Poem in Progress: My Students’ Version of Starry Night

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In my last post, I wrote that my students and I had begun to compose a poem together, our own version of Starry Night based on the painting by Vincent van Gogh. I had changed my lesson plan that day after picking up a computer cover version of van Gogh’s often reproduced masterpiece off the classroom floor.

During the poetry workshop, I had also referred to Anne Sexton’s poem, The Starry Night, but fortunately was not able to recite it nor did I have it with me.

I write fortunately because the themes of Anne Sexton’s poem are stunning and haunting, but also deal with subjects I’m not going to explore with teenagers in great detail. I leave that to their parents, counselors, or experts in particular fields. I am just a full-time administrator who also teaches two subjects I have loved my entire life: German language and poetry. I can strive to convey how loving anything, including friends, music and sports, and staying faithful to that love is worthwhile, but that is what I want my role to be with teenagers right now.

I can, though, also take students through writing a poem from scratch to almost finished. Most often, I believe a poem is never truly finished even when it is published.

Isn’t that like anything in life? I’ve now completed 22 marathons, and will be aiming to finish three more next month, but given the chance, I would do parts of them differently. Poetry gives you that chance!

But enough of my philosophical thoughts at 5:30 a.m.! My family is still asleep, and I have miles to go before they begin their day, so I will post a picture of our unfinished poem and write next week about how the students and I wrote it together, line by line.

Starry Night

 

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A Poem Worth Waiting For

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This past week I walked into my Friday morning poetry workshop, a room filled with teenagers ready for the weekend. All of us wanted to reach the end of the school day to embrace other parts of our lives.

One talented student has a voice from heaven. Later that afternoon, I heard her practice for an upcoming performance. (I briefly entered her rehearsal room and applauded!) One young man had a sports meet the next day and was understandably conserving his energy. Another teenager was composing a song during the workshop on his computer, usually something I’m not wild about (phones and staring at computers during poetry — yes, I’m a traditionalist). His doing so didn’t bother me, though. He was lost in his own world of creativity and being pretty respectful about it.

Ruckmann-by Kubota!As for me, although I love teaching, I’m in the thick of my busiest season as a school administrator. I’ve also been volunteering for a political campaign that will wind down after Election Day. Later that afternoon, I joined signwavers who included the gentleman who will very likely win a seat in Congress. By the time we packed up signs we had been waving on street corners and all gave each other high fives, I was riding an adrenaline rush!

But neither the students nor I had that rush at the beginning of the poetry workshop earlier in the day. Then I looked on the floor of the classroom and saw a computer cover that showed Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night.

I picked it up, showed it to the teenagers, and asked them if they knew anything about Vincent van Gogh or Starry Night. They did not! I try very hard not to lecture when I teach, even if I hope that this generation of teenagers will have the same curiosity I did about the world. I remind myself that they have perspectives I never did. I can learn from them as much as they might from me.

I often talk to my students in the poetry workshop or the German elective I teach about finding a passion that can become a lifelong friend, like music, poetry, running, tennis — anything that you can go back to at different points in your life time and time again.

I even mentioned last Friday during the workshop a favorite poem of mine, The Starry Night by Anne Sexton. I told the students that I had first read the poem at their age, that I’ve gone back to it several times for inspiration, that I would share it with them on Monday when we meet again.

Truth be told, I haven’t read The Starry Night for about 10 years. Since then, I’ve become a father of a young girl who will become a teenager before I know it.

I reread the poem after the workshop. It’s stunning, but I’m not going to discuss it with the teenagers on Monday! If I ever teach a poetry class at a university, I’ll have students read it together. The themes, explored in achingly beautiful words, are a bit dark to talk about with young learners. I’m not going to go there as they say.

But we did try a new favorite method I’ve explored to convey the excitement of creating poetry to students: a group project where students and I each take a turn writing a line of a poem. Last Friday, we began our own Starry Night based on the students seeing the computer cover reproduction of Vincent van Gough’s painting. I’ll be sure to share it with readers of this blog for my next post.

A Brief Interruption of Poetry

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Draussen vor der Tür!I was excited about my weekend post about poetry. I had chosen my theme. I was ready to go, even this morning.

And then I, as a trained journalist, continued to read and watch the news.

Although I am striving in the third year of my blog to narrow the focus to poetry, an art that has helped the world and humanity for centuries, sometimes the world gasps.

I know I did this week, first with the man who sent mail bombs to 14 Democratic political figures. His family attorney said he found a father figure in Donald Trump, the occupant of the White House who has applauded reporters being attacked.

