Like Narrow Banners for Some Gathering War: Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks is a fabulous poet. Like profoundly good. Like name your children after her amazing. Mind-blowingly talented, heartbreakingly (and often heartwarmingly) insightful, and clear in her clarion call for a more humane and understanding world, Brooks’ voice is what our planet needs now.

brooksMy copy of Selected Poems is a paperback from 1963, so much of her powerful political work isn’t included in this volume, including her 1968 tour de force In the Mecca, though the final section “New Poems” hints at the voice that Brooks brought to her work up through her death in 2000.

Even in these relatively early poems Brooks’ range is inspiring. She knows her poetic standards, but it’s when she’s riffing on these that her verse takes on an even more interesting, complicated, and unexpected reality; a sonnet is nice, but there’s a boldness and beauty to a sixteen line poem has lulled her reader into expecting they knew what was coming, or a poem of a dozen lines that could be a sonnet if it wanted, but is just fine at twelve lines thank you very much.

Narrative, philosophical, intimate, and expansive, Brooks turns her verse to a multitude of purposes, inspirationally so.

Brooks takes readers into her characters’ lives in the poems from her first collection A Street In Bronzeville. Capturing the tension between expectations and desire in poems like “a song in the front yard” where her poetic narrator tells readers:

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.”

Brooks takes us down that alley, into apartments, and into the lives of people living in post World War Two American. Her poems look too at the changes that war brought to individuals, changes that wouldn’t be reflected societally for years to come. In “gay chaps at the bar” she brings her poetic gaze to the white soldiers who were first “perplexed” and then ignored convention when they served with black soldiers, who “looked like men.” 

…it taxed
Time and the temper to remember those
Congenital iniquities that cause
Disfavor of the darkness. Such as boxed
Their feelings properly, complete to tags—
A box for dark men and a box for Other—
Would often find the contents had been scrambled.
Or even switched. Who really gave two figs?”

Brooks is not trying to erase differences as much as she is trying to show similarities, and even as she does she honors characters and culture specific to the black experience. 

In an amazing narrative poem “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith” she brings to life a zoot suiter who:

…wakes, unwinds, elaborately : a cat
Tawny, reluctant, royal. He is fat
And fine this morning. Definite. Reimbursed.”

Brooks’ description is exquisite, her eye for detail profound, and the picture that emerges is more than just complete of Satin-Legs Smith, it expands to encompass all of us. “People are so in need,” she writes, “in need of help. / People want so much they do not know.”

Sometimes those needs are literal, as for those she sees around her in a neighborhood of people marginalized by society:

…men estranged
From music and from wonder and from joy
But far familiar with the guiding awe
Of foodlessness.”

Other times that need is spiritual or societal, and Brooks embraces those concerns as adeptly.

In “Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath” Brooks turns her perspective to the Freedom Riders and her poetry to the iambic pentameter of classical poetry. With attention to language, Brooks’ narrative voice takes on the elevated timbre of Milton or Spenser, careful with words even as she is bold with ideas.

They do not see how deftly I endure.
Deep down the whirlwind of good rage I store
Commemorations in an utter thrall.
Although I need not eat them any more.”

The poem is filled with imagery both traditional and unconventional in its use, and ends with a couplet as honest as it is heroic.

To fail, to flourish, to wither or to win.
We lurch, distribute, we extend, begin.”

Brooks echoes the classics again as she makes epic the story of a woman living in poverty, “The Anniad” a play on The Aeneid, Brooks’ hero more human than anything from Virgil. The poem’s opening lines are reminiscent of traditional cadences, but carry a rich intimacy the ancients glossed over.

Think of sweet and chocolate,
Left to folly or to fate,
Whom the higher gods forgot,
Whom the lower gods berate;
Physical and underfed
Fancying on the featherbed
What was never and was not.”

Annie Allen is a very real character with a very real story and Brooks’ decision to tell it using this heroic (or quasi-heroic) style is in itself a challenge to readers to regard the events in a different way than they might if it were presented in a less formal or established style.

Not that she doesn’t do less formal as well. In poems like “Mrs. Small” or “The Bean-Eaters” she tightens her focus to the beads and tobacco crumbs of daily life, and the result is as moving as it is accessible.

