Local Poet's Writing Class Honored by Ed Foundation
By Lynne Bronstein
At its 16th annual "Tribute to the Stars" awards banquet on May 3, the Culver City Education Foundation honored volunteers who made a difference for the Culver City Unified School District (CCUSD). Among those honored as a See's Candy Volunteer of the Year was a Los Angeles poet, Brendan Constantine, who taught a writing workshop for students at Culver Park High.
Constantine is arguably one of the busiest poets around. In addition to doing readings around Los Angeles and nationally (he's about to embark on a nationwide reading tour funded through Kickstarter), he publishes his work in prestigious magazines such as Ploughshares and Zyzzyva. His book Letters to Guns is taught extensively in schools throughout the U.S. He has appeared on radio shows and is poet-in-residence at the Windward School and an adjunct professor at Antioch University. But with all these gigs, Constantine found time to devote to teaching the kids at Culver Park.
The workshop came about through Constantine's publisher, Red Hen Press. "It's called 'Writers in The Schools,' and as the name suggests, they put authors together with students at all levels," said Constantine.
"This class was what I call an Industrial Poetry Workshop where students were introduced to the arts of language not as a lark but a practical means of expression. So it was part 'Intro to Poetry,' part writing class, part discussion of the uses of simile, metaphor, hyperbole, rhythm, in all kinds of communication."
Culver Park is CCUSD's continuation school. Did Constantine have to develop a special program for this class?
"It is a continuation program and the students are upper-high school age," said Constantine. "I really identify with this particular set because I too had a hard time at this level. I wasn't lucky enough to have teachers like [Culver Park staff member] Karen Lanier who recognize that there's more to education than meeting the minimum requirements of the GED. Art is where we apply what we've learned that we might join a higher conversation, with our fellows, the community, the world.
"We began by writing immediately. Indeed before we'd been introduced, the first thing I did was say 'Everybody get out a pen and paper!' From these first free-writing drills, I steadily introduced examples of different styles (formalism vs. free verse, lyric/abstracts vs narrative) concepts in usage (metaphor, deep image, 'verbing the noun,' neologisms) and challenged the group to have opinions about the poems they liked or disliked.
"I used the same techniques I use everywhere. If there was a difference it was perhaps my candor about my own years as a student. And by that I don't mean to suggest I had their experience. These young men and women are completing high school. I dropped out and had to work backwards."
Constantine enjoyed seeing the students surprise themselves with the quality of their work. But receiving the See's candy award came as a real surprise to him.
"I was halfway through a class when suddenly two nice ladies walked in with balloons and announced that the students had chosen me for Volunteer of The Year! I was almost speechless!"
Here are some examples of poems by Constantine's students:
From a student named Rosie:
Wake up at 5:30
The wave begins to form
Shower at 6
The wave gets bigger
Listen to music while picking out my clothes
The wave crashes down
The water spreads forward
Leave for school at 7:25
The water scurries back into place
"I love how easily the wave and the routine begin to 'comment' on each other in this piece," said Constantine.
Another poem's opening, by a student named Justin, contains "one of my favorite openings ever:"
It was night
in the valley of snow.
A soft, hazel-eyed bear
sat alone in his room
playing the electric
"Lastly, here's a haunting piece by a boy named Roger. He took a fairly standard prompt and really made it his own:"
You're my clothes,
my Levis and Rags.
You're my couch,
gentle, sensitive, beautiful.
You're my rose,
so colorful and beautiful.
You're my festival and long hair
from mom and dad.
You're my shout and madness,
my baseball player and wrestler.
You're my Mexican, Mexicano.
You're my Mexico,
beans and chicken,
death at a funeral,
the wrinkle to your skin
at grandma's house.
You keep us going.
"Notice how the poem accelerates after the second time he says "beautiful?" It's like he broke free of something, the form perhaps or old ideas about poetry."