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Poet laureate teaches Oak Harbor High School students how poetry equals humanity

Ryan Delbrouck, an Oak Harbor High School student in Chuck Smothermon’s creative writing class, listens to Sam Green, former Washington Poet Laureate, speak about poetry and why it matters. - Rebecca Olson/Whidbey News-Times
Ryan Delbrouck, an Oak Harbor High School student in Chuck Smothermon’s creative writing class, listens to Sam Green, former Washington Poet Laureate, speak about poetry and why it matters.
— image credit: Rebecca Olson/Whidbey News-Times

Poetry doesn’t have to be a seemingly never-ending series of rhyming verses that require college-level courses for comprehension. Instead, poets like Sam Green seek to use poetry to enhance literacy in students and give them something to relate to.

Green, a past Washington Poet Laureate, spent a week teaching English and creative writing classes at Oak Harbor High School as part of the Skagit River Poetry Project.

Green created the poet laureate position for Washington state and served for two years. He’s also been part of the Skagit River Poetry Project since its inception in 1998.

“The idea was to put poets, working poets, into the classroom and let them talk to students,” Green said. “Through poems, kids actually get to tackle things that are close to them.”

Green has been teaching students about poetry for 36 years. His 11th book came out this week.

As Green spoke to Chuck Smothermon’s creative writing class May 9, he engaged the students with humorous stories and examples of his poetry that students could relate to.

He compared the response he gets in America when he says he writes poetry for a living --- “But what do you really do?” --- to a trip to Ireland where he and a stranger ended up quoting poetry to each other for an hour. Poets are more revered in Ireland because in the past, they held the lore, stories and maps of the tribe in their heads, Green said.

Many Americans see poetry as frilly and poets as flaky, but the truth is, poets are just people who write poetry, Green said.

“I write poetry because that’s how I understand the world,” Green said.

He helped establish the poet laureate position to alleviate people’s misunderstandings of poets. Now, he travels to read poetry to many types of groups, from students to retirement centers, and chooses the types of poems that will resonate most with the group. Poetry is about what people understand; poetry is about loss, love and what it means to be human.

“I love poems that are honest,” Green said.

For an event centered on cancer, Green wrote a poem about the ever-changing hope his mother had while she fought cancer.

“Sometimes, a poem will speak for us,” Green said, adding that the patients he read to could hand the poem to someone else as a way to put their experience into words when they can’t describe it.

Poetry also helps Green.

“I try to figure out my life by translating those emotions into words,” Green said.

A poem about the meaning of teaching his son to hunt, despite having gotten rid of his guns after serving in the Vietnam War, not only helped him better understand his life, but is also an example of overcoming writer’s block, which Green absolutely doesn’t believe exists.

“That’s (writer’s block) just an excuse not to grapple with it,” Green  said. He grappled with the hunting poem long and hard and finally chose a unique method of writing, with each line beginning in the next syllable of “do re mi.”

But the big idea Green wanted the students to come away with was revision.

“I love revision,” Green told them to say. In fact, he loves revision so much that he reworked his hunting poem more than 20 times, a number on the low end of the scale compared to his other poems. Green said he knows when he’s done revising a poem when he goes to revise it again and doesn’t know what else to do.

“I worked myself into that amazing place where I’m at the limits of my abilities,” Green said.

And that’s what he wants the students to do. Even if they have three days to write a paper, Green said they need to do the best work they can, because if they start intentionally doing less than they can do, that habit will follow them for their entire lives.

Smothermon said these lessons about revisions were very important to himself and his students, and the idea that words matter.

“The students loved him,” Smothermon said. Before becoming a teacher, Smothermon wrote for Better Homes and Gardens. “I would say it’s at least as valuable as it is to me as it is to them, and inspiring. We all need to be inspired.”

This weekend is the Skagit River Poetry Festival in La Conner, an event that features everything poetic: slam poetry, cowboy poetry, scholarly poetry and more, as well as interviews with award-winning poets, discussions, workshops, readings and music. Green is one of the participating poets.

For more information about the festival and tickets, visit www.skagitriverpoetry.org.

 

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