As we kick off National Poetry Mont (aka April), I want to talk about a woman I met a couple of years ago named Sue Andrews.
At the time she volunteered at the Boys & Girls Club in Gatesville, Texas, and started a poetry club there. Sue used to teach high school and then taught college English. Retirement led her to volunteering. Originally, her plan was to do a summer book club with the kids, but it soon turned into a poetry club.
“I had visions of having fun reading three young adult books that would be easy to do and have great discussions and some activities,” Sue said. “It kind of was a flop.”
The problem was that the kids didn’t come consistently — they had dental appointments, or their families went on vacation. The following summer Sue had the idea to do a poetry club.
“It didn’t matter if they were there the first time or only dropped by occasionally. It worked very well because you didn’t have to be there every time,” she said.
The format was simple. They met once a week for about an hour. Sue started with some freewriting. “They didn’t have to share that unless they wanted to,” she said. Then they read two or three poems aloud and discussed them. Sometimes she would have multiple kids read the same poem aloud. She said she would ask, “How did it make you feel? What do you think it means?”
Most of the kids at this Boys & Girls Club had some exposure to poetry, but they also had some misconceptions.
“At the very first session, we spent some time talking about what is a poem, and what does it look like. They knew they didn’t all rhyme. One [girl] said, ‘It has numbers.’ I asked her what she meant. She said, ‘In my book at school, it has numbers next to the line, like 5 and 10,’” Sue recalled. “‘Oh,’ I said to her, ‘they’re there to help you find a particular line.’”
Sue said the goal of the club is to have fun.
“We made posters for National Poetry Month. They did Valentine poems, love poems to boyfriends or girlfriends. We did [found poems] from magazines and newspapers — that was a big thrill,” she said. “One of the most favorite experiences was I had these three girls in sixth grade, and they had brought the witches theme from Macbeth: ‘Double, double, toil and trouble.’ It was close to Halloween, and those three girls took the parts.”
I asked Sue what were some of the other poems the students had enjoyed. She mentioned “The Tyger” by William Blake, Gary Soto’s “Ode to Pablo’s Tennis Shoes,” and “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks.
“I’m making more customers for poetry!” Sue said.
Near the end of the poetry club hour, the students, mostly fifth- and sixth-graders, worked on a poem of their own, which they could choose to share or keep private. The final session concluded with a poetry reading, either their own work or one they had read earlier that summer.
The poetry club was such a hit that the kids asked to keep it going once school started. A whole new group of kids came, some as young as first- and second-graders. The next year the poetry club expanded into two groups — one with older kids and one with younger ones.
What Sue did with the poetry club was to set poetry free from its confines in a book with numbered lines. The kids had fun. Their interpretations may change as they grow and mature. They even change from the beginning of the school year to the end.
“I’m not their teacher. I’m trying to inspire them,” she said. “Maybe they’ll be a future poet in that group, who knows?”
So I’m taking a cue from Sue this month, and that’s what we’ll do here — read poems and talk about them. If you’ve ever done poetry buddying with me, this is it on a larger scale. I’ll ask the same questions about the poem that Sue asked her club members: “How did it make you feel? What do you think it means?”
Join us here, every weekday in April.