Dress up days are almost always a crapshoot. For every successful Pyjama Day is a clunker that leaves students either puzzled or uninspired. At most middle and high schools a few standards hold sway (usually with alliteration) so seeing “Throwback Thursday” on the Spirit Week calendar doesn’t particularly raise anyone’s hopes. But students have the fundamental ability to surprise us, often in creative and clever ways, and last Thursday at ACMA was an example of what makes me hopeful about the future.

Populating the halls on ACMA’s Throwback Thursday were the almost to be expected bell bottoms, poodle skirts, and leg warmers, all done with the eye of an artist, and…

For anyone who thinks that “kids today” have had their creativity zapped by technology, their spirits broken by school, or their innovation stifled by a world of questionable priorities, I offer ACMA’s Throwback Thursday as exhibit A that the kids are more than all right. 

On Thursday ACMA students took the concept of “Throwback” and made it their own.

Rosie the Riveter walked passed me holding hands with a fantastically robed Jedi master, the 1940s meeting “a long, long time ago.” Sharks and Jets shared the hallway with Robin Hood; a student wearing a bowler hat and pinstripe suit high-fived two Jazzercise instructors. At lunchtime I saw an Egyptian pharaoh.


Now in and of itself this may not sound crazily important, and I suppose in the greater scheme of things it isn’t, but this combination of youthful exuberance and wild creativity, made manifest by students who constructed their own costumes and were willing to spend a school day as 19th century banker or Laura Ingalls Wilder reminded me that I have the good fortune to be surrounded by students who are innovative, thoughtful, and willing to put aside inhibition and play.

These weren’t simply costumes plucked off the wall at the Halloween store; the spikes on my punk rocker’s wrist and neck would have passed muster in 1983, the tinted glasses and tie-dye shirt one student wore looked like they’d been around since 1969, and the Beavis and Butthead t-shirt one student sported felt authentic. Even these more conventional approaches to Throwback Thursday had been put together thoughtfully, an approach that I see many students take to most of the subjects they care about.

IMG_1840For the more adventurous or theatrical, that forethought exploded into the reality of flappers and fedoras for Throwback Thursday. 

Once again, the takeaway wasn’t just that creative kids like dressing up in costumes (though they do), but that when they want to, today’s youth has the potential to innovate, to take an established prompt and make it their own. This is as true for something as little as a dress up day as it is something big like climate change, period poverty, or school safety.

Unfettered by the many limitations those of us over thirty put on ourselves and the cultural expectations dictated by our greater society, students know that the world is theirs for the changing. Many of this generation aren’t going to do what we expect them to do, or at least not in the way we expect them to do it. Instead, like that Jedi and Rosie the Riveter, or pharaoh, or punk rocker, they will build on the history the know, express the passion they feel, and create the reality they want to see.

Maybe I’m sentimental, it’s an accusation I’ll own up to, and maybe today was just a great dress up day during Fall Spirit Week, but I choose to recognize it as more. My older eyes saw in my students an expression of creativity that will lead to a better world, a sense of hope wrapped in an expression of joy, a bright future dressed in old clothes.

King of Carrion: Ted Hughes

crow-coversIn college my favorite book of poetry was Crow. Brash, bold, and more than a little vulgar, Ted Hughes’ verse struck me as both smart and raw. I hadn’t yet gotten his biography (or read Sylvia Plath) so Crow stood on its own a testament to …something, something the collegiate fool I was found appealing.

Rereading it now meant knowing about Hughes’ complicated life and bringing my own middle aged sensibilities to the reading (a part of those informed by teaching The Bell Jar for years as a high school English teacher and coming of literary age at a time when Hughes, whose second wife took her own life in the same way Plath did after Hughes left her, was considered by some a pariah).

That didn’t stop me from using “King of Carrion” in my first teaching job, pairing it with John Gardner’s Grendel and a handful of other dark texts in a Senior English class. The epic quality of Crow resonated with the material at hand, and even out of context “King of Carrion” squawked true.

His palace is of skulls.

His crown is the last splinters
Of the vessel of life.

His throne is the scaffold of bones, the hanged thing’s
Rack and final stretcher.