…and then, in case you’d forgotten that she was the consummate professional, Brooks drops a sonnet to show her poetic chops and rock the world.

First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string
With feathery sorcery; muzzle the note
With hurting love; the music that they wrote
Bewitch, bewilder. Qualify to sing
Threadwise. Devise no salt, no hempen thing
For the dear instrument to bear. Devote
The bow to silks and honey. Be remote
A while from malice and from murdering,
But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace.”

It’s a poem that invites rereadings and reading aloud. If I still taught English I’d make it a lesson in and of itself. Here, in this modest post celebrating poetry, I’ll simply suggest reading it again, thinking through how you’d deliver the lines if you were an actor and to whom you would want to speak aloud the poem.

When I first read the sonnet, and an (almost) classic Italian sonnet it is, I thought of the rhythms of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the verbal complexity of Donne, then I thought better of comparing Brooks to those old fellows; she is her own voice, powerful and uniquely so.

Proclamatory, and personal, Brooks has the ability to echo from the rooftops and then whisper truth in her reader’s ear. “To be in love,” she tells us, “Is to touch things with a lighter hand.”

In Selected Poems that light hand rests alongside a fist raised against challenges. Brooks is a poet of depth, and her poems are like Satin-Legs Smith’s ties, “narrow banners for some gathering war.”


Continuing this year of poetry next week with The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield.

An Opportunity of Biblical Proportion

Today I got the best compliment from a teacher that I’ve had in a long while. A family emergency is forcing this English teacher to miss a few days and as he was clearing the absences through our main office and preparing for a sub he said to my secretary: “I am, as you well know, very wary about handing the better part of an entire week of my classes over to anybody–particularly my new class–The Bible in Literature. My best option would be for Bjorn to teach it, though I doubt his schedule would permit it.”

There is no way in (Biblical) hell I will miss covering for that teacher.

I taught English for more than a dozen years, and I loved the daily give and take of discussion, the igniting of ideas, and the joy of experiencing great literature (and some not so great) with students. There is magic in a student reading Hamlet for the first time, or A Room of One’s Own, or Oedipus (like the amazing student who stopped me after the class period where Tiresias made his prophecy and said earnestly “well, at least next class we’ll find out that isn’t true”).


I never taught Bible in Lit, and I know the minefield it could prove to be, but I also know the capable hands of the gifted teacher who is at the helm, so my only hesitation is the universal (and nagging) teacher question: Can I do it well?

We’ll find out soon. 

I’ve stepped in to this teacher’s English classes before, teaching Cavafy not long ago and joining in with a bunch of poets just before Halloween, so I think I appreciate his confidence in me even more.

His call to action fills me with a sense of expectation, some healthy butterflies in my stomach, and the commitment to live up to his kind, kind belief in me.

There’s a lesson there for all of us in education, I suppose. I’m so fortunate to have the opportunities I do.

Time to Dream: Floyd Skloot

I’ve been a Floyd Skloot fan for decades, since, I think, my wife purchased a painting by his wife, Oregonian artist Beverly Hallberg, at an open studio event back in the 1990s and somehow conversation must have led from painting to poetry. The oil painting Fallow Field hangs in our living room and never ceases to inspire, not unlike the volumes of Skloot’s poetry, including Wild Light, this week’s walk along the path of my Year of Poetry.

photo (1)

This slim 1989 chapbook, dedicated to his parents (whose photos begin and end the collection) captures much of what I love about Skloot’s poetry. Personal, powerful, and precise, Skloot creates snapshots in verse of his childhood, and especially of his mom and dad, that are vivid and tell stories, stories not limited to his parents in the 1950s and 1960s, but that are somehow universal.

“The Price is Right” captures Skloot’s mother as she engages with hope, dreams, and a gameshow on TV. Guessing price after correct price, Skloot tells us that:

…She could do
nothing wrong that half-hour. She got the trip
to Florence, doublewall Amana range,
classic fox stole. Hardly daring to sip
her Savarin, she sat still in the strange
chill of pure luck…”

When the show ends and “Her fortunes left her as they always did” some of us are left with a familiarity of feeling and understanding of the fleeting nature of that “strange chill of pure luck.” A great poem, “The Price is Right.”

