Reflections on a Decade of Poetry Lessons in Detroit 2008-2018
By Norene Cashen
My poetry work bag hangs like an artifact on the back of my closet door, unused since 2018 when I completed my final residency with InsideOut Literary Arts Project. Its frayed handle and worn edges represent the decade I spent bringing the power of poetry to Detroit schools.
When I unzip the bag and look inside, I find a poetry journal from one of my schools in southwest Detroit, a stack of letters from my students at McKenny Elementary, pens, pencils, figurines, an expired granola bar and some polished stones.
I search for the conch shell I used as a prop for a poetry lesson I wrote based on Amy Lowell’s poem “Sea Shell.” It’s nowhere to be found. Maybe I gave it to a fellow writer or left it in a classroom somewhere. I feel a strange sadness as I consider what we remember and what we forget, what we keep and what we lose.
If I had that shell now and held it to my ear, I wonder if I’d hear the voices of my students. Yes, I probably would. Even without the shell, I hear them all the time. They’ve never left me.
When I’m sitting in my office, where I currently work as a personal development coach and therapist, I close my eyes and I’m transported back to one of my schools. I’m standing on a colorful rug with the alphabet on it. I’m in front of a chalkboard in a third-grade classroom. I’m reading “Dreams” by Langston Hughes aloud for the hundredth time while a pencil sharpener grinds in the background. The scent of gravy drifts up from the cafeteria.
I see Hughes’ poem as a sort of eulogy to itself. I share it with my students because it’s a vivid example of metaphor. What I don’t tell them is that this poem is an obsession of mine. I can’t get that broken-winged bird out of my head, no matter how hard I try.
Our brainstorming question is: What if dreams die?
I hear the students’ voices shouting out answers.
If dreams die, life is a car broken down on the side of the road.
If dreams die, life is a butterfly without any wings.
It’s easy for them to surrender to creativity, to hold onto its kite tail and let it lift them off the ground. They have what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” or the “optimal experience” of being so immersed in something any fear or hesitation slips away.
Their flow continues the next week when we write poems about how to swim in love and the following week when we write about how to be a superhero and what it means to save ourselves.
How lucky we are to be together on the alphabet rug, to hear the shrill rattle of the school bell, to smell exhaust billowing out of long, yellow buses, to stand out on the sidewalk during the fire drill when the air is just a little too cold for the clothes we’re wearing. We smile, talk and shiver.
I’m in a bubble of beautiful obscurity. In this age of scale and the worship of relevance and reach, I want to stand in those schools again, hear children talking back to Langston Hughes about dreams just because they’re inspired to do so.
Just like Hughes’ broken-winged bird, these young poets and their words live on in a room in my head. It’s a special room reserved for poetry that will never be widely read, poetry that serves its purpose during a residency and folds quietly into memory.
The thing about teaching poetry is you don’t really teach it. You just conjure it up somehow. You dance with children around the fire of imagination till the magic happens. For a person like me who’s invested in diplomas, titles and bylines, the idea is reassuring and disconcerting at the same time.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the one who shows up once a week with a work bag full of writing prompts and a travel coffee mug. As soon as you hear a child read a line of her own that sounds like something the poetry warrior angels whispered in her ear, you’re humbled. The hierarchy is flattened by the hammer of one powerful line.
If dreams die, life is a poem crumpled in a wastebasket.
You face the fact that you can teach a student about metaphors, but you can’t teach her to hear her own inner voice. You can’t teach her to write that line. That line comes from somewhere else.
There’s another student—let’s call him Leo—who will not write a poem. But he will say things that are the beginnings of poems.
It’s late afternoon. Gray snow is piled up outside the classroom window. Leo’s fourth-grade class is writing about castles. He says he won’t write today, because he has no pencil. When I hand him a pencil, he backs away from it, and says, “My castle is made of dungeons.”
I’ll never know where that line goes, because Leo breaks the pencil lead over and over again instead of writing. But his words stay with me. When I’m sitting in my office trying to unravel the endless mysteries of children and their poems, I attempt to fill in the blanks with the little I know about Leo.
His teacher tells me that he never wants to go home at the end of the day. At lunch, he packs his pockets with crackers and ketchup packets from the cafeteria. The same day he refuses to write the castle poem, he runs out into the hall and hides in the building where teachers, the principal, the social worker and the maintenance staff can’t find him.
Maybe he doesn’t want to go home because there aren’t enough crackers or ketchup. I’m not sure what his reasons are. I can only put together the fragments of his words and actions.
When I gather up my things and leave the school that day, Leo is still hidden somewhere in the building, where the panicked staff, his situation at home and my poetry lessons can’t reach him. This is one of the pivotal moments in my life that later leads me to grad school at Wayne State University with the ultimate goal of becoming a therapist who blends the power of expressive writing with mental wellness and social justice.
I care about what’s going on with Leo. I read his flight into the hallway as a statement, maybe even the next lines of his poem about castles made of dungeons. And I can imagine his disappearance in the school as an extension of that poem. It tells us all the author wants us to know, for now, about the way he sees the world.
I wonder if this is what Robert Frost was talking about when he wrote the following words in his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes”:
“If it is a wild tune, it is a Poem. Our problem then is, as modern abstractionists, to have the wildness pure; to be wild with nothing to be wild about.”
I understand the urge to be wild as a writer, to let go and let the words flow, the way children do. Over the years, I’ve tamed that in myself with college degrees and working in behavioral health. It’s a balancing act, a survival instinct, a nod to the grown-up voice that says, “Don’t forget to pay the bills. Don’t be impractical. Don’t get too carried away.”
Just like Leo, sometimes I want to run, to hide, to vanish, to get smaller and smaller until my life is just a space where a dream used to be. But I don’t give in.
I somehow manage to roll up my sleeves and do my work while keeping my creative flame burning. Sometimes it’s through reading and writing. Sometimes it’s through bringing the healing power of metaphor to therapy and coaching sessions. And at other times, it’s sitting here at my desk remembering my students and the lessons they taught me about poetry and life.
Norene Cashen is a writer, therapist, and personal development coach. After serving as a writer-in-residence and project coordinator for InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit, she earned a master’s degree in social work from Wayne State University. Her work aims to integrate creativity, behavioral health and social justice. She is the author of a book of poetry The Reverse is also True (2008) and has been a voice advocating for arts education, as demonstrated by her essay, “What Color Is in Between? Poetry and Creative Vision in Children,” which was published in the anthology, To Light a Fire (2015).
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