His robe is the black of the last blood.

His kingdom is empty-

The empty world, from which the last cry
Flapped hugely, hopelessly away
Into the blindness and dumbness and deafness of the gulf

Returning, shrunk, silent

To reign over silence.”

…and while that wasn’t really about Grendel…

I still thank Hughes for the discussions that filled my first classroom.

But Truth is something slippery in poetry, and slipperier yet in Crow, which ricochets between reality, religion, and a mythos of its own. Often that Crow mythology alludes to Biblical or classical traditions, and sometimes resonates with imagery more indigenous or aboriginal, as in “Crow Alights” in which:

Crow saw the herded mountains, steaming in the morning.
And he saw the sea
Dark-spined, with the whole earth in its coils.
He saw the stars, fuming away into the black, mushrooms of the nothing forest, clouding their spores, the virus of God.
And he shivered with the horror of Creation.”

Like the trickster of Native American Lore, Crow inhabits a mythic place, cavorting with God and man, and some ambiguous poetic realm in between. In “Crow’s Account of the Battle” Hughes offers a commentary of conflict as real in the Vietnam War era in which he wrote the poem, war today, or when Richard fell at Bosworth Field.

There was this terrific battle.
The noise was as much
As the limits of possible noise could take.
There were screams higher groans deeper
Than any ear could hold.
Many eardrums burst and some walls
Collapsed to escape the noise.
Everything struggled on its way
Through this tearing deafness
As through a torrent in a dark cave.

The cartridges were banging off, as planned,
The fingers were keeping things going
According to excitement and orders.
The unhurt eyes were full of deadliness.
The bullets pursued their courses
Through clods of stone, earth, and skin,
Through intestines pocket-books, brains, hair, teeth
According to Universal laws
And mouths cried “Mamma”
From sudden traps of calculus,
Theorems wrenched men in two,
Shock-severed eyes watched blood
Squandering as from a drain-pipe
Into the blanks between the stars.
Faces slammed down into clay
As for the making of a life-mask
Knew that even on the sun’s surface
They could not be learning more or more to the point
Reality was giving its lesson,
Its mishmash of scripture and physics,
With here, brains in hands, for example,
And there, legs in a treetop.
There was no escape except into death.
And still it went on–it outlasted
Many prayers, many a proved watch
Many bodies in excellent trim,
Till the explosives ran out
And sheer weariness supervened
And what was left looked round at what was left.

Then everybody wept,
Or sat, too exhausted to weep,
Or lay, too hurt to weep.
And when the smoke cleared it became clear
This has happened too often before
And was going to happen too often in the future
And happened too easily
Bones were too like lath and twigs
Blood was too like water
Cries were too like silence
The most terrible grimaces too like footprints in mud
And shooting somebody through the midriff
Was too like striking a match
Too like potting a snooker ball
Too like tearing up a bill
Blasting the whole world to bits
Was too like slamming a door,
Too like dropping in a chair
Exhausted with rage
Too like being blown up yourself
Which happened too easily
With too like no consequences.

So the survivors stayed.
And the earth and the sky stayed.
Everything took the blame.

Not a leaf flinched, nobody smiled.”

What’s there? So much.

Hughes stays mythic even as he slides into contemporary killing machines and buries critique within lists of casualties that he describes as happening “according to universal laws.”

The character Crow’s only appearance in the catalogue of carnage comes in the title, and if the poet’s voice is to be believed, through the idea that this is his account of war. Black bird of death, like Poe’s raven or Stevens’ blackbirds, Crow sees all and chooses not to intervene.

But throughout this collection Hughes’ mythic Crow does act, clapping his beak, “telling loud lies,” mocking God, and futilely battling the sun. Poem after poem show Crow to be hungry, mocking, and bold, insinuating himself into stories beyond his own. “Crow followed Ulysses till he turned/ As a worm, which Crow Ate” he writes in “Crowego” and “Drinking Beowulf’s blood, and wrapped in his hide,/ Crow communes with poltergeists out of old ponds.”