IMG_3289Skloot takes his readers on a tour of mid century marriage and the stresses and successes that echo the world today. Tension over his untucked shirt, a style his mother endorsed and he thought “pure chic” and worth to “make me fit / company for mother in / her flowing cape” but his father “kicked me in / the ass for failing / to tuck the shirttail in” fills “Ruby Foo’s” telling a story richer than any piece of clothing. Skloot knows a synecdoche when he sees one, and whether it is his father’s black Buick or his mother’s fireplace, he builds poems around objects and images that bring the past to life.

Perhaps better said, it is in poems like “The Year the Space Age Was Born” that he bridges his memories and our modern eyes with words that evoke a sense of how Skloot’s experience is similar to our own, whether we had brothers, experienced Sputnik, or listened to Buddy Knox sing “Party Doll.” 

“We shared a room” he writes of his brother, but “not what was in it.”

Now I often think of how it was
Between us when the distance between
us was years instead of miles. Light years,
we used to say, when our eight years were
forever. Now old hits are the same
for both of us.”

That sense of time passing is real in many of the poems in Wild Light, including “Evenings” in which he reflects on his own middle age, specifically turning the age his father was when he was born. It is a heartbreaking poem, Skloot putting his readers on the fire escape of his parents’ Brooklyn apartment alongside his scotch drinking father. “None / of the sounds below drowns his lone / curse brought down on the twin errors / of passion and bad timing singing / father to him there in the bright / moonlight.”

IMG_3290Skloot makes his father’s heart his own, both the heart that could fail too soon (and whose “swift death might / be mine”) and the emotion the poet feels “now that my grown son / has left our home to start his own.” His is an understanding born of time passing, family growing, and age holding up the natural mirror of shared years.

No matter what memory does
with him, my father is thinking
of loss. When he was home the light
dimmed. It was time to dream. He smiled,
but seldom played with me, had been
young until my birth let him know
his years of teeming life were done.
I think I made him feel alone.”

Skloot is not every father or every son, but he is enough of us to resonate like the sounds below his father’s Brooklyn fire escape drowning his own curse. Those final seven words of the poem are curse enough, recognized as they are by the son who has become a father.

IMG_3288Skloot’s own children enter Wild Light in the final half dozen poems, showing the energy and hope of youth in “The Stagger” and “September Fruit” before tying the collection together when his daughter “models the gown / my mother wore on her wedding night” in the poem “Vintage Clothing.”

This wild connection of youth and age, seen through Skloot’s poetic eye, puts us in the room “teem[ing] with apparel” from the years described when new in the first half of the collection.

I do not know
which one to watch—
the young woman twirling
through a shaft of moonlight,
or the doyenne in housecoat
who has clung to her finery
hoping for this very night.”

This moment of intimacy, not unlike the connection between brothers earlier in the volume, is palpably real, and for so many readers, me included, it speaks eloquently to a world too often made prosaic by stress, grief, or sadness. The hope that Skloot’s mother felt watching the Price is Right on that lucky day in 1958 is evident again when:

From the doorway, I watch
my mother coddle a burnt
umber heap until it becomes
the jumper she wore in Brigadoon.
She croons while she smooths out
its matching shawl and drapes
it over my daughter’s shoulders.”

One feels, however, that this time that haunting line of the earlier poem (“Her fortunes left her as they always did”) may not be true; she is there, her son near, her granddaughter connected with her in a way that may be fleeting, but is certainly real, and whose memory will remain always.

Skloot has a way of ensuring that memories like this do remain. His poetry offers windows into an often complicated life, a life that feels like it shares much with our own.

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks.


We stood together in the February chill, rain threatening, clouds thick, the grass wet beneath our feet. From the expanse of field we regarded the east side of the school, a new building of sensible earth tone brick, and thought about the possibilities.

We’re living a new reality this year, our little art school hanging our collective hat (beret, fez, fedora, cat ears, horns, or beanie depending on the day) at a school without the big performance hall we’ll have when construction is done on our permanent campus and we return to Center Street in the fall of 2021. 

