What Sustains Me
Finding the New Mind
a new mind there cannot be a new
line, the old will go on
repeating itself with recurring
—from Patterson, by William Carlos Williams
I came to education through poetry; and poetry is but one way to discover the architecture of the self and, by doing so, pushing the line towards a new mind, a new way of seeing.
As a child growing up in West Virginia, one of my earliest memories was of lying in my grandmother’s bed smelling the scent of camphor and listening as she sung me lullabies. Or later, after taking those long trips to visit my father’s parents in Bluefield, I remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap as he, dressed in a navy blue suit, would tell me stories or recite poems that he had memorized.
Raccoon’s tail has rings all around
but possum’s tail is baa
Little rabbit ain’t got no tail at all
But just little bitty bunch of haa.
Later it was poetry that Mrs. Cartright asked me to memorize and recite as part of my elocution lessons. Since, I was to follows in my grandfather Esker’s footsteps to become a medical doctor, my mother was determined that I would take elocution lessons to keep any vestige of a West Virginia accent at bay. So, I memorized poems and recited them when I was in grade school and what I found was that I really liked poetry. In addition, I sang as a child and later joined a church choir and on one occasion, we went to a concert by The Columbus Boy’s Choir from Princeton, New Jersey. Afterwards, they hosted auditions and I was the only one who the director said, had perfect pitch and a perfect ear. They wanted me to join the choir that night, but my parents after much deliberation, said no. This “gift” I also believe is one reason that I was drawn to the interplay of words and sound, the cross-beams that lie at the heart of poetry.
Even as child in language arts class, I enjoyed poetry writing. I will never forget the Dr. Seuss writing that we did in Ms. Chapman’s fourth grade class when we were to create a make-believe animal, write a poem about it and then draw a picture. My creation was a bird that ate “buckets.” So, I went through the alphabet to create a poem about my bird making up imaginary words by simply substituting a new letter of the alphabet for the “b” in “bucket,” and then using each word in a line, I interspersed them to create my poem. “A” “aucket,” “C” “cucket,” “D” “ducket,” “E” “eucket” and “F” ….(well, you know where I’m going with this one.) Once I did my drawing and wrote my poem, I gave it to my teacher who was young and new to the teaching profession. Since it was Parent’s Night, she posted all of the children’s poems and drawings around the classroom, not taking the time to edit them first. And it wasn’t until the next morning at breakfast that my father said, “So, where did you hear THAT word!” And though, he didn’t quite believe my explanation, I realized something about the written word even at such an early age, and that was poetry had power!
In high school during the late 1960’s, several of us who were involved with counter culture activities started our own underground newspaper, the M.O.L.E. (Movement of Liberal Equality) a novel undertaking in conservative, Parkersburg, West Virginia. Since, I was listening to lots of the Beatles, Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan, I became the poet and wrote mostly rhymed anti-war poems for each issue.
When I studied English as an undergraduate at West Virginia University, I took my first creative writing course, from an outstanding professor, Winston Fuller. There, I began the serious of study of poetry and several years later completed my MA with a creative thesis, How to Make Magic: Writing Poetry from Dreams.
By the time I finished it, I was hopelessly hooked on writing poetry and believed in the importance of creativity and creative thinking. I was particularly drawn to the Surrealists and loved the improvisational aspect of writing that they explored through automatic writing, collage and language play. When I began teaching community college, I experimented with alternative ways of working with poetry drawn from my class with Winston Fuller and encouraged my students to experiment as well. However, the more I wrote and taught poetry writing, the more I began to understand that poetry writing could provide students with a way to tap into their voices and to say things that were important. Since I was teaching developmental and college transfer courses at Southside Virginia Community College at the time, I had the opportunity to work with adults who had been locked out of the public school system when the schools closed in Prince Edward County and with them, I experimented by having them write poetry as a way to frame their experiences. I will never forget one woman who was probably 10 years my elder, saying after she finished reading a piece that she had composed, “I never thought I would be able to write a poem.”
Though my university years the traditional poets that we read in my oversized Norton Anthologies of English and American poetry, through the creative writing classes I read modern and contemporary poetry and was deeply influence by the surrealists and the works of Gregory Orr, Robert Bly and others who were experimenting with surrealism in language. While finishing my MA program at West Virginia University, I deviated from the normal thesis to write “How to Make Magic: Writing Poetry from Dreams.” This was a critical study of some of the French symbolists, the surrealists, and it had a grounding in the works of Freud, Jung, Gestalt and anthropological dream work. However, the culminating product was a collection of dream poems that I completed based on keeping dream journals for over two years, this was the very foundation in my exploration of self. By climbing through this trellis of dream work, I could not help but face my demons of the dreamscape and feel, in this new darkened light of the power of the word.