And Crow’s appetite doesn’t stop with mythology. In “A Horrible Religious Error” Hughes takes his readers back to Eden, or some sort of version of Genesis, with Crow.

When the serpent emerged, earth-bowel brown,
From the hatched atom
With its alibi self twisted around it

Lifting a long neck
And balancing that deaf and mineral stare
The sphinx of the final fact

And flexing on that double flameflicker tongue
A syllable like the rustling of spheres

God’s grimace writhed, a leaf in the furnace

And man’s and woman’s knees melted, they collapsed
Their neck-muscles melted, their brows bumped the ground
Their tears evacuated visibly
They whispered ‘Your will is our peace.’

But Crow only peered.
Then took a step or two forward,
Grabbed this creature by the slackskin nape,

Beat the hell out of it, and ate it.”

Crow’s solution to “that double flameflicker tongue” is brutal, simple, and in keeping with the personality given him by Hughes. Crow is the anti-hero of his own book, he is, to quote “Crow Frowns,”

He is the long waiting for something
To use him for some everything
Having so carefully made him

Of nothing.”

It’s the nihilism, I think, that got to me in the end. Reading poems like “In Laughter” as a young person, when poems like that feel so prophetic, is so different than reading them at fifty, when their truth is sobering and the prophecy has come true.

What I appreciate most now is Hughes’ mastery of language. As dark sometimes as Crow can be, and dark indeed that is, Hughes was aware of the power of words and he knew how to bend them to his purpose. In “Crow Goes Hunting” he allows his black bird a taste of that power.

Decided to try words.

He imagined some words for the job, a lovely pack—
clear-eyed , resounding, well-trained,
With strong teeth.
You could not find a better bred lot.”

Brash, bold, and vulgar, Crow may not now be my favorite book of poetry, but its narrative and linguistic power is just as real as it was, for me, a quarter century ago.

Crow is a lovely pack of words with strong teeth.

Continuing this year of poetry next week with William Stafford’s Even in Quiet Places.

“You can just talk” 

The senior, a gifted musician, talented artist, and leader of our National Honor Society, slowly raised his hand. He looked to the moderator and waited. She was listening to another girl and after a moment or two made eye contact with the patient senior. The moderator smiled. “You can just talk,” she said, welcoming, kind, the perfect leader of a student gathering. He put his hand down, smiled back, and launched into a big idea about how high school students could help support middle schoolers on our 6th-12th grade campus.


It was lunchtime on a Friday and the first meeting of our ACMA Student Forum.

The idea was simple: two amazing students moderated a discussion, projecting a shared document on the wall and asking students what topics they wanted to talk about. While one typed, everyone gathered was invited to pitch in ideas about what was working at our school, what wasn’t working, and what they thought might help make ACMA better.

Students, any students, not just students elected to student government or as Ohana reps, could say whatever they thought. All voices were equal, whether it was a plucky 6th grader or a veteran like that twelfth grade fellow who raised his hand.

IMG_1731The couple of dozen students listened to each other, added their ideas to the mix, and asked questions. I was there to listen and answer any questions that the principal might, but the forum wasn’t mine, it belonged to the students.

Topics ranged beautifully from a question about how much time the seniors would have to present their Capstone projects in March (they’d like as much time as they could have to share their art) to how often we might make announcements (the hope was once a week over the PA, and maybe finding some other ways to spread the word about important events).

Students talked about how to support clubs (a club fair at lunch was one idea) and what we might do to invite more art into our lunches (music, visual art displays, and excerpts from productions all rose from the diverse voices in the room). Lots of students nodded as they enjoyed pizza together. 

While one moderator typed furiously to capture the ideas (her notes will be shared with the staff next week), the other moderator invited comments from the group, prompting, praising, and promoting a lively discussion.

Then, in what struck me as a delightful surprise, the discussion turned to academics. 

“We’re seen as an art school,” a senior said, “and we should be, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t do math and science and the academic subjects too.”

“We’re proud of being artists,” another student added, “and being different, but sometimes I think the younger kids don’t understand how seriously we take our studies.”

IMG_1737“Especially the sixth graders.”

