Young Student Filmmakers Respond to “Buttons”

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I received an email the other day that delighted me.

A teacher in the UK found “Buttons” online and use it, and the accompanying storybook, to teach both poetry and filmmaking to her year six students. The results are wonderful, showing an understanding of poetic technique, inventiveness, careful observation of the everyday, and a good dose of humor.

It occurs to me this might be a great way to reach the smartphone generation with poetry, and gives me greater hope for the emerging genre of film-poetry as well. I am also grateful to see teachers championing creativity in an educational system increasingly obsessed with standardised testing.

Do check out the short films.

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The (Poetry) Doctor Is In (Hertfordshire)

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surgeryThe chill of autumn brings the start of a new school year, and the beginning of a new venture for me. I am pleased to offer “poetry surgeries” through the UK Poetry Society for the Hertfordshire area. If you’re local, and interested in a bit of encouragement and some fresh perspectives on your writing, you can book your one-hour slot for an individual consultation through the Poetry Society website. I expect them to go quickly.

Since I naturalised as a British citizen just one year ago today, let me explain to my American readers what this is all about. The term “doctor’s surgery” actually refers to a local family doctor’s office, where he or she sees all manner of patients for initial consultations. The term is used exclusively for the operating theatre in America. So, please, think tongue depressors and stethoscopes — not forceps and saws.

In fact, I am a firm believer that, as Wordsworth said, “we murder to dissect”. Which means, far from taking a surgical approach, that at the heart of all my writing, thinking, teaching, and consulting about poetry is the sheer love of poetry itself. This doesn’t preclude incisive perception, but it does mean that I believe we can take our art both very seriously and without pretension.

So if this kind of “surgery” sounds like something that could give you a boost, do have a look at the available slots. I shall look forward to poring over some poems with a nice cup of tea with you in the charming medieval market town of St. Albans soon. No scalpels required.

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Open Thanks to the Pacific University MFA Program and All Who Sail in Her

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In the movie, “The Savages,” Laura Linney’s character finds herself in a cheap motel outside of Niagara, having an affair with a married man she doesn’t really like. She sits bolt upright in bed, surveys the tacky decor and annoying middle-aged man beside her, and exclaims in pure bewilderment, “I have an MFA!”

It is funny only because it is true that having this particular combination of letters after one’s name is not an automatic pass into the love, understanding, and recognition we all crave. Being raised by public school teachers taught me that our society undervalues education in a way that can be seen as either comic or tragic — depending on how tired you feel at the end of the day — and that teaching is an act worth pouring your whole self into anyway. It is the same with art.

After the graduate readings at this residency, a new student remarked that they were struck by the profound sense of gratitude present in the hearts of each of us outgoing students. This program is suffused with a spirit of generosity. Faculty and students mix easily, talk honestly, and work hard not to take themselves too seriously. A visiting professor put it succinctly: “usually people are either really good or really nice — but here they are both.”

If the faculty were priests, and this were a church, we might predict that they will reap rewards for their generosity in heaven. But they are not priests, and this is not a church, and instead of taking confession or quoting answers from religious texts, they have instead stood by us, in their humility, and marveled at the beauty of the questions. It is a privilege just to be here, partaking of something that transcends commerce, and politics, and marketing-speak: the deep words. The ones that matter.

And the rewards these artists and teachers reap in this life, for having faced down the human condition in their own projects, and hung in there with us students through our likely all-too-familiar neuroses, insecurities, doubts, and hopes as we face down our own projects — is the knowledge, all too rarely expressed, that they have changed — not only our writing, but our writing lives — for the better.

If there were a better phrase in English to expres profound gratitude and respect, I would want to use it. But all I can think to say is “thank you” — to the faculty in all genres, to Dean Hayes for believing in this program, and to Shelley, and Tenley, and Colleen, and, formerly, Amber, and all the interns, past and present, who slog heroically behind the scenes to sustain this place where brilliance doesn’t require pretension, where sincerely never lacks toughness — where people set out, with their raincoats and tackle, in search of the deep words. It has been a privilege to travel with you in this vessel for a little while.

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