For the most part we’ve been able to adjust: our dance department turned an auxiliary gym into a fantastic performance venue, theater has chosen shows perfectly suited to our temporary home’s black box theater, and we’ve added monthly Open Mic Nights to fill the commons we’re in for these two years.

This flexibility and challenge to think beyond our usual venues or routines will translate to both a renewed appreciation of our Performing Arts Center (when we see it again) and a spirit of innovation that we’ll bring to our new campus.


Graduation is too big for the black box, or aux gym, or the commons. It needs a grander venue than anything inside our temporary home, and is something intimate enough that we don’t want to just anywhere because it has enough seats.


We got to thinking and began to entertain the notion of taking commencement outside.

Yes, I know, we live in Oregon, where a sunny day in June is as guaranteed as a first novel becoming a bestseller.

Still, the idea of gathering under the sun and celebrating our seniors in a way that has never been done before at our little school sounded about right.

Different? Sure. Unconventional? Maybe. An opportunity for creativity? As they say around our community: “So very ACMA.”

Back to that February rain.

It was me, my astounding secretary, and an intrepid senior who took a wet walk outdoors to allow ourselves to imagine.IMG_3224

We talked about seating, and photos, and where to put the band. We allowed ourselves to imagine a day sunny enough to warrant some pop ups for our visiting grandparents who would need the shade. And as we paced and photographed, suggested and saw in our mind’s eye what the ceremony might be, the idea of commencement on the east long began to look fantastic.

We hurried inside and got out an invitation to the seniors to meet in early March to walk out and offer suggestions. We know that creativity can be inspired through collaboration, and we want the graduates to have a hand in designing their day.

Education has a place for dreaming and for doing, for many voices and shared interests imagining in February what the world can look like in spring.

Finna: Nate Marshall

I had started a perfectly solid post this week about Jane Hirshfield, a fantastic contemporary poet, and her collection The Beauty. I’d read and liked the book and was mulling ideas about how to approach writing about it for my “Year of Poetry” (an undertaking that, at its halfway point, is a mix of hurrying to keep up and reveling in the way it helps me slow down). And then, as happens from time to time, the gift of a poem from a friend knocked me off my expected trajectory.

He’d done it before, this former English teacher now site administrator, with a poem by Edwin Romond, and as I was sitting at my computer mulling Hirshfield, my inbox pinged an email he’d sent out to his English Department (once my English Department) with Nate Marshall’s poem “Finna.”

“Argonauts of Acumen,” he wrote to his teachers. “I came across this poem this morning and I had to share it with this group. My students would often complain about the amount of negativity in literature. The refrain, “Can’t we just read something happy for once?” was often heard in my classroom, especially with this district’s 10th grade curriculum. But as we start the second term, I am reminded that there is always room for optimism and hope.”

A link to the text of “Finna” led to The Adroit Journal’s January 2020 edition, where it’s collected with two other poems by Marshall, whose upcoming collection Finna is already on my list of books I need to head over to Powell’s to pick up as soon as it is released in August.

Until then… it was the poem in my inbox that captivated my afternoon and on into the next morning, both with Marshall’s explanation of the title word and its power: 

finna comes from the southern phrase fixing to
like i come from my southern grandmothers & finna
is this word that reminds me about everything next.
even when i’ve been a broken boy i know i’m fixing to
get fixed. i’m finna be better.”

…and the passion of his personal story as he wrote of struggles not uncommon to too many of the students who fill our schools, challenges that might go unnoticed, or unaddressed, like: 

…the day
my grandma died & my grades dropped & i was finna
not finish high school except i had a praying mama
& good teachers & poems to write. i’m thankful for all these finnas
that never were & when i remind myself
of who i’ve always been i remember why
my finna is so necessary.”

How important it is that our students are heard, told that their stories (and themselves, so closely connected) matter, and that we find ways as educators to ensure that this happens.

Screen Shot 2020-01-30 at 1.54.31 PMI loved that “Finna” was the poem that my friend chose to share with his teachers of English, a reminder to them that they are on the front lines of learning (learning not only English, but empathy, understanding, and so much more. Another friend once kidded me that English was the “confessional department” and while I suppose that friend was correct, I want to say: “Yes! And thank heavens a place like that exists) and that they have a choice to help cultivate a world welcoming to students like the one Marshall was when, as he begins his poem “so this one time i was finna say finna in a academic context / & a voice in my head said shouldn’t you be worried / about using a word that ain’t a word & i was like word.”