Then, on a much different note, Megyn Kelly, a television host (still) with NBC news who is paid $23 million a year, asked during her (now canceled) show why blackface is considered racist, that wearing blackface for Halloween was a fun childhood tradition.

Megyn obtained her undergraduate degree from the same university I attended which has one of the best journalism schools in the country. I’ll never earn anywhere near $2.3 million let alone $23 million in my entire life, but I sure know instinctively without a lot of coaching that racially insensitive remarks are not only tone deaf and always out of bounds, but can also inflict a great deal of harm.

Which leads me to this morning when I decided to put my planned post on hold.

So far 11 people have been killed in a synagogue in Pittsburgh by a suspect who had a history of making anti-Semitic statements online. I am stunned and speechless which is why as a Quaker I can write in silence and hold families in Pittsburgh in the Light while my husband and our child attend Halloween festivities.

My daughter, born with an extra chromosome, will likely encounter misguided and hateful people in her life. Fortunately, like her other father, she is a Buddhist. We teach her every day to practice peace.

A good friend who follows this blog urged me to write more poetry as a way to inspire others to peaceably voice opposition to the violence and hatred that is becoming so prevalent these days, every day.

Poetry also helps me find a way to process what this middle-aged guy can truly say is the most frightening time in the United States he can ever remember.

Please join me in holding our country in the Light.

 

 

My Daughter’s Poem

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Aloha Followers of Tennis, Trisomy 21 and Taking in Life Together,

My last post about poetry ended with my high school students pushing through a Friday and then being jolted away from their phones and texting by their middle-aged teacher plucking a poem from memory and reciting it for them. They were surprised and even smiled!

My eight-year-old daughter spent most of last week with her fathers at work. She participated in the workshop and talked about it much of the day. Later, that evening, she drafted a poem.

Da kommt ein Sturm!What I hope to give to my students and daughter, who has Trisomy 21, are truths that are pretty universal: discover what you love, be grateful if it becomes a lifelong friend, embrace the highs and lows of that friendship, be patient, steadfast and attentive to the friendship. Those friendships for me have been tennis, training for marathons, reading, and poetry.

I recently learned that I’ll be teaching the workshop all year at the school in Hawaii where I have worked for five years, a wonderful coaching opportunity for a guy who spends most of his working days as an administrator. I love stepping into a classroom even when teenagers are counting down the hours to the weekend.

And I love when my daughter is excited about writing her own poems. This morning, we finished her second draft.

The Train Ride

A train drives on its wheels, in curves and straight lines.
The train’s conductor decides how he feels.
Will he hold steady or make the train swerve?

Sometimes I like a ride where I don’t quite know
exactly where the train will go.

Written by Ellen on 20 October 2018

Reciting Poetry

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lichtMy busiest time of year, and it will remain so until early January, was made a bit more complicated when our daughter unexpectedly needed to accompany her fathers to their workplace for most of this week.

The reasons why are the subject of another post, but fortunately our daughter’s dads both work in the same high school where our colleagues didn’t question why our eight-year-old kid was joining students much older.

I probably had an easier time than my husband. Alone in my lovely office with my lovely daughter, I enjoyed her company.

My husband, who is not an administrator, and as a teacher does not have his own classroom, was stretched a bit more than I as he balanced the vicissitudes of parenting and his paid job simultaneously.

To be fair, our daughter was a great sport.

Our school in Hawaii promotes fluid learning and flexibility — hence, the many open spaces, movable walls, and, for teachers, no rooms they can call their own.

So what does this have to do with poetry?

When I applied for my job, as I have with all my jobs working in small, private schools, I asked to be a teacher or a coach for a few hours a week so I can also get to know students and their families and not just be the office guy. It allows me to step outside my organized little world into a classroom or playing field with all its rewards and challenges.

In my current position that I’ve held for nearly five years, my boss has let me teach German and poetry, two subjects that have been near and dear to me for my entire life.

My daughter was with me during the poetry workshop yesterday at the end of a long week where students and adults alike were tired.

I came into a room where teenagers were slouched over tables looking at their phones. I greeted them in German! They knew I would remind them to put their phones away. They knew I would ask if any of them since the beginning of the week had found a new poem they wanted to share. I knew they were coasting a bit toward the promised land called the weekend.

Since many of the students are new to poetry, I changed the subject a bit, asking them how they managed difficult or unexpected stretches in their days or routines, how they might overcome a bit of anxiety if they faced a tough homework assignment, test, or presentation.