The art of poetry has illuminated my teaching. It was through poetry that I began teaching at the Community College and later, leading a grant-funded Virginia Literature class for inmates at Buckingham Correctional Institution where I employed poetry by inviting in contemporary poets and scholars to the speak us about their poems and their lives. It as at that time that Gregory Orr, a poet from UVA, wrote about the guilt he felt for the death of his older brother from a hunting accident. What was particularly moving was that after his short lecture and reading, several of the inmates walked up to him afterwards and shared their compassion for him. I will never forget this one inmate who said, “You know it is ok, we all have done things that we regret. We must be able, however, to forgive ourselves.”
Poetry also became a tool that I used at Murray High School, where I taught “at risk” high school students. There I taught a course in poetry where the students wrote, read and performed poems. I still remember Becky who sat quietly in the back of the room each day, who never volunteered and didn’t really participate at all until I read several of the poems that she had written. I praised her poems which were deeply personal. She had a natural ear and strong sense of image, but what surprised me the most was the day when I was speaking with her about the quality of her writing and when I asked her why she didn’t share them with the class, she looked up at me and said: “Where I was before in school, I sat in the back of the room, and even by the end of the semester, the teacher never even knew my name.” Through poetry, she began to share her story, began to take the risk of stepping from her silence into the world.
Or, David, who had failed English the previous year, so this was his last chance to pass and then graduate. He was a natural class leader but generally loud and negative. One day when we were writing persona poems, David wrote from the point of view of a rapist. The poem was graphic, violent and quite negative but he created quite a character with the piece, so much so, that I had to defend it in the class when his classmates attacked him about it. When I explained the poem to the class and how masterfully he had handled the speaker, he began to come around and he began to take the class more seriously, so much so, that he competed the work and eventually graduated. He asked me to award him his diploma for graduation, a real honor at that school. It was really the power of the poem that allowed me to make these deep connections with the students and with the inmates.
Poetry through teaching was a way to create a new line and, by doing so, to create a new mind. One of my favorite poems is the following that was written about a painting by Alfred Leslie titled, “The Raising of Lazarus” (1975) that is currently in the Bayly Art Museum in Charlottesville, Virginia.
to his house, past the doorway to the room his sisters
keep alive with their incense of tears, he comes
like a crow eyeing these shiny emblems of his life.
his sisters drifting in rooms as if upon water
till on that third day they are almost transparent, flat,
something he can put his hand through.
he can not remember why he has come nor why
light hurts his skin so, nor what the settling of
dark birds means.
to the horizon, women’s voices move around him—
an insistent sirocco that will not cease.
burns, the light burns… something he has known,
a distant whisper then moving… passing the branches… the
stone by the tomb’s door… a luminescence….
in what he could remember, a dream of falling
in which the air itself had become a seam of light, an insect
humming close that would not leave,
an indecipherable whisper, over
and over in his ear.
Recently, in an interview that I conducted with the poet, Gregory Orr, as part of a book project that I am working on called The Last Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets, Orr said that his first experience writing poetry in high school was transformative.
It was the emotional experience of writing a poem – I can remember a particular poem—that was so liberating that I thought, “This is the most incredible experience I’ve ever had.” That particular poem was a poem of escape, a fantasy of being somewhere else. That’s a kind of poem people write a lot, especially when they’re teenagers. It was such a powerful experience that I thought, “God, I didn’t know you could be transported by imagination combining with words.” On top of what I was experiencing in the writing, the teacher was responsive and that was a real thrill for me. So the combination of what it was doing for me and what it was communicating to someone else was pretty intense. I thought, “This is what I’m going to do with my life.”
(published in The Writer’s Chronicle)
Today, with standards driven education, the crush of new and diverse cultures, the divisive political climate that undermines both education, the integration of such cultures and support for the arts, it is vital that we write our own lines and, by doing so, open ourselves and our students to the lifelines that poetry and the arts can provide. We must find what sustains us. By doing so, the poem is but one way to find the new mind and as Robert Frost writes, “the one less traveled.” As the poet Gary Snyder writes in his poem, “For the Children.”
In the next century or the one beyond that, they say, are valleys, pasture, we can met there in peace if we make it.
one word to you, to
you and your children:
learn the flowers
Frazier, Chapman Hood. (2010) “A Conversation with Gregory Orr.” The Writer’s Chronicle. V.29,
(5), Associated Writer’s Program. March/ April.
Frazier, H. (1990) “Lazarus” The Writer’s Eye: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose. Bayly Art
Museum, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, 1.
Snyder, G. (1974) Turtle Island. New Directions: New York.
Chapman Hood Frazier is currently a Professor in the Middle and Secondary Education Department with a specialization in English Education. A published poet, Hood Frazier is currently working on a series of interviews with contemporary poets and initiated the Poetry Hit Squad, a group of JMU students currently developing innovative methods for working with poetry in the classroom. As a Professor in Residence, he has brought high school students from William Fleming High School, Murray High School in Charlottesville and Harrisonburg High School to campus for Poetry Day. He has published poetry, articles and interviews in The Virginia Quarterly Review, The English Journal, The Patterson Literary Review, The Writer’s Chronicle and Shenandoah. He is interested in creativity in the classroom, alternative non-traditional educational practices.