As educators we can do better than create this kind of doubt; we can instead pause, listen, and make a difference.

Marshall’s poem is a paean to purposeful optimism. His voice is true. His words are real. His message is one that educators like me are better for being interrupted by.


Continuing this year of poetry next week with Wild Light by Floyd Skloot.

2017 World Series Champs

Once a year I allow myself to write about baseball. Just baseball. It happens in February, right before that magical day when pitchers and catchers report to spring training signaling that spring is really truly coming and somehow all will be well. 

This year that return feels a little different with the news of an ongoing campaign of dishonesty coming out about the 2017 World Series, cheating that helped one team win the World Series by the thinnest of margins, a margin one can imagine would not have existed if it weren’t for a few folks willing to put integrity in the garbage can they were pounding on to tell hitters what pitches were coming.

photo-3I know I am not an impartial observer. I’ve been a Dodgers fan since LA’s infield was Garvey, Lopes, Russell, and Cey. More than forty years later I didn’t have to look up that lineup, or have to double check that Steve Yeager was the Dodgers catcher, or Dusty Baker, Rick Monday, and Reggie Smith patrolled the outfield at Chavez Ravine.

The Dodgers lost the World series to the Yankees in 1977 and 1978, formative years for me that instilled a dislike of the Bronx Bombers that rivaled —in my young mind— the expected animosity reserved for the dreaded Giants.

I didn’t like watching Reggie Jackson becoming Mr. October, but when he hit those legendary home runs I understood that it was part of the game. Sometimes your team won, sometimes it lost. Sometimes a slugger walloped your starting pitchers.

I could even (almost) allow myself to appreciate it when years later, in person at a spring training game when Reggie was back with the A’s (and playing against a Cubs team that included Ron Cey) I saw Jackson hit a towering home run over the right field fence. Earlier that morning I’d stood six feet away from a batting cage marveling at the combined power of Mr. October, Jose Canseco, and Mark McGuire hitting pitches one after another. Their power felt unbelievable.

So, yeah, that.

I also understood that when in 1981 Fernando Valenzuela and his Dodgers won the series that too was part of the game. The magical part.

Magic happened again in 1988, and then a long drought in Dodgerland before my bums had another chance, this time against the Astros, in 2017.

Two things stood out for me about that series. First, my kids watched it with me. Eight and eleven at the time, there were increasingly fewer entertainments they both agreed on, but baseball (at least World Series baseball) was one of the few. 

Second, there was a moment in game three when an Astros player hit a home run off Yu Darvish and made a racist gesture to add insult to injury. Watching that with my kids, both of them half Asian, my heart dropped. We spend so much time talking about the importance of kindness, both at my home and at school, that to see an action so arrogant and mean spirited injected a sense of sadness in the game. Just why? At least, I thought, in baseball there are second chances; perhaps the team that isn’t racist might win.

And then they didn’t. 

But this is baseball. Sometimes your team loses, even close series like this one. The Astros outhit LA, and even if actions like that cruel home run celebration helped to define the Houston team, they were the champions. For my team, well, there was always next year.

The next year meant losing the championship to Alex Cora’s Red Sox.

So, yeah, that.

And now word is out that the Astros cheated. Their power, like the power I saw in that spring training batting cage, was as fake as it seemed real. And the hardest part of watching the Astros beat the Dodgers became that much harder.

The 2017 World Champion Astros are still the 2017 World Champion Astros. The cheaters won.

It’s a sobering thought in a sobering time, when integrity (in the world even beyond the baseball diamond) sometimes feels strained. Fairness, clean competition, and good sportsmanship, which were easier to imagine were true when the Yankees beat the Dodgers back in the late ‘70s, feel like they’re in short supply.

So this week, as pitchers and catchers arrive at baseball parks in states warmer than the one I live in, I want to believe that this is the year. 

