Monday, November 14, 2011

Deep Sea Poetry Diving: An Interview with Poet-Teacher Karen Benke

Karen Benke
A few weeks ago I woke up extra early on a Friday morning, hopped in Sal's blue Thunderbird and drove north of San Francisco to Tamalpais Valley School. I was on my way to observe Karen Benke, poet and teacher for California Poets in the Schools (CPITS) and other organizations for seventeen years. Earning her M.A. from the University of San Francisco, where she studied with Jane Hirshfield, Karen's poetry is widely published in journals and anthologies and she has received grants from the  Marin Arts Council, as well as other residencies and fellowships. She is also the author of the chapbook Sister (Conflux Press, 2004) and RIP THE PAGE! Adventures in Creative Writing (Shambhala / Roost Books, 2010), a creative writing exercise workbook aimed at young children, but fun and energizing for poets of all ages. I was very excited to learn from someone with so much experience on both sides of the poet-teacher hyphen.

After meeting Karen in the front office, I immediately took to her calm, causal, yet no-nonsense demeanor. I later learned this balancing of seriousness and peaceful passion overflows into her poetry teaching space. She was wearing jeans and a cozy blue cardigan and greeted almost every teacher we saw in the hallway as we headed to make copies. It was clear she felt at home here and it's no wonder: she has been teaching this 5th grade class for over five years, ever since her son began kindergarten. All the students called her Karen, a sign that her role was distinct from the classroom teacher, Robin Anderson, who also joined in the poetry writing. As Karen prepared to start, I went to the back of the classroom to take notes.

The class was immediately quiet and attentive - it was clear they were all enthusiastic and took their poetry writing seriously. The lesson was loosely based on using a repeating phrase or word in a poem. Poems were read aloud twice, once by student volunteers and then Karen, some written by famous poets, others by poets their age. She asked questions in a serious-yet-enthusiastic loud whisper, joyfully recording observations the students made regarding which lines "felt the best in your mouth" and "what images really jump out at you, even if you aren't sure why." The room was quickly filling with a gleeful energy.

Karen's "word tickets" fueled student poems.
Next, Karen pulled out a dark velvet bag with a yellow drawstring and the students erupted in excited chit-chat. Karen explained that the bag was filled with "word tickets" which are raffle tickets with words and phrases cut and taped on from magazines, posters, fliers, junk mail, catalogues - anything with words that caught her eye. Karen handed each student a heaping pile of tickets and were to begin using them in their poem however they chose. At first they were wound up by the word tickets and began to talk. Instead of clapping or shouting, Karen rang a Tibetan meditation bowl, which produced immediate quiet, and she explained they would create a gradual silence. It was ok to talk at first, she said, but they were to whisper when it rang a second time so they could start to "go underwater," and to be completely silent on the third ring, to "dive deep" and find their poem.

But they never needed the third chime. Within five minutes, the room was blanketed with a cozy, palpable hush that lasted until the students got up to read their poems out loud. They sorted and organized and made word rows and even full sentences using their word tickets. They discarded phrases they didn't like into the middle of their tables so that others could use them. Some stared at their tickets for a while or stared at the wall or out the window, while others immediately began to write. The only thing you could hear for the next fifteen minutes was pencils scratching paper.

It sounded like ocean waves.


I learned so much from observing Karen's poetry class, I wanted to share these thoughts and observations more fully and in a way that included Karen. So, I interviewed her about writing,  "poeming," lesson preparation, protecting your quiet time, and her next book project focused on teaching (gasp!) teens and tweens. I hope you enjoy her responses as much as I did.

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Laura Davis: What is your most powerful writing memory from childhood?

Karen Benke: Probably the memory from when I was seven or eight and left notes I wrote in secret for people to find—friends, my parents, cousin, sister, grandparents. My father worked for Pacific Bell and had installed telephones in every room. Not only in our house, but in the homes of our relatives. Even in the bathrooms! In our house and my grandparents house, there was always a little notepad and pen near the bathroom phone. I used to sneak away from the dinner table and go write notes there. In the bathroom! Then I’d fold them up and tuck them under pillows, stuff them into coat pockets. Just a few words like “hi” and “I’m writing this in the bathroom” and “you must know I love you…” Looking back, my note-making was an early form of poetry for me. It thrilled me to no end when my grandmother or aunt would tell me how much finding that little note meant to them.

