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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Students to Frank X: Where do poems come from? ‘Do they just come out of your head?’

"Talking about poetry is a privilege, an opportunity," Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X Walker said to students at Bryan Station Middle School. "Part of my job is to convince people it's not what they thought it was." (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

“Talking about poetry is a privilege, an opportunity,” Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X Walker said to students at Bryan Station Middle School. “Part of my job is to convince people it’s not what they thought it was.” (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

 
By Tammy L. Lane
Special to KyForward
 
Thirteen-year-old girls can be a tough audience. But Kentucky’s poet laureate, Frank X Walker, didn’t shy away – instead drawing on his experience as a father and grandfather. “The challenge is to find out what they’re interested in individually and collectively and find ways to get them to talk about something in detail,” he explained.
 
Walker recently spent part of two days at Bryan Station Middle School, working to stoke the fires for reading and writing among sixth, seventh and eighth-graders in Margaret Butski’s reading intervention classes. He sought common ground, noting, “Everybody comes out of a storytelling tradition.” The key is to find the right images and arrange them in a particular order to tell a new story.
 

The seventh-grade girls' class asked how long Walker had been a poet, what he teaches at UK and whether he likes his job. They also wondered if all his poems are about love, family and friends. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

The seventh-grade girls’ class asked how long Walker had been a poet, what he teaches at UK and whether he likes his job. They also wondered if all his poems are about love, family and friends. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

At first, the handful of seventh-grade girls offered minimal responses as Walker tried to establish some rapport with questions like “Where are you from?” Gradually they began to open up as he debunked outsiders’ stereotypes about Kentucky, Lexington and their own school. The students also countered by listing several positives about their city, such as its hardworking people, bourbon barrel public art and horseracing at Keeneland.
 
Walker’s point was to get them thinking outside the immediate four walls, developing their imaginations and using specific, precise language. He brought up a range of topics, including cultural rites of passage to adulthood and ethical issues that defense and prosecution lawyers face in a courtroom. He also injected some humor, recalling how as a teenager he gave a love poem and box of chocolates to a girl, who promptly shared the candy with her boyfriend.
 
A Danville native who teaches at the University of Kentucky, Walker is an author and educator who focuses on social justice, family, identity and place. Seventh-grader Pamela Gonzalez stepped up with the first questions about his work – “How do you write poems? Do they just come out of your head?”
 
Walker cited three sources of inspiration: his gut (writing in reaction to his grandmother’s death, for instance), his heart (writing about his love for his children) and his head (writing after historical research on jockey Isaac Murphy). “Nobody’s born a writer,” he told the girls – it takes training, education and practice.
 

   Since the reading intervention classes are divided by grade level and gender, Walker sought to engage the students through their particular interests such as video games. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

Since the reading intervention classes are divided by grade level and gender, Walker sought to engage the students through their particular interests such as video games. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

Pamela said Walker put her class at ease by sharing stories about his life and family, and she thought his message hit home. “You can get inspired by him even if you don’t like reading and writing. We can think back about what he talked about and how when he writes a poem, it’s helping him express his feelings,” she said. “I can express my opinions and feelings through my writing,” she added.
 
In an earlier session, Walker quickly zeroed in on video games as a mainstay in the boys’ lives. He asked how many hours a week they spent playing versus reading and how that time investment would affect their future. “They understand what it means, but they have to say it out loud themselves,” he said.
 
As a compromise, Walker suggested the students seek out and read magazines about video games since that content is relevant to their current interests. That was another tangible way he connected with the youngsters, which was the teacher’s goal.
 
“The kids could tell that he cared – they can pick up if you’re not authentic,” Butski said. “It really started to get them to think.”
 
Butski had invited Walker to Bryan Station Middle through a 2020 Vision visiting artist grant. Afterward, he offered to correspond with her students via email and to come back next semester on his own time to see if they had followed his advice and share some of his own poetry. He also recommended new things to try in the classroom; for instance, Butski plans to check out Comic Life, an app that lets students write their own comic strips.
 
“It’s been a great connection for me to get some more ideas and feedback,” she said.
 
Tammy L. Lane is a media and communications specialist with the Fayette County Public Schools.

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