I offered a solution: find a great poem and memorize it a few lines at a time so that it becomes a friend for life during difficult or enjoyable times, like unexpectedly having your child accompany you to work most of the day!

Draussen vor der Tür!The students gave me a look that said, “Show us, don’t just tell us.” So I did. I plucked from my memory a passage from Die Brücke am Tay, a ballad by Theodor Fontane. Although the last time I recited it was five years ago, it came back instantly. I stood in front of teenagers and my daughter and repeated it aloud, slowly, in German.

The students, who include a German exchange student, stayed a little longer than needed in the workshop. For a few extra minutes, they kept their phones in their backpacks. A few even smiled as they left the room.

Later that evening, my daughter sat down and wrote a poem.

Keeping the Streak Alive!

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Dear Readers,

I’ve always finished a marathon — all 22 I’ve entered so far.

I can’t remember the last deadline I’ve missed.

I was the kind of guy who always turned in his homework early, probably one of many reasons why I wasn’t exactly popular.

Since I began this blog, I’ve never missed posts that I’ve promised so that my readers know when to expect them.

Ellen - HulaOn a weekend where I wanted but could not bear to follow the news about the Supreme Court, I was fortunate that hula rehearsals, performances, and an all-consuming gala were front and center for my husband, daughter and me — really the only world that mattered for us.

I did squeeze in a few online courses for professional training for my job before I crawled into bed last night.

Then I work up this morning and gasped! Had I really missed my first promised blog post ever?

Then I remembered: Columbus Day!

I don’t even support the holiday, but it gave me an out —I don’t post on holidays or holiday weekends.

So I’ve kept the streak alive and I promise a poem or a post about poetry this weekend.

I try to keep my promises!

Thank you for all your support of this blog.

Why I’m not Posting a Poem this Week

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Ruckmann-by Kubota!Dear Readers,

When I decided to keep my blog going a third year, I decided to narrow my focus in themes I would explore.

I also, with the intensified sense of years rushing by, decided to write in a genre that has been familiar and reassuring to me since I was seven years old: poetry.

Posting a new poem nearly every week reminds me of a 15-year stretch in my life when I was a writer dedicated to reading and creating poetry in elementary, middle and high school, college, and a couple years of postgraduate studies. My days back then were exciting as I discovered a new poem, rediscovered a favorite poet, or created new verses on my own. I gained confidence I lacked in so many other parts of my life. I won awards. The best part for me was that it came pretty naturally, like hitting a lefty forehand in tennis. I rarely had to think too hard about writing poems, and believe me, I’m an overthinker!

Growing up with a great deal of verbal and physical abuse for being identified as gay, even though I was not yet sure I was, a quiet room where I could write poems or tennis courts were usually the places where I felt safe.

Usually.

A few followers of this blog have asked me about my thoughts about the testimonies this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. They have also wondered about my opinions about the recent US Open final and Naomi Osaka. They understand my goal in the third year of my blog. But they’ve also said they miss reading my thoughts about tennis and other issues to which I have a personal attachment.

Draussen vor der Tür!I think I’ll hold off about identifying, as a middle-aged gay man, with Christine Blasey Ford. In a way, it’s too personal right now. I’ve been crying a lot this week. My admiration for Dr. Ford is boundless.

I’ve gone back and forth about Serena. Just when I thought I had finally made up my mind about the US Open final, I read a wonderful article by Cara McClellan.

I was the guy on his high school tennis team whose teammates snickered during my matches or actually rooted for my opponent to “beat the fag.” The coaches stood by silently. They never interrupted the matches. They never asked for the remarks, laughter, or snickering to stop.

It was tough to hold my head high, not to cry, to focus on the individual point, to be a fair sport. Fortunately, my role models were Althea Gibson, Evonne Goolagong, Björn Borg, Arthur Ashe, Chris Evert.

To my mind, Serena Williams is an outstanding role model. She has every right to speak up. The more she does, the more she helps anyone who has been taunted, ridiculed, faced discrimination, been traumatized, whose behavior has been mischaracterized.

I feel bad that Naomi could not fully celebrate her well-deserved victory. She also has a fascinating life story, and I’m sure that even in her young age she has faced more than her share of stumbling blocks on her path to greatness.

What gives me hope, even with all the tears I’ve shed this week, is the courage shown by Dr. Ford, Serena, and Naomi. I hope my opening up as much I have in my blog and my poems — which has been difficult at times — has been worthwhile for all of you who are reading them.

