Sarah R. Callender


In Writing on October 20, 2010 at 7:37 pm

If Poetry were a person, she’d probably be Hillary Clinton. You either love her . . .

Or you really, really don’t love her.

For that matter, I suppose Poetry could also be something like oysters or coconut or mustaches. Ballroom dancing. 100 -degree weather. NASCAR. Really anything that conjures strong feelings for or against. POetry POlarizes. Which is why they both start with PO, “po” being the Greek and Latin root for “Just like Hillary Clinton.”

Recently, Husbandio was gone for eight days in Tel Aviv, doing the final week of a leadership program, one that, frankly, sounded a whole lot more like touchy-feely therapy stuff (plus a field trip to the Dead Sea AND the very bad decision to eat a tuna sandwich purchased in the Tel Aviv airport) than something Rockefeller or Trump would ever deign attend.

On the second-to-last night, Husbandio Skyped me at 11:00 p.m. (his time) with bad news. “Bossie,” he said, his face ashen. “I have to write a poem. For the final assignment. About something that’s important to me.”

I giggled. His face really was so pale. “A poem? What do you mean, a poem?”

“I mean a poem. Fifteen lines. It doesn’t have to rhyme. It can be about anything, as long as it’s important to me.” Husbandio shook his head. “Of all the things, poetry.”


Of course, I do not believe friends should do friends’ homework. That’s cheating. And cheating is wrong. But this was not for a grade. And I was not husbandio’s friend. I was his wife, and just like a wife doesn’t have to rat on her husband if he tells her he has committed a crime, a wife also can’t get in trouble for assisting her husband with a poem for his leadership training. It’s the law.

But the real issue is not the legal loopholes of plagiarism. The real issue is this: Why does poetry fill so many with such dread?

Maybe it comes from the horrors of high school English, where, as Mrs. Deluca taught us, there was a Right way and a Not-right way to interpret a poem. Did I do that when I was a teacher? Gosh, I hope not. I know I did a LOT of really bad stuff as a teacher, especially my first year when I had very little clue what I was doing . . . to the point where I often wish I could go back and re-do my years time at NNHS. Or at least write Apology Letters. So here:  My deepest apologies, to Jonathan P., Julie B., Mike B., Surjeet P., Pankaj S., Krissy B., Jonas B. (Actually, Jonas, I think you and I are even. And I know you know what I mean, mister.) I also don’t apologize to Alex R. who was always late and once, when I asked him why he was so late, responded, “Why don’t you sit in my lap, Ms. Reed (my maiden name) and I’ll tell you all about it.”

To all of my former students, (except for Alex R.) I’m sorry I was such a lame teacher AND I’m even sorrier if I made you hate poetry. If I did, it was only because my own high school English teachers taught poetry as if there were ONE right way to understand and appreciate and study a poem. I guess it’s kind of like the Cycle of Violence that occurs in families where abuse is present. If you were abused, you’re more likely to abuse your own children. If you were taught poetry crappily, then you tend to teach poetry crappily. And the cycle continues.

But. All is not lost. A few months ago, I was thumbing through Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions, a gem of a collection made up entirely of two-line poems in the form of questions . . . questions that just barely don’t make sense. Buddy and Sweetie, who were sitting near where I was thumbing, asked what I was reading. So I read aloud to them:

How many questions does a cat have?

Is the sun the same as yesterday’s or is this fire different from that fire?

How old is November anyway?

What does autumn go on paying for with so much yellow money?

Why in the darkest ages do they write with invisible ink?

Who shouted with glee when the color blue was born?

How did the abandoned bicycle win its freedom?

What do they call a flower that flies from bird to bird?

Am I allowed to ask my book whether it’s true I wrote it?

Is 4 the same 4 for everybody? Are all sevens equal?

What did the tree learn from the earth to be able to talk with the sky?

Seriously, people. I know I tend to adore and obsess over words more than the average Jane, but are those questions not beautiful? And you know what? THOSE questions are poetry.

One of my most favorite memories from teaching was when I forced my first-day-of-school students to dig deep into their mushy, summer-soggy brains to write Neruda-esque poem-questions. And they did it, and I’m not kidding, their poems were beautiful. Beautiful.

Over the next two weeks (due, in part, to a cool grant from 4Culture,), I get to teach this same lessons to 5th graders at Buddy’s and Sweetie’s school. From this workshop, the students will generate poem-questions that the art teacher and I will then turn into the first Poetree Project, a tree-esque piece of art where each of the kids’ poem-questions is a leaf of the tree. This first Poetree will be temporary, but we’re working to secure the approval and the funding to create a permanent Poetree in the school’s community garden, a Poetree made of metal, with each kid’s poem-question engraved onto a copper leaf. It’s my hope that I’ll be able to work in other schools with other kids and other Seattle artists to create other Poetrees around Seattle. How cool would that be, for kids to write poem-questions that become part of a permanent piece of art? Because this is one thing I do know:

  1. if kids learn early on that poetry is cool and fun and accessible, they might actually be excited to get a poetry assignment as an adult
  2. kids need to see their art and their writing out in the world
  3. writing is power; seeing one’s writing in the world makes kids feel powerful

So, what happened with Husbandio’s assignment? I’ll never tell.