“They see us being goofy in the hallways,” said another, “but not when we’re crying over an essay at two in the morning.”

“How can we help that?” a junior asked.

“We could talk to them in their Ohanas,” someone suggested. “Like right after midterms, when they’re getting their grades.”

“And we could help them,” another said. She looked around at the group. “Could we offer to tutor younger kids during Access?”

For any non-ACMA readers, “Access” is a 40 minute long period once a week when students can sign up to go to visit any teacher they’d like for extra help, to make up a test, or work on a project. Sometimes teachers get swamped, and the students at our forum noted that many of them had already taken and passed classes the underclassmen and middle schoolers were in now; they’d be willing to form study groups that med during that time.

Some of the students started talking logistics, some brainstormed the classes kids would need the most help in. One let her thinking include the topics of balance and wellness, and how students might help one another. Another how soon they could go to Ohanas to speak to students about taking academics seriously. Everyone was amazing.

IMG_1734…and I’d be fibbing if I said that I expected today’s forum to jump from art and communication to academics, but then it did.

These awesome students, given the opportunity to talk about anything they wanted, chose to talk about how they could help.

At ACMA that shouldn’t be surprising. 

Because as proud as we are to be a school of artists, free thinkers, and open minded humans, we’re also a school filled with students who care, students who want to help, and students who take their studies seriously  (even if they don’t always take themselves seriously, a healthy trait).

That one student said: “you need to know algebra even if you’re going to a conservatory” showed a glimpse of that ACMA magic. This is a place where the unexpected should be expected, where kindness finds its way into our best conversations, and where a gathering of artistic souls can go anywhere. 

“You can just talk,” our moderator told her peers. Today they did.


We’ll have our next ACMA Student Forum in the student study area in the B100 hall at both lunches on November 20th. 

Darning Worn-out Dreams: Maya Angelou

Coming off of the maelstrom of the opening weeks of school, picking up the slim volume of verse Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well by the incomparable Maya Angelou was a joyful reprieve. That’s not to say that the thirty-six poems that fill the book are all filled with joy; a serious sense of struggle stands shoulder to shoulder with the rumbling optimism that pervades the book, but taken as a whole, Angelou’s 1975 collection has the ability to transport a reader like me from the workaday world to something …more.

220px-Oh_Pray_book_coverWith the exuberance of Cannonball Adderley and the soul of Nina Simone, Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well reads like a jazz quartet at a familiar roadhouse. Sweet, soulful, and sometimes brutal too, Angelou riffs on relationships, race, and wrestling with what it means to be human.

Her poems weave their way from personal to political, intimate to infinite, and as they do retain a voice both distinctive and insightful.

Those of us of a certain age who remember a time of bulky telephones with coiled cords read “The Telephone” and can feel the weight of the plastic receiver, a relic from a world before caller ID or texting replaced voice.

It comes in black
and blue, indecisive
beige. In red and chaperones my life.
Sitting like a strict
And spinstered Aunt
Spiked between my needs
And need.

It tats the day, crocheting
other people’s lives
in neat arrangements
ignoring me
busy with the hemming
of strangers’ overlong affairs or
the darning of my
neighbors’ worn-out

From Monday, the morning of the week,
though mid-times
noon and Sunday’s dying
light. It sits silent.
Its needle sound
does not transfix my ear
or draw my longing to
a close.

Ring. Damn you!”

This poem and others in Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well erase time, the woman waiting by the phone in 1975 as clear an image as anything contemporary to today. It’s here that the power of poetry to connect people across decades feels the most real. In poems like “The Telephone” or “Poor Girl” the people and situations Angelou describes are not unlike those so many know every day.

It’s not only the individuals whose story rings true, but Angelou broadens her view to include countries and continents. In “America” she invites her reader to think about the contradictions of the United States and issues a challenge to better know this country.

The gold of her promise
has never been mined

Her borders of justice
not clearly defined

Her crops of abundance
the fruit and the grain

Have not fed the hungry
nor eased that deep pain

Her proud declarations
are leaves on the wind

Her southern exposure
black death did befriend

Discover this country
dead centuries cry

Erect noble tablets
where none can decry

“She kills her bright future
and rapes for a sou

The entraps her children
with legends untrue”

I beg you

Discover this country.”