LD: When did you first start to call yourself a poet? Was this easy for you?

KB: In college, during my sophomore year as an English and Creative Writing major, I took a poetry class from a poet named Gary Thompson. One of the requirements he typed right in the middle of his syllabus was “to be a working poet.” That’s the first time I considered myself a poet. It wasn’t until graduate school, though, during a trip to New Mexico to study with Natalie Goldberg (author of Writing Down the Bones) did I get the assignment to say out loud, “I am a writer.” Saying “I’m a poet,” is still hard. I attach the hyphen and word “teacher,” making sure to mention CPITS. It feels easier to have my gang of poet pals psychically with me, in my answer about what I do. Though all the word “poet” means is “maker,” so in this regard we’re all poets.

LD: You’ve been teaching poetry in the public schools for seventeen years. How do you see your role as a poet-teacher in the classroom and how does that role differ and/or intersect with the classroom teacher?

KB: My role as a poet-teacher is to stir things up on the inside and make imaginative writing fun for both the students and for myself. It’s an added bonus when I can encourage the classroom teacher to write (and even share) a poem, too. This really makes a HUGE difference in the way kids relate to poem-making, the importance and ease with which they slide right in and engage. If their teacher is willing to risk and sit down and feel his or her way in [to poem-making], it MUST be important. Basically, my role is to get the kids to write what they most need and want to say, in a way that brings out their greatest joy. During [those] 60 minutes we get to share that magic space together.

LD: Since observing your poetry class with CPITS, I keep thinking about how quiet your students became and how engaged they were with language and writing. The creative energy in the room was palpable. What steps do you take in your lessons to prepare your students for, what you called, this journey “deep under water” to find their poem?

KB: I work that delicate balance of being a working poet and steeping myself in finding poems that reach my heart and imagination. I try to cultivate that space I need to enter when I write, for [my students]. Sometimes I imagine myself as a student in 3rd or 4th grade and dream up a creative writing experiment that I wish I could have done with a visiting poet way back in elementary school. This helps. When I’m teaching too much, though—and talking too much—I tend to lose touch with the magic of “poeming,” as one second grader recently called it. My teacher, Jane Hirshfield, once shared with me that it’s important to have the right amount of alone-staring-off-writing-time. She didn’t put it like this, but I knew what she meant. She went on to say that she knew when the balance tipped because whatever it was people liked and saw in her poems and teaching wouldn’t be there. This has stayed with me and has served me well. I also meditate and practice yoga, when I’m not teaching ad writing, which cultivates a wider calm / silence / abiding to draw from when I hold the space of a classroom. This practice has helped me to not get as frazzled or “leak energy” as I used to when I first started teaching. That quiet place I create is also what I seek.

LD: Ever have a poetry lesson that fell flat? What do you take away from those classes?

KB: Oh, sure. But I try not to take it personally. So many factors besides just me are present during a writing workshop—the personality or mood of the class, the classroom teacher, the time of day. That said, I think it’s important to be able to change horses mid-stanza. Or somehow take the pulse and energetic read of the room and go in a completely different direction. Yes, even scrap that lesson plan you stayed up way too late the night before carefully creating. I carry my bag of magic word tickets with me, and sometimes what’s needed is to ditch the lesson plan, empty the bag in the middle of the carpet, and let the kids crawl around and move around the colorful tickets with their favorite words, until they’ve found the images they need for their poems.

LD: You’re book, RIP THE PAGE! Adventures in Creative Writing (Shambhala / Roost Books, 2010), reaches a wide-range of audiences: classroom teachers and college professors, poets and writers who need a creative jumpstart, really any person looking for inspiration! Did you set out to write a book with this many audiences? Does this speak to the inherent playfulness of language and the writing process?

KB: I set out to write RIP THE PAGE! (RTP) for 2nd-5th graders, the age group I’m most comfortable being a poetry guide for. I even had the word “Kids” in the sub-title until my smart and savvy editor at Shambhala—and the marketing folks at Random House—suggested I take it out—so RTP! Could be a “cross-over book.” My book’s in its second printing, so I guess it worked. I also have heard from a lot of adults who tell me they always wanted to write creatively, but were scared. They say my book makes it fun for them. This makes me so happy.

