A poet’s homecoming at U.S.

img_0028This morning, I had the opportunity to read and discuss my poetry in morning assembly at my alma mater, University School. I almost didn’t make it when I couldn’t find my blue blazer in the morning — then I realized it was in Nathan’s closet! In my remarks, I told the 400 boys gathered there about how my grandfather, whom I was named after and who attended U.S., was the first person in his family to graduate from high school and college; how approachable writing and subject matter can help poetry can broaden its reach beyond a narrow subculture; and that I write poetry to probe and search for meaning in my own life. As Robert Frost stated, “poetry is a way of remembering that which it would impoverish us to forget.”

I also read poems like “Foreclosures,” which was recently published in Forage Poetry, and “Antoine,” which appeared a few years ago in Great Lakes Review. Here’s the poem:

Antoine

Up before dawn, I trudged through snowdrifts
to the barn where he slept in hay.
Hearing my footsteps and the rattle of the gate
he charged me on quivering legs.
I pulled the bottle from my coat
and he tackled me, nibbling my fingers and sleeves
as if this was his last meal.

Our class arrived in Vermont as strangers
yet soon our lives were knit together
sweeping crap out of the turkey barn,
splitting logs in the wood lot
and digging potatoes up on Garden Hill.

Poetry had always been my rusty fire escape.
Yet here, beneath a dome of stars,
I couldn’t write a thing.

Our teacher invited us to hear David Budbill
who wrote about a French-Canadian woodcutter in Judevine.
When he finished, I asked if he had any advice
and he told me keep writing, no matter what.
Maybe I’d get published in obscure journals
read by a handful of people – mostly librarians –
and I’d never have any money, but I’d be happy.

That winter the calves were weaned.
My roommate Jeremy and I named ours Antoine
after the burly logger in Budbill’s poems.
As my forty-pound toddler pitched towards me
I thought about the life waiting at home
reading Shakespeare and wearing khakis
while he trotted off to the slaughterhouse
to feed the students next spring.

I received great comments about the reading and reconnected with several former teachers and met new ones. U.S. looks completely different, since it’s been dramatically expanded and remodeled, yet in many ways it’s exactly the same. The school’s emphasis on critical thinking and engaged learning is, if anything, more pronounced. I visited three classes and talked about the relevance of poetry and several contemporary poems, including “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins. I loved listening to their ideas about the metaphors in this poem, such as how “pressing an ear to the hive” of poetry can help you hear the many different ideas buzzing inside. At the end of each class, we looked at photographs and completed a persona poem exercise. One boy wrote about having a white Jewish mother and African-American father and how his mom was looked down upon by her family; another wrote a poem about his physics class. These responses to the writing exercise were inspiring.

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