I hear Maya Angelou as I read her poems, and hers is not the scratchy voice of Robert Frost battling wind at an inauguration or the haunting lilt of TS Eliot reciting “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as if it were a liturgy. It’s not even the confident bon mot of Billy Collins, or rehearsed patter of any number of slam poets; Angelou’s is a voice both poetic and performed, a strong river in comparison to those streams, waterfalls, and fountains. 

Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well is filled with striking images and descriptions that linger like dreams. “Your smile” she writes in “Woman Me” “delicate/rumor of peace.” Lines like this populate the collection of poems, bringing to life young mothers, old men, and poetic characters with rich stories of their own.

As my “Year of Poetry” spools into its second month, I’m struck by the way poets like Angelou (and Atwood, and others) remind me of how much we all share as humans. Our internal worlds, our struggles, our doubts, our hopes no matter the decade, country, or community in which we live have a universal quality. Poetry captures that, even as it juxtaposes the specifics of those decades, countries, and communities. Octavio Paz’s Mexico City is not Maya Angelou’s Hollywood or Julia Randall’s Maryland countryside; Seamus Heaney and John Keats walked different trails, but in each of these different voices there is a dollop of what it is to be human.

Spending some time with poetry every week is helping me slow down (at least a little), and inviting me to reflect, connect, and see the world in ways I otherwise wouldn’t, through eyes not my own.


Continuing this year of poetry next week with Ted Hughes’s Crow.


Broken Ship in a Box

“That’s a broken ship in a box,” she said, looking past my shoulder at a wooden crate under the window. She tilted her head and looked again. “Broken ship in a box. That’d be a great title for a poem.”


And while I don’t know that this delightful teacher, so observant and good humored, knew that I’d given over this school year to bring more poetry into my life, professional and otherwise, I applauded her suggestion.

“It could be a collective effort,” she went on, smiling. “We could all write it together.”

The possibilities seemed great.

In education we like metaphors, and at ACMA we like bending those metaphors a bit. Rebuilding our ship at sea is a familiar one, so too thinking outside the box. This object in my office, and my teacher’s noticing it, seemed to marry both in a marvelously unexpected way.

We left it at that, at least then; a bell rang pulling her to greater things (middle school social studies) and I had to run to a classroom observation, but I jotted down the title she’d suggested and snapped a photo of the ship, thinking to myself that we would do something with it. Something. Sometime soon.

That sometime soon happened the following week, during our staff development day.

Before we got to discussions of academics, digital citizenship, intervention, and student wellness, we started the day with something a little unexpected, a quotation by Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath: “We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials.” How like education, I suggested, and how connected to thinking outside of the box.

I told the story of the teacher and the ship in the box, including the notion we all might work together to write some poetry, and invited them to consider that scene from Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams’ teacher tells his students:

We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion …and medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” “Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” 

I acknowledged that though I was a former English teacher, or perhaps because of it, I knew that not 100% of my audience was excited about writing a poem. 

IMG_1638With that in mind, I’d reached out to my art teachers (every good educator knows that the best plans are plans shared and the best lessons aren’t hatched in isolation) and the result was divine.

Three teachers stood in front of the staff and introduced an art lesson that invited them to each work on a square that was a quarter of a ship. They could make it their own, complete with poetry or without, and would then collaborate with three other staff members to build their ship. 

These astounding teachers, who I have seen do such great work with kids year after year, brought that same spirit to the work with adults. They toted in colored pencils, pens, and materials for collage. They circulated around the library where we were working to laugh, encourage, and help the teachers engage with the creative shipbuilding at hand.

IMG_1633It was fantastic.

We saw pirates, and rainbows, and clever comments on education writ large. A science teacher put plastic in the ocean, an English teacher brought in the Greeks, and one intrepid sailor tipped the lesson on its side and built a brigantine from newsprint. One math teacher brought out a protractor, a dance teacher found metallic gold foil, and more than one person burst well off the black rectangle of the mounting paper. Rebuilding ships. Breaking boxes.

