img_2004Especially at 8am. These 10th graders were so sharp. Shy, sharp, clever, observant, bold.

I told them about a workshop I had taken with Jericho Brown when he came to stay with me when I co-hosted the now-dormant Cross Border Pollination Reading Series with Rachel Rose.

Jericho, whose viral poem the students might have seen on BuzzFeed, years ago had led us through an exercise based on antonyms where he prompted us to create a mirror image poem and then revise it until it made sense.

I decided to try that with the students with two poems: William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say” and Juliane Okot Bitek‘s “Day 23”.

Their surrealist responses, written without affectation or the pursuit of smoothness, were incredible. The reversals of “Day 23” were particularly eerie and/or magnificent. Juli’s book is a poem-a-day work about the Rwandan Genocide, an event that began about a decade before the students were born. I’m hoping to share their responses with her.

During the pause before the 12th grade class I meandered through the Addison Gallery, appreciating the scale and scope of this small museum. I love the early American pieces in the collection that are rotated so often but particularly admire the connection with social justice the contemporary art exhibitions demonstrate.

I used to come here to escape when I was a student. I also took a live-model life-drawing class down the hall from this beautiful fountain.

Here is an imp so beautifully carved I swear he moved.

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The major exhibit at the Addison was Ansel Adams’ Manzanar photos of the Japanese Internment Camp in California. Timely. And infuriating.

Another favourite was Triple Candie’s “Throwing up Bunnies” exhibit. I love the colours and chaotic mixed media but primarily I love the subversion of official history/representation. Lots in common here with Wayde Compton’s Hogan’s Alley Project.

I loved this room filled with scenes of Black American history:

img_1999Look at all those lines! What a great installation site for this.

The second class of Lou’s was at 2pm and we tried the same writing exercise with the seniors. Different tempo, different ideas and equally beautiful response.

The next night I read at The Skating Club of Boston at the inaugural Alumni Network Event. I had literally laid the manuscript out at the Club while my sister was skating so it felt rather fitting to read overlooking the ice.img_3901

Reading to a room full of skaters was interesting – the poems opened in a different way. My introductory comments were of a different nature, completely avoidant of definitions any other audience has needed. Many of the attendees were a few decades older than I and were friends with the members of the 1961 plane crash carrying the US Worlds’ Team, most of whom had ties to the Club.

I was standing in front of vitrines packed with their medals, photos and memorabilia. Although I had considered leaving the poem “Final Flight” permanently unread as a monument to the skaters who died I was conscious of being in a room with a unique group of people who were deeply involved. Coupled with the fact the anniversary of the crash, February 15, was just two weeks away, these thoughts prompted me to consider this was the time to let it surface from the page. Afterwards several people said it brought them comfort to hear the poem. I’m profoundly relieved. (Copies of serpentine loop that will be sold at SCOB will benefit the Memorial Fund which supports young competitors in the memory of the Worlds Team.)

These dressing rooms at the SCOB are what I picture when I read “Once a Month.”

And this newspaper clipping is a pretty accurate representation of me from that time (front row, second from left) My sister Elin is behind me in a matching skirt and our sister Rhys is in the back row second from right:

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Elin skated a new edited version of her program Serpentine Loop, based on her reading of the book. She gave an impromptu artist’s talk by the boards before she began that was conceptualizing and interesting. Her embodiment of the words/ideas is something I never get tired of witnessing. Each time she skates it is slightly different – a loop, a cycle- and this heightens the intensity. I wish every author could have the experience of seeing their writing interpreted like this – it gives me so much to think about. She’s an exceptionally intuitive and open skater and choreographer! After she finished we all skated a little more. (Thanks, Aurelia Hall, for the shots!)

Elin wrote my name for me as in “Learning to Read and Write”!:img_2021-2

The next day Elin and I drove up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire to skate at Puddle Dock Rink at Strawbery Banke.img_2044 Elin and Doug Webster, the artistic director of the rink and head of Ice Dance International, demonstrated figures as I read a poem. Elin and Doug not only demo’d figures but they did a few passes from edge class that are so evocative of swallows in flight to me. Thanks to everyone who stuck around for this mini show!

Plans are happening to have a similar demonstration in Vancouver this March. Here’s a clip filmed by Nancy Boutilier. Don’t skip over Doug’s excellent historical context! And look for Elin’s zoomy entrance at 1:21.

After the show we walked over to River Run Books where Evan Mallett and I read together. Evan is the chef and owner of The Black Trumpet and is a frequent James Beard award nominee who is involved with the slow food and local food movements. img_2048His book is salted with narrative essays that play off the recipes.

btbookcoverHe and I zippered an impromptu reading together, alternating between my poems and his stories. You probably couldn’t find more disparate topics yet the interplay was extremely on point. We had a convivial Q&A before a group of 16 of us walked over to the restaurant.

The menu was delicious. It capped off a pretty perfect day.

My final day of events was at Concord Academy – a boarding school with a beautiful tradition of storytelling/ self-declarative all-school talks by the seniors. Here’s the old, old chapel.img_2053

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I was invited by Nancy Boutilier to talk with her 11th/12th grade creative non fiction students. Nancy and I have known each other since 1986 when she was my brand new dorm counsellor. img_2056-2Nancy is a writer with two Black Sparrow books, Lambda nods and a ton of educating experience who has changed literally hundreds of lives with her educational skills. She also plays bass and basketball. We decided to riff off each other’s work, trading poems one for one and answering questions from the students in between. For us to get together and read like this was tremendously exciting.

Here I am clinging to her:img_2058-2

Interspersed with these events were family visits, beautiful meals, reconnections, phone calls, errands and a lot of driving. I arrived back in Vancouver exhausted but gratified, and grateful to have this blog to capture the action.

Bye!

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