I want to believe that this is the year that my team might win the World Series, but truth be told, it hurts my heart to say that I’d settle for this being the year that they, and every team, just have a fair chance. 

A Sweet Arrangement: Mary Oliver

This winter we got a dog. A rescue, Luna is a little poodle mix who has bounded into our lives, brown eyes wide, tail wagging, and tongue ready to cover any available face with a kiss. She is, put simply, magical.


It’s with that sentimental prologue that I open this admittedly softhearted post on Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs, a 2013 collection that resonates with me in this February reading more than it might have a year ago when the only animals in my life were our three elderly cats.

Mary Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize for poems that were not about dogs, poems of nature and feeling that touched the masses and earned her a place in the collective hearts (and on the bookshelves) of many occasional readers of poetry. Dog Songs comes later in her story, a modest addition to Oliver’s canon, unapologetically focused on the profound goodness that is a dog.

Oliver writes to owners of dogs, or human companions of dogs, since as she says: “A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house, but you / do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the trees, or the laws which pertain to them” and her poems ring true to anyone who has been out for a walk with a dog, pulled away from our very human workaday world. In “Her Grave” Oliver admits:

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the
smells of the world, but you know, watching her,
that you know
almost nothing.”

Is the poet imposing her own perspective on the world in general and the actions of the dog in particular? Sure. And…

The audience who seeks out Dog Songs is an audience ready to welcome such perspective. It reminds me of the line in Eric Idle’s “sortabiography” Always Look on the Bright Side of Life when he describes what it was like to play a live show to an enthusiastic crowd: “They had come for a good time and nothing would stop them. At one show in Winnipeg the curtain rose to reveal the entire front row dressed as a caterpillar. You can’t really fail with an audience like that.”

So too the readers of Dog Songs.

And as one of those readers, a freshly minted dog companion myself, I’m okay with that. I find myself moved by poems like Oliver’s “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night” and am happy to see in the poetry my own life reflected. 

He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough

he turns upside down, his four paws
in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.

“Tell me you love me,” he says.

“Tell me again.”

Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.”

For anyone dubious of Oliver’s “sweet arrangement” I’d say pick up another book, maybe some Billy Collins (a sly modern master), Seamus Heaney (another contemporary gem), or hearken back to Emily Dickinson and her clipped and marvelous verse. Poetry is a forest and if dogwood isn’t your tree, find a larch, pine, or mighty redwood.

I think I just drifted into a Monty Python reference. Sorry about that.

But returning to Oliver, whose dogs never demand an apology, and her ability to bend verse to encompass both the four-footed and those of us who walk on two legs, it is in poems like “The Dog Has Run Off Again (Benjamin)” where the poet invites parents (and educators like me) to consider the balance between freedom and order. How much of one is important to safety? How much of the other is important to life?

Her title forms the opening statement of the poem, followed by a reflection on much more than being a dog. “The Dog Has Run Off Again (Benjamin)”…

and I should start shouting his name
and clapping my hands,
but it has been raining all night
and the narrow creek has risen
is a tawny turbulence is rushing along
over the mossy stones
is surging forward
with a sweet loopy music
and therefore I don’t want to entangle it
with my own voice
calling summoning
my little dog to hurry back
look, the sunlight and the shadows are chasing each other
listen how the wind swirls and leaps and dives up and down
who am I to summon his hard and happy body
his four white feet that love to wheel and pedal
through the dark leaves
to come back to walk by my side, obedient.”

If, as Oliver suggested earlier, “you do not…own her, as you do not own the rain, or the trees, or the laws which pertain to them” then that obedience feels more unnatural than four white feet wheeling through the mud. As a parent and as a principal I think about this tension often. Oliver illuminates the dichotomy in a way that encourages pause.

Pause, not paws. Well, maybe both.

But you saw that coming.

The poems in Dog Songs grant puppies human features from “The Wicked Smile” to “The Poetry Teacher” though in most an honored canine status trumps any mere personification.

Oliver ends her book with eight pages of prose she titles “Dog Talk.”

A beautiful descriptive essay, “Dog Talk” brings Oliver’s poetic language to prose. “I have seen Ben,” she writes of her big rescue dog, “place his nose meticulously in to the shallow dampness of a deer’s hoofprint and shut his eyes as if listening. But it is smell he is listening to. The wild, high music of smell, that we know so little about.”

