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The Magic Poetry Bus

Poet Laureate Carol Muske-Dukes' statewide poetry project and the Get Lit Players bring Great Poetry to California's schools.

Illustration by Rick Cortes.
Illustration by Rick Cortes.

I grew up within poetry — the sound of my mother’s voice reciting Great Poems.

The poetry she recited was canonical: Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, Dickinson, Longfellow — but the way she told these poems was performative — even as she stood at the stove or the washing machine, her eyes alight, an eyebrow raised, one finger pointing upward to emphasize a word. She made both the unforgettable language and her emotional personal sense of the words a single thing.

I never thought I would witness that combination again — the memorization of powerful poems by heart — and their dramatic presentation with the addition of commentary. My mother’s own words would answer the timeless lines, responding to the poem within the poem itself. She would begin, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds — Put that down right now! — admit impediment!” This was all part of her conversation with Great Poetry, this was her way of living within the lines.

 When I first saw and heard the Get Lit Players (under the remarkable direction of Diane Luby Lane and Azure Antoinette), I understood that the spirit of my mother’s love of great poetry had returned. Here were extraordinary young poets, most from inner city backgrounds reciting Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, Dickinson, Langston Hughes, T.S. Eliot — and providing their own Spoken Word responses as a kind of counterpoint to the melody of the traditional poems. I found it riveting. Not since my mother had stood in her apron, the fiery syllables spinning in her voice, had I witnessed anything like it.

The great John Keats famously said that poetry “should come as naturally as leaves to a tree.” Years ago, when I taught for the Poets in the Schools program in New York, I saw how naturally poems came to kids. The imagination is wild and untamed and alive up until about fourth grade, when a sense of self-consciousness and the huge pressure of peers and the commodification of what is original within us gains ascendancy (that is to say, when kids start looking outside the self to be told what is inventive by product promotion or conventional pedagogical thinking). 

Even far back in that dim past, as a young poet, I recognized that “Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?” and “I Dreamed I Was an Ice Cream Cone” might be quite enough to elicit a charming spontaneous poem — but ultimately was not enough to withstand the leveling of the imagination that takes place as the conventions of education and social pressure set in. The poems are dazzling, they are testimony to the wellspring of creativity in all of us — but they are, even if published in books for the kids — eventually forgotten.

Rarely in the Poets in the Schools program (or in other institutional teaching of the creative arts) — at any level of education — were traditional poems (even though children love to rhyme, and rhyme naturally!) routinely memorized as fun that could actually teach the beauty and power of poetry — and act as an energetic stay against forgetting — and the death of the imagination. The resistance to learning a poem by heart — a poem that could then beat with the heart and run in the blood — a poem that belonged to the child learning it in order to recite it — remains in place.

Which is why, when I witnessed what the Get Lit Players were making happen in language, I had a Eureka moment. I saw that it was important for my new project, The Magic Poetry Bus, and Get Lit to merge. (Which we have now officially done as of November 2009­.)

 


Get Lit Players Dario Serrano, Briauna Taylor, Monique Mitchell perform at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City. Photo credit Paul Legault.

I had envisioned The Magic Poetry Bus as a real vehicle — bringing poets and filmmakers to schools and juvenile halls and other communities all around the state — to talk to children and teenagers about poetry. I had also begun working toward a Virtual Bus — an online, interactive website which would provide all kinds of bus stops and pop-ups and reading lists of Great Poems — and motion graphics and clips of kids memorizing poems — with creative teaching techniques for teachers and students.

The website is still being developed, but with the help of Get Lit and its phenomenal young Players, I’ve also come up with an approach to learning verse called ProActive Poetry or Poem Conversations. The Players now have learned the technique and can demonstrate it onstage: how kids can respond to an individual poem as a conversation in which they take an active, compositional part.

What I’ve done (in order to showcase how the process works) is to write to a few friends, a few well-known American poets, to ask permission to take a particular poem by the poet and open it up into this poetic call and response.

So we now have the rights to poems by former United States Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, Joy Harjo, Jorie Graham, Bob Holman (with many others on the way) and this dynamic process has been documented by the Get Lit Players. 

Take Pinsky’s famous poem “The Shirt,” which has been widely lauded and anthologized and which, in startling meditation, leaps from the literal linaments of a new shirt to the history of the factory, the sweatshop, the Triangle Factory Fire and unions and docks and back again to the collar and sleeve and the name of the person who inspected the shirt. The Get Lit Players have memorized the poem in total — including the places where we have indicated that the poem can open to a response.

At these designated junctures within “The Shirt,” the young poets step in with their own Spoken Word original responses, their own words — replying to the lines by Pinsky — in other words: The act of memorization and original composition become one! It is ProActive Poetry, it is a Poem Conversation — it is the Poem Speaking to Us and Hearing an Answer.

It is a powerfully dramatic experience — to see and hear the new poem emerging in response to the memorized lines. The Get Lit Players recited and performed “The Shirt” at the Bowery Poetry Club in October 2009 and the clip of their living poem is on The Magic Poetry Bus website. We hope the technique of ProActive Poetry will begin to change curriculum choices — how poetry is taught to kids. Not just as an endless free form exercise or a purely rote experience, but a combination that works and is unforgettable. All kinds of poems — from contemporary poets like Pinsky and Rita Dove — to poets of the past — some in the public domain and some not — poets like Robert Hayden, Dylan Thomas, Dickinson, Tu Fu or Keats, Shakespeare and Neruda can come to life in a new but timeless way.

We are optimistic, I am optimistic, that the merger of The Magic Poetry Bus, carrying its cargo of new approaches — book lists and proactive methods for learning and loving poetry — and the Get Lit Players demonstrating onstage what is the embodiment of the ideas can actually change how poetry is taught in California and beyond.

 

Carol Muske-Dukes, professor of English and creative writing and founding director of the Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing program in USC College, was appointed California Poet Laureate in November 2008. In the official announcement of the appointment, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger noted that, along with giving poetry readings, Muske-Dukes would be expected to create a statewide poetry project to bring poetry to communities throughout the state. The project she came up with is The Magic Poetry Bus (now The Magic Poetry Bus/Get Lit). Visit www.carolmuskedukes.com and www.magicpoetrybus.org for more information and to become a fan of The Magic Poetry Bus on Facebook. Photo credit Carlos Puma.

 

Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Fall 2009/Winter 2010 issue