Archive for July 10th, 2012

Poetry teacher, Peter Markus has a magic pencil. He says he’s had this pencil since the third grade. All that’s left is a stubby stick of wood with hardly no lead on it, no eraser, worn thin like a chicken bone. But he carries it with him everywhere he goes.

And one of the places he goes is into the public schools of inner-city Detroit as a writer-in-residence with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project of Detroit for the past seventeen years.

In a commentary he wrote for the Sunday Detroit Free Press, he tells us, “I can see things inside this pencil that nobody else can see.” ” It’s magic,” he tells his students. And he says if he does not share his magic, it will dry up inside the pencil.

His eyesight is somewhat magical too as he sees the child in the lines of their own poems. He thinks of the “inner city”  as something that’s sacred and almost hidden  and very special as in an “inner circle.”

When he says he teaches poetry to those who inquire about what he does for a living, he says that what he really means when he tells them he teaches poetry is “I create with these students a space in the world where words on the page are considered sacred, a place where students come to believe there are words inside each of their pencils that are waiting to be written, heard, listened to.”

Whether their words are real or imagined, he hopes to teach them that their words — matter to the world. He says his students are like fish hungry to take this bait. The looks on their faces when they lift their own pencils to put words on their papers reveal this.

Yet these are the “fish”, that in the eyes of many, are students who according to the measures of standardized tests scores, fall short of being grade-level proficient and are equated with the fish who can’t swim.

The Man with the Magic Pencil says he is here to tell you no- he’s seen some of these fish walk across the river, some sprout wings and fly across the sky. He asks, “just like a song, how do you gauge the intelligence of a poem?”

“These are students who, when you ask them to write down a list of things they’ve seen and heard,” he warns, “will sometimes tell you things that you wish they did not have to know.”

                                 Something Lost
I have lost my father
to a bullet in the head
Alexis Marshall, Southwestern HS

He tells them their page is a mirror” and and this is what they see:

My face is a book
of invisible scars.
Each scar has its own
story. Each story begins
back when I was small.
Alex Garcia, Southwestern HS

When some of his students read their poems at a recent event at the Detroit Film Theater, one person, privileged to be in the audience, remarked that they were “truly such old souls in young bodies”.

Markus fears that we, as a culture are failing to see, failing to teach to these children.

He asks how we “score” a piece of writing that reaches out to us straight from a child’s heart. What kind of  an evaluation is “proficient” for the boy who writes of the loss of his mother to a drunken driver:

                Inside My Heart
Inside my heart there is a house
where my mom lives with angels
singing in a voice that sounds like
the wind blowing through my
Deon Bateman, Fitzgerald El. School

I, as a teacher of creative writing for adults in middle age and now turning to the senior population, have had the delight of seeing people’s expression of awe and surprise about what their pencils reveal about them in a quiet and supportive writing  group environment. Their own self-discovery and their “magical” expression of it on paper lifts them up and the values of honor and respect and listening infiltrate the room and the person’s soul from this writing experience.

It is no accident that this creativity and revelation comes in an atmosphere of quiet. Do you realize that the letters are the same in these two words:

                                           silent     and    listen

And in the youth’s classroom and the adult populations reaching all the way through senior-hood, the whole challenge is about being a quality — listener to self and others! And to become that, I find I must fine-tune the silence and the quiet within me — to be able to be the Listener — which turns into hearing.

It’s a challenge to get to that quiet because very often conversations amount to both people talking at the same time or being busy with inner talk for what they are going  to say when the other stops speaking, or just jumping in with an interruption of their own. Not too much hearing going on here.

I know. I am aware of the “interference” and frustrated that even with attention and intention, I cannot always stop it at will. I keep practicing.

So I agree with Peter Markus who responds to the “Inside My Heart” poem and the other children’s writings by saying “Such singing needs not only to be listened to; it needs to be heard. It needs to be revered. “

He thinks of the fish again. He imagines that if these poems are not shared with the wider world, it is likely the poems will dry up, the fish will have no river to swim in, no ears to sing to. He is a man on a mission to not let that happen.

“The river is a good river” he insists. “If you walk out into it, this river, it will hold you up. Watch it, listen to it flow.”

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