IMG_1650A couple of crews even snuck in a little verse.

And we, as a staff, got to create together.

We talked, we considered why we do what we do, and we expressed those ideas in colorful and creative ways.

Too often we adults forget the importance of play and art and connecting with each other in whimsical ways. That morning we did all three.

What then is our mission as educators? Like Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society is our aim to inspire? Care? Support? Push our students to be their best?

Believe our art and it could just be all of the above. 

At least at ACMA, where a teacher might notice an antique broken ship in a box, and…



Itinerant School Conjuror: Seamus Heaney

heaneySeeing Things begins with the classics: Aeneas imploring the Sibyl of Cumae to let him see his father in the underworld, and ends with a Dantean boat trip on the River Styx. In between is Seamus Heaney’s own story, a poetic, allusion rich journey both universal and extraordinarily intimate. His poetic inspirations, particularly Dante, pepper the collection, even as he writes with grounded language in a way that makes it almost believable that he is, as he describes himself, “a nine-to-five man who had seen poetry.”

But Heaney is every inch a well read writer, the kind of poet who effortlessly slips Norse mythology into a series of fishing poems so real they capture the ripple of water and sound of a spinning reel.

Every summer my youngest son and I go camping, and over those days in the woods drop a line in whatever river or lake is near. The next time we do, months from this wet October day, I will think back to Heaney and:

The effortlessness
of a spinning reel. One quick
flick of the wrist
and your minnow sped away

Whispering and silky
and nimbly laden.
It seemed to be all rise
and shine, the very opposite

of uphill going—it was pure
duration, and when it ended,
the pulse of the cast line
entering water

was smaller in your hand
than the remembered heartbeat
of a bird.”

Just reading that now, on an afternoon when the sturm und drang of the day has been anything but an effortless reel, transported me to the Wilson River and the sun of July, when my son and I were in pursuit of “little antic fish” like those in Seeing Things.

I’m not sure if Heaney has ever visited Tillamook County, but because of poems like “Casting and Gathering” and “Man and Boy” I’ve been transported to his Irish landscape. Good poetry has the ability to work magic that way.

Heaney plays magician throughout the book, weaving words that refocus his readers’ attention of everything from “A Basket of Chestnuts” to “The Schoolbag.”

My handsewn leather schoolbag. Forty years.
Poet, you were nel mezzo del cammin
When I shouldered it, half-full of blue-lined jotters,
And saw the classroom charts, the displayed bean,

The wallmap with its spray of shipping lanes
Describing arcs across the blue North Channel…
And in the middle of the road to school,
Ox-eye daisies and wild dandelions.

Learning’s easy carried! The bag is light,
Scuffed and supple and unemptiable
As an itinerant school conjuror’s hat.
So take it, for a word-hoard and a hansel,

As you step out trig and look back all at once
Like a child on his first morning leaving parents.”

In that sonnet, dedicated to Irish poet John Hewitt, whom Heaney refers to (in Dante’s Italian) as halfway through his life when Heaney was a student, takes a familiar object as its starting point, spinning into a paean to youth and learning and those complicated emotions familiar to educators from Belfast to Portland.

While our students might tuck other items into their backpacks as well, those “blue-lined jotters” and pile of books (that one can imagine including Inferno, The Aeneid, and Beowulf) —all part of the unemptiable “conjuror’s hat” of education— are familiar even here and even now.

In fact, for students at my school Heaney is a familiar name, best known as the translator of the volume of Beowulf they carry in their own schoolbags. He, through this work from his own nel mezzo del cammin, is a part of that same unemptiable legacy of learning.

And while the “Hazel stealth” and “Hedges hot as chimneys” he describes in the seemingly autobiographical poems that form the bulk of Seeing Things are specifically Heaney’s, they carry with them the possibility of resonance in the ears and minds of those of us reading him today.

We have all been that “child on his first morning leaving parents” and stepping into the schoolhouse, and it is a poet like Heaney who reminds us that as unique as that fear and anticipation was in our hearts, we are not alone.

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Maya Angelou’s Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well.

