National Poetry Month, celebrated every April for the past 20 years, became a little less abstract for Cleveland students this spring. This year the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards embedded local graduate students in two Cleveland-area elementary schools and a community center for an eight-week poetry residency.
Ryan Lind, Ali McClain, Karly Milvet, and Amanda Stovicek — all students in the NEOMFA creative writing consortium — drew inspiration from the Anisfield-Wolf canon in crafting their lessons, sampling Toni Morrison, Lucille Clifton and Langston Hughes, as well as recent winners Adrian Matejka and Jericho Brown.
Stovicek taught fourth and fifth-graders at Urban Community School, her second experience in the classroom with younger students. “One student wrote, ‘Sometimes it feels like the last bee in the hive and the last one to get honey.’ What a startling wonderful poetic connection. The voices of these children are just waiting to be heard.”
McClain, an MFA student and director of the Sisterhood program at West Side Community House, used the residency to help her students discuss race, gender, violence and trauma through a poet’s lens. “The Sisterhood girls responded to poetry the same way most students respond to something new — with hesitancy and curiosity,” McClain recalled. “But by the time our second session took place the girls were approaching me with poems they wrote on their own time. I wasn’t shocked because I know that this is what poetry does — it pulls people in.”
Lind and Milvet used Lucille Clifton’s “Won’t You Celebrate With Me” and George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” to engage their Greenview Upper Elementary students in a lesson on identity and origin. “One of my favorite lessons,” Milvet said, “and the students’ too, was Langston Hughes ‘Hey!’ and ‘Hey! Hey!’ because they got to explore repetition and rhythm and colloquialism. Overall, I think we succeeded in making poetry accessible and fun.”
Lind agreed: “I love the calm moment that follows our group activities when individuals start grinding out their own work, raising their hands with pride with each interesting word or phrase.”
To cap the enriching experience, students at all three locations were invited to perform in a poetry slam at Urban Community School on Cleveland’s west side.
One by one students filed onto the stage to recite their poetry. Students from Greenview Upper Elementary wore sunglasses as they shared their work, and fourth-graders from Urban Community donned their “Word Nerd” shirts from Kent State’s Wick Poetry Center.
Several students recited their remixed version of “Won’t You Celebrate With Me” into their own odes of lip balm, basketball championships, and school awards. In his version, Brandon Johnson, of Greenview, mused about winning a character award: “When I get it/It will be because of my hard work/So let me get started/today.”
“Sometimes my heart feels like a baseball thrown into the air/Sometimes my heart is hoping for a scarf against the cold,” Lily Tidrick of Urban Community School wrote in “My Heart.”
“It snows ten times a day/And you make it feel like 100 degrees,” Shantrel Anthony, a student from the West Side Community House, wrote in her poem, “Miracle.”
Awards manager Karen R. Long envisioned the partnership as a potent artistic brew. “What better way to pass 80 years of the Anisfield-Wolf tradition to two generations simultaneously?” Long said. “Our marvelous MFA graduate students amplified their commitment to literature all spring by introducing grade school children to poetry via their own voices.”
The parents in the audience were moved by the hard work of their children. “Wick Poetry Center assistant director Nicole Robinson overheard one parent exclaim about their child: ‘I had no idea he could write!'” Long said. “That is a magical discovery.”
Listen to three of the students as they recite their poetry.
Brandon Johnson, “Won’t You Celebrate With Me”
Lily Tidrick, “My Heart”
Beyonce Smith, “Characterize”