Edge of Appalachia

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Early morning in Hawaii catches me in a stumble as I,
taken with my calling card as a Plain Quaker, step outside
with laundry for a machine, not a mountain creek in Pennsylvania
where generations ago families bathed when it was warm
and women cleaned dishes and clothes in the New World
and hoped the rolling, lonely hills gave them a better chance.

I escaped this landscape, knowing I was gay, that I had to leave
to stay alive. I was not a hunter nor for my time even a real man,
and so I left when I saw my chance. But then chance took me back
to the Old World and early success in Vienna where I could write my way
to earn my keep and seek friends who watched my stumbles,
perhaps amused or confused by my fear that I was a fake.

In time I came back to the New World, finally finding home in Hawaii
with my husband and daughter, but missing the creeks and mountains
that were home so long ago. Not wanting to wake my family, I dropped clothes
in the dark and found a begonia holding its own against a cracked
concrete path, refusing to be overtaken by undergrowth surrounding it,
no longer troubled nor hurt by other plants and the unknown.

Written by Rüdiger Rückmann on 22 September 2018

ganz neues Gedicht!

 

 

Edge of Appalachia and OCD

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Ruckmann-by Kubota!Dear Readers,

An unexpected occurrence jolted my Sunday a bit. I’m glad I ran 13.1 miles in training, the equivalent of a half-marathon, beforehand. That helped me feel grounded.

I promised a poem in my last post about this picture:ganz neues Gedicht!

Since I have now begun “coaching” poets, it’s probably time to write about poems that are incomplete.

They start out with inspiration. Sometimes, that awakening results in an immediate poem. I had that happen once when I was a teenager on a snowy day on my paper route. I couldn’t wait to make it back home and write my poem. The words came almost without thinking. They simply came out. Months later I received an award for the poem.

Sometimes, inspiration leads to just a good title and the poem comes later. The picture I took last week is an example. If I ever write an autobiography (and I often wonder who except for a few close friends and family would read it!), it would be called The Edge of Appalachia for all kinds of reasons.

To this day, I can’t believe I survived my youth on the edge of Appalachia, nor for that matter my 20s and 30s in other corners of the world!

Maybe part of the reason is that I have always met deadlines — for poetry contests, my work in philanthropy, as a writer and editor, and even self-imposed deadlines for marathons and personal blogs!

I also, and this is a huge step for me, need to admit I suffer from mild Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I’ve had it diagnosed. I’ve been told I don’t need medication, but I do need to face the fact that it’s part of my life, who I am, what I will live with until my last breath. My husband, daughter, good friends, and a sense of humor have helped a great deal!

I probably survived the ’80s and ’90s as a young gay man because of OCD. I’ve been meticulous about being safe even though I’m a hopeless romantic.

I am also a bit meticulous about my writing and poetry.

I want to do justice to what Quakers would call a “weighty” title to a poem like Edge of Appalachia.

Stay tuned and thank you for your patience!

Coaching Poetry

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ganz neues Gedicht!Aloha Readers of Tennis, Trisomy 21 and Taking in Life Together!

Guess what happened yesterday in my poetry workshop with high school students after I had used my last two posts, Poem in Progress, and then the actual poem, Storm Passing, as instructional material?

One of my students wrote his first poem! I was so proud of him. He stood in front of the class yesterday, a little awkward but full of courage and talent. I’ve always believed a poem, unless it’s an epic (!), should be read twice to take in its meaning, rhythm, flavor, its expected- and unexpectedness.

We gave our brave young man a lot of applause after he read his poem the first time. I asked him if could read his poem a bit slower the second time, and he did. Then I asked his classmates, as I always do, for their initial gut impressions after hearing a poem. I forbid them to overthink! Their remarks were considerate, accurate, and insightful.

I’ve realized that at this stage of my life I enjoy coaching poets as much as I like writing my own poetry. For my third year of keeping this blog, then, I will veer a bit from my goal of writing a new poem every week and mix it up with practical ways to write a poem, or, better yet, to become a poet. Maybe this year my blog will become like a poet’s cookbook!

But before this post becomes too long, I’ll finish by posing a few questions I asked my students yesterday: How does an original poem start? Where and how do you find inspiration?

I know the inspiration for my next poem. I saw it earlier this week when I was doing the laundry, a little flower out of nowhere underneath our tiny back porch making its presence known in spite of all the concrete around it! (Please see the picture at the top of this post.)

Stay tuned for next week!