“Making your unknown known…”

The poet finished her second piece and looked up at the audience. “I have one more,” she said quietly into the mic. “Would you like me to read the long version or the short version?” The crowd answered without hesitation, shouting enthusiastically: “LONG!” The poet smiled, just a little, her composure strong. “Really?” she asked. “YES!” answered the audience. And it was awesome.


The whole event was an experiment to be sure, something ACMA hadn’t tried before, at least not this way. Open Mic Nights of recent years past have been marvelous affairs populated by wildly talented students with polished pieces, well organized and planned weeks in advance. Last Friday’s soiree was the equivalent of a pick up basketball game, or one of the guitar pulls famously hosted by Johnny Cash (where Shel Silverstein might try out a piece to an audience including Kris Kristofferson or Johnny Cash might sing a tune to T Bone Burnett). It was a night of having fun, trying things out, and cheering each other on like crazy.

IMG_1526Students arrived at the venue, a rug a the base of some concrete steps set up with a simple mic, a stool, and an upright piano, and wrote their names on a clipboard. We tried to mix it up so singers were interspersed with stand up comedy, dance, and poetry. 

I told the performers and those in the audience something I believe to be an ACMA truth: “Art matters and sharing art with one another can be a positive and transformative experience. ACMA Open Mic Nights are forgiving and kind affairs, and strive to encourage all performers to continue to create art, share their voices with others, and applaud like nobody’s business.” At ACMA we’re in the business of making artists, sure, and also making good audiences.

IMG_1552We started with the philosophy: “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing,” a line from Georgia O’Keeffe.

The night wasn’t only about beautifully crafted pieces, but invited our students to try something that mattered to them. Our school is rich with opportunities for students to audition, rehearse, hone and perfect performances, but Friday invited them to do something different.

There was no backstage on Friday, just people in the audience watching, waiting their turn, and cheering when they saw peers make art. The informal feel of the night complimented the variety of performances: a marvelous song with ukulele, an a capella dance number (really), a very funny standup set on driver’s education, and a show stopping pair of songs with piano and voice. Add to that the moving poetry that started this post, an acting scene, and more than a few songs that had the audience humming and wanting to join in on, and we had all the fixings of a great event.

It takes courage to stand up in front of an audience and, to use O’Keefe’s phrase, “make your unknown known,” and on Friday’s Open Mic Night that’s just what these amazing ACMA students did. 


We’ll do it all again, with Open Mic Nights on November 5th, and December 13th, from 6:30-8:00 pm at ACMA. Come cheer on the kids, allow yourself to laugh, applaud, and be inspired.

Edén Subvertido: Octavio Paz

“Sarcastic crows,” “A hive of diligent bees/In a horse’s skull…” reading Octavio Paz is like living in a dream. Unexpected images appear, poems seem to disappear as quickly as they arrive, and finishing a half hour or so of reading it’s easy to feel like you’ve dined on a long platter stacked high with the individual seeds of a pomegranate. 

A_Draft_Of_ShadowsHeck, read enough and you might even allow yourself to pepper your own writing with purple images like a platter stacked high with the individual seeds of a pomegranate.

A Draft of Shadows is a collection of poems that span the life of Octavio Paz, a Nobel Laureate from Mexico, presented in Spanish and English translation. Careful with his words, Paz crafts poems, both short and long, with an eye toward the white space on the page and an ear to the interplay of syllables and sound.

My own Spanish is not strong, but I found myself reading both sides of A Draft of Shadows, first (for me) English on the right, then the Spanish language originals on the left. This slowed me down and made me appreciate the sound and look of Paz’s verse, as here in “Homenaje a Claudio Ptolomeo.”

Soy hombre: duro poco
y es enorme la noche.
Pero miro hacia arriba:
las estrellas escriben.
Sin entender comprendo:
también soy escritura
y en este mismo instante
alguien me deletrea.”

I think of the beautiful advantage many of my students know to be bilingual. Do they always recognize the value of this ability of reading Paz or Borges in the language in which they wrote? Do we as a school or society tell them that this is a value or advantage? Or do we let our envy or small mindedness, our insecurity or our fear muddy words that should be clear?