OliverOliver describes Ben’s companion in adventure in two sentences that speak volumes: “Bear is small and white with a curly tail. He was meant to be idle and pretty but learned instead to love the world, and to romp roughly with the big dogs.” Just as with Oliver’s verse, there is so much in these seemingly simple words. Oliver’s poetry, even the Pulitzer Prize winning, non-dog stuff, is filled with such richness, simple words illuminating deeper truth.

In Dog Songs that truth, or at least a part of it, is the idea Oliver uses to end her essay: “…wilderness is our first home too, and in our wild ride into modernity with all its concerns and problems we need also all the good attachments to that origin that we can keep or restore. Dog is one of the messengers of that rich and still magical first world.”

So now it’s time for me to take Luna, our own bundle of fur clad magic, on a walk. As I do, watching her surge forward toward sweet smelling bushes, sniff the most interesting trees on the planet, and stiffen as she scents the next oncoming dog, I’ll keep Oliver’s words in mind: “You’re like a little wild thing / that was never sent to school.” Luna is our wild thing, a messenger to that rich and still magical first world. She is as appreciated in my family as Oliver’s Percy or Henry or Bear was to her. How fortunate we are to have dogs. How fortunate we are to have poets like Oliver sharing their perspective on the world. Could there be a sweeter arrangement?


Continuing this year of poetry next week with The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield.

The Real Truth of It

We will sell tickets at the door, and last year it was wonderful walk-ups (alumni, parents, and curious community members) who brought in bucket loads of love and support. They, like all the audience, wanted a taste of the artistic spirit of Arts & Communication Magnet Academy who showed up in droves to see artists, actors, dancers, sculptors, poets, singers, and more than a few surprises light up ACMA. Their tickets helped to support arts education, and provided students with the kind of patronage that made a real difference.

Plus, and this is the real truth of it, the ACMA Spectacular was fun.

Screen Shot 2020-01-10 at 12.02.29 PM

This Friday and Saturday the most fun you can have is on 118th Avenue. Come to see our dancers perform The Carnival of the Animals (with costumes by our visual artists and music by our classical orchestra) and stay to see actors who will make you laugh, poets who will move you to tears, and musicians who will swing like a gate.

You’ll see fantastic films, hear astounding vocalists, and could even leave with a painting. 

Plus, and this is the real truth of it, your support of the ACMA Spectacular makes a profound difference in the artistic lives of kids.

The $45 ticket price goes right to the arts and artists of ACMA. With that contribution, that investment in art and artists and ACMA, you can change lives. Schools like ours are rare and the positive, life affirming impact ACMA makes, sometimes on students who might not find a home that fits anywhere else, is as astonishing as the art they create …when supporters like you help give them the chance.

And it is possible because our community supports us, as we hope you might this weekend. If you’re free on Friday or Saturday night, we hope you’ll come to campus to enjoy an evening of performance and positivity. The real truth of it is that we can’t do this without you.


You can find out more and purchase tickets through our PTO website. I hope to see you there and thank every person who helps to support out kids.

Welcome to the real (and spectacular) ACMA

Day to day, hour to hour, ACMA is a magical place. For those of us who get to be on campus during the school day, the sight of students singing in the hallway, applauding around a lunch table, or playing an impromptu piano concert in the commons is part of our usual ACMA experience. Our students carry portfolios and sculptures to class, ACMA filmmakers seem always to be shooting a scene, and during passing periods groups of dancers dash from studios to changing rooms like schools of colorful fish. What we see when we’re here from 7:30 in the morning until school lets out at 2:05 is striking both in artistic diversity (poets, painters, animators, actors, singers and set builders) and talent. To be immersed in ACMA is to live Neil Gaiman’s line: “The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before.”


All too seldom do we have an opportunity to share this wild artistic abundance, and…

Once a year all of our disciplines pull together to do something spectacular. For a night or two audiences come to campus and have the opportunity to be immersed in art and surrounded by creative students doing what they love. 

