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11 April
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National Poetry Month Guest Blogger Matt Love

Happy Birthday!, originally uploaded by Liz Faulkner (back soon).

One Man’s Beach Refuge

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by Matt Love

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April 1999. National Poetry Month. I begin my three-week unit with seventh and eighth graders attending Neskowin Valley School. I’ve waited all year to teach my favorite subject.

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We read poems, write poems, memorize poems, randomly construct poems like the surrealists did, study different forms, techniques, and listen to Jack Kerouac perform his crazy cool American haikus. After reading an Emily Dickinson biography and learning she called her poetry “snow,” I suggest the students name their poetry. Hearing this, they look at me like I’m stupid, and when I suggest they “loaf and invite their soul” on a weekend, one of the seventh grade girls asks if she can do that watching a video.

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My material bombs; explosions resound throughout the room but only I can hear them. Students insist on rhyming every poem. They’re bored listening to Kerouac. They have trouble grasping the concept of metaphor. When I ask each student to choose a poem from a collection of nearly fifty books in the library that best captures a mood they’ve recently experienced, and read it aloud, some of the girls recite Mother Hubbard. Some girls write poems on a single subject—pets. One boy projectile vomits in the classroom during one of my dramatic readings. He claims he has the flu and I have to clean it up. Rapidly, I sense nothing of educational or personal value is happening with this unit, assuredly the opposite whenever I taught poetry at the high school level. My sophomores, juniors, and seniors poured it out and poured it on: love, fear, loss, death, angst, hate, pain, lust, losering, and very bad sex.

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One afternoon during a lesson investigating the poetic value of popular music, I play David Bowie’s Heroes and ask, “What do you think he’s after when he sings, ‘We can be heroes, for just one day’?” Nobody says a word and I wait, and wait, staked out naked on an anthill splashed with honey and Drambuie. What happens next is a first in my teaching career: I abruptly suspend a lesson in progress because it’s tanking so badly and I’m a teacher in the throes of professional disintegration. I cannot continue even though I have thirty minutes to fill and many more carefully selected pop songs to play, including some of the girls’ wimpy boy band favorites. It doesn’t matter. I’m whipped here. The ship of poetic state hath sunk and this captain honors maritime tradition. “You know,” I say, “I’m going to stop now and we’re going to move on to something else.” No explanation. No excuses. No tirades. Lucky for me, seventh and eighth graders are totally oblivious to a visceral teaching shipwreck in their midst, and they transition smoothly into our next activity, recess, while I collapse into the easy chair. It’s now fourth and thirty-five from my own ten-yard line in the second quarter of a zero to zero football game for the World Championship of Teaching Poetry but I won’t punt. I don’t know how to punt when it comes to poetry, but I have twenty minutes until the students return from recess to invent a new gadget curriculum play.

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They take their seats and I announce “Poetry Madness,” a hike, tomorrow, rain or shine or gale force winds. We shall hike a five-mile round journey of Keatsian proportions down nearby Nestucca Spit to the jaws of the river, to the roiling bar of Nestucca Bay, where bald eagles soar, to become poets ourselves, bards of yore, the unacknowledged legislators of the world! Raw nature will seize us by the throats and strangle the verse forth. We’ll be “mad to be in contact with it” as Whitman wrote, and I’ll quote that line before we begin our march down the sand. If these kids aren’t inspired to embrace poetry after this experience, then literate American civilization is doomed. The students seem mildly interested in my idea, and, well, if it means missing class, then…hell!…we love poetry Matt! That night I spend an hour on the phone pleading with parents to help with carpool. I don’t tell them about the sinking ship.

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We hit Bob Straub State Park and Nestucca Spit in the morning on a splendid sunny morning I might as well have ordered from Wordsworth. Before Poetry Madness officially begins, I quote Whitman “…urge and urge and urge…” and then twenty students, six parents, one teacher and three dogs, including Ray, embark on a field trip with no predictable outcome, a teaching first for me. An hour later the students and I sit in a circle at the bar’s edge, where the Pacific Ocean slams into Nestucca Bay. We pull out our journals and list stream-of-consciousness images flooding our minds. We edit them to a favorite five, then to the ultimate crystallized fifteen-syllable image. After that, we read the poems aloud and I keep interrupting the students to recite louder so we can hear them over the sound of the crashing surf. I read last and thank the students for their serious poetic effort.

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No more seriousness for one middle school field trip! We must play and play hard. I choose teams and announce each one has forty-five minutes to construct a poetry fort out of driftwood worthy of Walt Whitman’s presence. When finished, invite me over for a poem and a cup of tea. “Ready, go!” I scream. As the students dash around building forts, sometime three or four working together to drag a piece of large driftwood, I get a bonfire raging to roast up hotdogs.

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On the hike back up the Spit, a girl discovers a beached seal pup and wants to carry it home and call the authorities. The students plead with her to leave it alone, the mother will return to feed it. If you touch the pup, the students tell her, voices rising, the mother might abandon it. I stand back and say nothing, wishing some mounting peer pressure will win the day. The girl refuses to listen. She’s been like this all year long with students and adults alike. She strides toward the pup, a few kids start screaming at her, and the class turns to me. “Disrupt the disruptor,” the Old Man, a master teacher of forty years taught me about handling a recalcitrant student in situations like this.

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I unsheathe the verb.

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.“If you pick up that seal, you will kill it. You will as good as put a bullet in its head and watch it die. And all because you never listen to anyone. Because you think you know everything and you know nothing about this. Nothing. Less than nothing. Everyone here knows more about the seal than you do. I respect you care about the animal but your feelings are going to murder this baby. (Pause) Now go ahead and pick it up and we’ll all watch you kill this seal, right now, right on this beach. It’s all any of us will ever remember about you. I’ll even write a poem about it.”

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She retreats from the pup and all the kids’ eyes follow her. She walks alone on the way back, occasionally turning around for a brief look. I don’t say a word to her for the rest of the day.

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Frustrated with life, teaching, and the inability to become a writer, Matt Love escaped Portland in 1997 at 33 years of age and moved to the Oregon Coast. A year later he became caretaker of the 600-acre Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge. During his decade (1998-2008) as caretaker, he helped restore the grounds to fuller ecology, discovered a love for teaching, and reinvented himself as a writer and historian who established Nestucca Spit Press and eventually won the 2009 Stewart H. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award from Oregon Literary Arts. His new book, Gimme Refuge, is his passionate 177-page account of his teaching career, experience as caretaker, and awakening as an Oregonian. The book also includes 17 original illustrations by Cindy Popp.

Becoming the caretaker of the refuge was the biggest break of my life, said Love. I sincerely doubt I would have found my voice as a writer or developed my unique love for Oregon without this incredible opportunity. It also helped me return to teaching and to embrace and love that profession.

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….For more information on Matt Love, or to order Gimme Refuge, please visit this link at Nestucca Spit Press.

01 April
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National Poetry Month 2010

National Poetry Month 2008, originally uploaded by sbpoet.

For National Poetry Month I have excerpts of poetry, or prose on poetry from guest bloggers: Oregon writer and teacher Matt Love, poet K.Alma Peterson, and from David Biespiel. I hope you enjoy these posts as much as I have.