A Draft of Shadows gives me pause as an educator and inspires me to think about how I might honor my talented students —those who can read Paz in Spanish, or Kim Seung-hee in Korean, or Pushkin in Russian— and celebrate the part of their stories spoken in a language other than English.

Independent of the language of composition, there is a universal quality to Paz’s poems. In “A Tale of Two Gardens” he describes something like love, writing”

I crossed paths with a girl.
Her eyes:
the pact between the summer and the autumn suns.
She a partisan of acrobats, astronomers, camel drivers.
I of lighthouse keepers, logicians, saddhus.”

If that last word had you scrambling to a dictionary, it did me too. …and it was worth it.

This notion of attraction and differences, tension and intrigue, isn’t limited to any one language, and Paz brings his own poetic sensibilities to the subject. Likewise, a third of the way through A Draft of Shadows Paz leaves behind the short verse that opens the collection and stretches out to luxuriate in the language of poems four, six, eight, and ten pages long. These poems expand Paz’s story, reaching across memory to deliver a view of his world in the midst of change.

mexico city bus 1971

One specific change for Paz was returning to Mexico City after a dozen years spent as the Mexican ambassador to India. The metropolis he came back to was not the place he left, and the changes he found in the early 1970s he saw as neither positive nor healthy. 

Of those he saw causing this degradation, he shared no kind words, describing them in “The Return”:

                               On corners and plazas
on the wide pedestals of the common places
the Fathers of the Civic Church
A silent conclave of puppet buffoons
Neither eagles nor jaguars
buzzard lawyers
wings of ink               sawing mandibles
Ventriloquist coyotes
peddlers of shadows”

Bringing himself into the poem, Paz describes the scene both internally and externally.

                             I walk toward myself
toward the plaza
Space is within
it is not a subverted paradise
it is a pulse-beat of time


I walk without moving forward
We never arrive
Never reach where we are
Not the past
the present is untouchable”

For many of us of a certain age, Paz’s words carry a grudging truth about change. This part of the collection, while some of the darkest in A Draft of Shadows, show a poet crystallizing his feelings and capturing the grief of seeing a city changed in ways that dismay him. “Return” and the other poems in this section are like a frozen ocean, compelling, dramatic, and disconcerting.

The ice cracks in the second half of the book, as Paz turns his poetic energy to a reflection on his own youth.

In “San Ildefonso nocturne” Paz traces life through a series of images and snatches of memory.

The boy who walks through this poem,
between San Ildefonso and the Zócalo,
is the man who writes it:
this page too
is a ramble through the night.
Here the friendly ghosts
become flesh,
ideas dissolve.”

For Paz the “ramble through the night” finds its way toward greater meaning, even if that meaning may extend beyond the bounds of his verse. “Poetry is not truth,” he admits, but rather a “suspension bridge between history and truth.”

A Draft of Shadows crosses that bridge and ends squarely on the artistic shore. In a poem dedicated to American assemblage artist Joseph Cornell he addresses the power of art, writing:

“One has to commit a painting,” said Degas,
“The way one commits a crime.” But you constructed
boxes where things hurry away from their names.

Slot machine of visions,
condensation flask for conversations,
hotel of crickets and constellations.

Minimal, incoherent fragments:
the opposite of History, creator of ruins,
out of your ruins you have made creations.”

cornell assemblageThis is poetic observational praise for a visual artist whose work could fit, to quote Paz’s poem, in “Hexahedrons of wood and glass/ scarcely bigger than a shoe box.” It is a window into Paz’s self realization to see him admit to the artist to whom he addresses the poem: “inside your boxes/ my words became visible for a moment.”

Paz uses every poetic device in his formidable poetic toolbox to capture the complexities of memory, objects, and art. Words, in their native language or translation, have the ability to transform and transport. Slowing down enough to let them is a challenge for all of us in this busy world, and a challenge that can provide us with perspective, if we let them. 

I’ll let Octavio Paz’s words end this post, the translation of that first poem that started this little essay, “Homage to Claudius Ptolemy.”

I am a man: little do I last
and the night is enormous
But I look up:
the stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.”

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things.