But I will say that the following day, I was very, very curious to talk to him. “So?” I asked. “How did it go?”

“Good,” he said.

“Good? Good meaning ‘it was the best one in the group’?”

He laughed. “Definitely one of the best.”

“Only ONE of the best? Well, the reason it wasn’t THE best was because I wrote that son-of-a-gun in 17 minutes. It could have been better if I had had more time. Or, if you had agreed to go with ‘ruby’ instead of just plain old ‘red.’ I paused. “Did anyone suspect anything?”

Again, he laughed. “Nope. One guy asked, ‘you gonna let your wife read your poem?’ I told him, ‘yeah, probably.'”

So what’s the moral of this story? Not sure. I think what I’m trying to say is all of this barely legal assignment-doing could have been avoided had Husbandio not developed such profound and massive discomfort around poetry.

It may be too late for Husbandio to ever love poetry. But it’s NOT too late for kids. Maybe not too late for you. Your assignment? Please, please, please write your own Pablo Neruda poem-question. There are no wrongs or rights. No goods or bads. Just post a question about moving clouds or meatballs or the redness of beets or that cobweb that been up there for ages, and voila, you’re a poet!

Here’s one from me, just to start the ball rolling:

How many colors fill the twilight of a summer evening?

And another:

Does a moth ever envy the ball gown of the butterfly?

See? I’m a poet too! Now it’s your turn . . . get to work, people!

  1. Isn’t it about the game rather than the win?

  2. Thank you, Kasey. You win a very special prize for being my very special devoted poet-friend. xo,s

  3. You know how I feel about poetry. Bless you for going out to the masses and spreading the word. Or the verse. There isn’t enough poetry in the world.

  4. I’ve missed your posts, Sarah! But I guess you’ve been busy working on your Poetree project, which sounds like a brilliant idea. I am also quite terrified of poems – but I will think about your poetry questions and try to come up with something. For now, the only question I have is, “Why does one need to travel all the way to Tel Aviv to write touchy-feely poetry?” And please please please share his(your) poem with us!

  5. sarah, you won a grant?!? that is fabulous, you deserve a trophy! your project sounds so cool, can’t wait to see the results. in honor of you, i will now retire to my study to read a little horace and catullus.

  6. From Steph: Do umbrellas sometimes wish they had an umbrella?

    From Matt: Do squirrels wish they had a handbag to pack their nuts?

    From Matt: Does wine feel offended when you say it has nice legs?

    From Steph: If slugs moved really fast would they leave a slug trail?

  7. Here’s mine: Is there actually an alternative universe out there where someone loves Hillary Clinton?

  8. I loved this post. It may be a new favorite. And I love the Poetree project! You are amazing. My poem-question: Do yellow leaves anticipate their twirling fall with excitement?

  9. Great post! My fear of poetry is deeply embedded. I’ll avoid taking a stab on my own but post a poetic question from a piece of art/poetry I purchased from a “crazy monk” during a trip to VietNam years ago: What does the dog think when his lovely master is going downtown?

  10. How did Hillary’s discarded hairbands win their freedom?

  11. (1) I took an “Introduction to Poetry” class my freshman year of college and it was taught as crappily as you describe. I got a C+ which remained the one and only mar on my entire college record. The class was a horrible experience, but I did not let it make me hate poetry (it just made me hate arrogant English professors!).

    (2) The Poetree sounds fantastic! Can’t wait to see it.

    (3) Do the grapes that turn to raisins envy the grapes that turn to wine?

  12. Sarah, your project sounds amazing. But as for the questions (including those by the esteemed Mr. Neruda), I confess they all sound to me like somebody has been vacationing or doing ‘leadership training’ in Amsterdam!

  13. How loud can a bluebird smile?

  14. Love what you are doing! I am one of those who fear not only poetry, but English itself! I have always thought to take English 101 again, but this time with confidence. Yeah, right!
    You are fabulous, Sarah!

  15. This poetry is wonderful mental gymnastics for the mind. Congrats on the grant and the project and your clever, fun website. I’ll be a regular!

  16. Is there anything cleaner than the inside of a bottle of hand sanitizer?

  17. Do mountains wish they were just a little taller?

  18. Does my voice make a sound when no-one is listening to me?

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