“I would like to invite you to be one of our guest poets here at The Center, where we have a lively visiting author program.” Here was the email I’d been expecting since a friend had told me she’d recommended me as a visiting poet. “We have hosted poets such as Naomi Shihab Nye, Martín Espada, Junot Díaz, Marilyn Nelson, Joy Harjo, and many more.” “Wow,” I thought, and “Yes,” I said.
The Care Center is an educational program in Holyoke, MA for pregnant and parenting teens who have dropped out of school. After studying the country’s most successful prep schools to learn what creates motivated and successful learners, The Care Center developed a curriculum that encompasses the arts, humanities and athletics and provides ongoing support for students. GED plus plus. The program works, with up to 85% of graduates going on to college.
A very popular component of the curriculum is the poetry program. “Care Center students soon discover that poetry is a kind of self-expression that can take many forms. The most important thing is that it express something authentic about the writer’s life, perspective, or perceptions.” The visiting poet is a popular part of that program and that was me on Tuesday.
The students had studied The Truth About Death before my visit and were ready, after my reading, with insightful and direct questions which led to the liveliest post reading discussion I’ve ever experienced. “You have a poem called ‘Drugs.’ What kind of drugs were you doing when you wrote this book?” “In the poem ‘Sex’ you walk miles out into the woods to get it on. Why would you do that outside?” “How did you chose the art for the cover?” “You said you were possessed by a demon while writing the book. What did the demon feel like?”
I answered as honestly and directly as their questions, and there was laughter and a lot of knowing nods. The straight forward story of grief, confusion, struggle and a yearning to stay connected to a meaningful life that The Truth About Death tells was a story these young women could understand. It was a powerful morning of connection, and a reminder to me of how effective poetry can be in keeping us grounded in what is most essential in life — truth, honesty, and a willingness to risk expressing whatever is inside. And it was great fun.