LD: Where does the title come from? How do you feel when you think about people ripping out your books pages?

KB: My agent helped me find the title. In my book proposal, I’d initially called it “Skipping Stones,” but she thought this was too quiet and that it would get lost out there. So we started playing around with the word “page” and talked about how the book’s really about playing with words and being willing to get messy. Then the word “Rip” was mentioned and we ran with it. I tell the kids I meet at book fairs and in classrooms that my book’s not finished until they write in it and rip out a few pages. One little girl recently said to her dad, “Hey, where’s my rip it up book?” I like thinking of it as a collaboration, in a way.

LD: Do you have a favorite writing experiment from RTP! that you could share with us?

KB: I don’t have a favorite, but I did combine two during a RTP! workshop at Book Passage last weekend.  The 8-10 year-olds really seemed to like it and wrote for a long time. First we combined favorite touch-sound-taste words (pgs. 64-65—slippery whisper, icy roar, spongy whimper, etc). They had fun calling them out as I raced to write them up on the white board in a purple marker. Then we read the poem from “Seek the Hiding” (pg. 173) and talked about their favorite letter—either vowel or consonant—and what would happen to words if a certain letter (theirs!) went missing. Where would they look to find it? What lengths would they go to in order to get it back? They were asked to look underneath, behind, in back of things from nature, sounds, tastes, using as many or few examples from the list in purple...

LD: As a teacher and a poet, how do these roles intersect in terms of the creative process? How do your poems find you? How do your writing experiments find you? Do you find them? Describe your processes a bit.

KB: My roles as teacher and poet are often at odds, competing for my time and attention. One is more outgoing, the other more shy…wishing she could just stay home in her pajamas and write with the cat nearby. But many of my poems find me when I’m out in the world, writing with kids. So off I go. The writing experiments come from the kids and my dreaming-doodling mind, as my poet-teacher mentor, Linda Wolfe, called it. I get a lot of inspiration from other poet-teachers. Prartho Sereno, a close friend and amazingly gifted poet and teacher, has been very encouraging and generous. I watch how she takes risks with her lesson plans and experiments, and it helps me take flight, too. The annual CPITS conference is a great place to hone the process of creating your own unique lesson plans. Often, I’ve borrowed from someone else’s ides, taught it a few times, taking what works for students and turning up the volume—and removing what doesn’t resonate for me and my style. I’ll add some of my own favorite sample poems from published poets and from student-poets (kids love reading poems from their peers). And, after working out the kinks of the intro and the hook to draw them in…a new lesson plan is born.

LD: What poetry projects are you currently working on?

KB: I’m currently working on putting the bow on the package of my first full-length manuscript, WATCH. It contains poems from my chapbook, SISTER, plus many poems I’ve been quietly working on since 2004, between teaching and writing RTP. I also just finished a picture book—a secret late night passion—called In the KINGDOM of WHAT DISAPPEARS. It’s currently with my agent and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this baby. The picture book market is so very tough to break into.

LD: You’ve got another book coming out about teaching poetry writing to tweens and teens. What are the most important characteristics a poet-teacher should consider when teaching this particular age group?

KB: LEAP WRITE IN! (r-i-s-k required) is due out from Shambhala/Roost Books in 2013. The tween/teen age group I target in this book (10-13 yrs.) is a tricky bunch. You can’t be too nice or too friendly when you first step foot in a 7th grade classroom. (One friend agrees, adding, “they’ll eat you alive!”) They aren’t going to outwardly cheer and adore you like the 2nd and 3rd grade crowd. Tween and teens can be oh so cool and awkward, shy, and scared. They want to show you who they are, but they aren’t even sure. They keep changing their minds, moods, personalities. A combustible combo. I make it a point to meditate a little longer before heading off for middle school. I make sure I truly love the sample poems I’m bringing in and the writing experiment. (The word ticket bag is never forgotten.) They can catch a whiff of a faker a mile out, so you have to be real with them. You have to be real no matter what the age. I started meditating with a group of 6th graders last year. I call it “pre-writing.” And guess what? They love it.


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To purchase a copy of Karen Benke's book RIP THE PAGE! please visit the press website or your favorite independent bookseller.

For more information about Karen's poetry workshops for kids, please visit her website, karenbenke.com.


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