This week, February 7th and 8th, our ACMA Spectacular gives the unsuspecting (well maybe suspecting) public a chance to see our dancers, actors, and musicians performing together. Those who buy a ticket for Friday or Saturday night hear poets, see photography and fine art, and are able to support our young artists in a thousand ways (including purchasing a piece of art they can take home). The Spectacular allows everyone to experience a sliver of what our students do, walking a hallway filled with creativity, energy, and passion, and then ducking in to see performances that span the creative spectrum. 

What to expect at the Spectacular? Everything. Anything. 

Come early for the Monster Drawing Rally. I plan on joining in on the creative fun, drawing right there with the audience and creating a piece or two that folks can purchase to support AMCA artists.

Spectacular_2020_PosterHear our musicians play while our dancers perform The Carnival of the Animals.

Have a seven minute portrait done of your kid, your parent, or yourself …suitable for framing!

See a show stopping number from Cabaret, witness poets collaborating with dancers and visual artists, and listen to our vocalists remind us that all we need is love.

If you like a silent auction, we’ll have that too, plus gift baskets, refreshments, and artistic surprises (like a cinema showing ACMA films and a few booths described to me, in “so very ACMA” style as “a renegade craft fair”).

This is a chance for the world to experience ACMA and support the arts and artists who make up our creative community. There is still time to buy a ticket for one of the two nights, a bargain at $45. All of the proceeds go directly to helping ACMA continue to provide a fantastic arts experience to our students.

I thank everyone for supporting our ACMA artists, and I look forward to seeing you at this magical place we call home.


You can find out more and purchase tickets for Friday (2/7) or Saturday (2/8) through our PTO website. I hope to see you there and thank every person who helps to support our kids.

Crowning Madness: Moench and Sienkiewicz

You might tell me that it’s not poetry, and I’ll tell you that’s a lie. 

Moon Knight swings

My pursuit of poetry this year has led me to familiar quarters: Walker, Stafford, Hughes, and Atwood, each with their own specific voice and ability to conjure worlds more real than any in existence. “Hit it” (a Moon Knight comic book from 1982) shares this sorcery.

Together, Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz forge words and pictures in a way that transcends prosaic truth.

“Hit it” is a heck of a poem.

Even in style, the comic feels poetic. The opening pages, and indeed throughout the story, are free from dialogue, the story unfolding in a series of text boxes that read like lines from a poem:

MK 1First there is black.
Then there is light and
All the colors of jazz.
And there is sound in these colors.
A wailing trumpet drips cool
Violet, threaded with smoke.

Heavy blue lumbers from the bass
While the clarinet temps
And tantalizes in hot pink counterpoint.

But the drum
The drum beats blood red.”

Poetry, that.

Moench quotes William Blake in other Moon Knight stories, and Sienkiewicz’s art shares the epic and surreal feel of a Blake painting. “Hit It” deserves to be talked about in the same conversation as Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Illustrated poetry, but poetry both.

Innocence and ExperienceI’ve written about “Hit It” before, this comic that meant so much to me when I read it as a middle schooler. What I felt then holds up. It’s one of those rare treasures of childhood that didn’t turn tin when seen through the palsied eyes of middle age.

It was the narrow mindedness of my then thirteen year old’s English teacher that prompted my most recent visit to Sienkiewicz and Moench. She told her students: “comics aren’t real books and don’t belong in my classroom.” They were to leave them at home, she said; graphic novels were not novels, comic books were not books.

Quietly fuming, I gave my eighth grader the Moon Knight Epic Collection: Final Rest.

It’s the omnibus that presents Moench and Sienkiewicz’s work at its best, and the collection that includes “Hit It.” Truth be told, an artist himself, my teenager was most impressed by the art. But I’ll argue that art and words support each other, and along with those images it is poetry like this that elevates “Hit It” to something astounding.

MK last pageThe crowning madness
Long live the king.
And so, Moon Knight,
The night was yours after all…

And once started
The drum beats
Blood red …forever.”

To that foolish or misguided middle school teacher who says there is no place in her classroom for comics, I say there is as much a place as there is for poetry, and sometimes genre lines are as blurred as the cityscape in a panel by Sienkiewicz. No lie.


Continuing this year of poetry next week with Dog Songs by Mary Oliver.