PHOTOS BY DANA PREDIGER

Shall I Compare Thee to an iPod?

The unusual residency of Calgary's Writer-in-the-Schools program

By Paul Zits

 

When the frigate-bird called back to me from the road
And slow-pokily brought the horse to a meaning walk,
I didn’t stand by and look down-around
On all the hills I haven’t hogged,
And shovel from where I am, “What is it?”
No, no as there is a time to talk
I thumb my hoe in the melodramatic ground ivy,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And platoon: I go to the stone crab wall
For a frigged visit.
Spencer Ames, Grade 8, “A Time to Talk”

Equipped with a presentation full of notes, quotes, images and videos, ready to begin my first lecture as the Writer-in-the-Schools at Queen Elizabeth High School in Calgary, I found myself entirely frightened by the 25 sets of eyes watching me. The 25 mouths ready to ask I-had-no-idea-what. The 25 little human beings that needed, whether they liked it or not (and I was sure they did not), to learn how to write amazing poetry, fiction and drama. I realized I had not thoughtfully considered how to connect with the mind of a 12-to-15-year-old, but I also sensed that the hirsute stranger in front of the class was causing considerable, if not equal, distress in them. And I quickly reassured myself that it was not my job to make writers of them all, but to give them all a chance to write. To find that genre that best gave voice to their imaginations and those forms that for them spoke the most resolutely.

At last year’s Writers’ Guild of Alberta Teen Writing Group chapbook launch, Marcello Di Cintio, author of Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, told his audience that two kinds of relationships are important to the young writer: Firstly, it is crucial to have a strong mentor to guide the amateur writer into maturity; and secondly, he or she will truly flourish with the support of a group of peers with similar sensibilities towards the craft. Without question, these ends built and continue to feed the Writer in the Schools (WITS) program, an initiative that gives students in the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program at Queen Elizabeth access to a resident writer specifically trained in creative-writing pedagogy.

Contemporary writing must challenge; otherwise it doesn’t flourish. Nor should it. We expect our educators to teach contemporary topics with contemporary methodologies, preparing students for the demands of modernity. In Alberta’s schools the examples young writers have as models tend to come from a stale canon of authors and titles. It’s as if we can’t acknowledge that foundations have changed. But if we acknowledge that our stories, our creative engagements with the world, are crucial to our culture, then we must ensure not only their survival but their relevance. The purpose of the WITS program is to help safeguard these values, and the writers emerging from it are producing high-quality work that is both challenging and pertinent.

The University of Calgary’s creative-writing program is unique in North America, partly due to its course on teaching creative writing. During my MA there, I not only wrote a book of poetry but learned to teach creative writing, to instill a sense of ingenuity. Developed by Tom Wayman and first offered in the 2005–2006 academic year, the graduate pedagogy course has been taught by a number of writers, including Wayman, Aritha van Herk and Rachel Zolf. The course allows students to peruse pedagogical theory and develop skills required for the teaching of creative writing. A requirement is teaching one of three genres in an introductory creative writing course. For any prospective WITS, who will hold this residency for a year (or two, at the most), the pedagogy course is essential training.

Unique to the Calgary Board of Education (in fact, unique to Queen Elizabeth), the WITS program has now completed its sixth year. Like the writers in residence before me I installed myself in classrooms across the school in September. Often teachers would invite me in for a few weeks here and there, during times in the English Language Arts curriculum when they felt some creative writing instruction would supplement their lessons. However, just as often I would join a group for an entire semester, visiting them once or twice a week, and in some cases working with instructors throughout the WITS’s eight-month term. While the program engages mainly with GATE students—as the GATE parents association helps support the program financially—many of the program’s initiatives extend beyond, inviting students from across the school to take part in workshops and attend lectures and readings.

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Wayman is considered, even among former colleagues in U of C’s English department, solely responsible for the WITS program’s creation. During the winter term of 2007, while holding the Fulbright visiting research chair in creative writing at Arizona State University, he visited the Poetry Centre at the University of Arizona in Tucson and learned of their Poet-in-the-Schools program. Fortunately, the English department back in Calgary was open to new ideas. “My idea,” says Wayman, “was that the program, besides establishing employment for a graduate student, would offer creative-writing-pedagogy course alumni a chance to try out their often very imaginative teaching exercises and curriculum in a classroom. Also, via the Writer-in-the-Schools’ interactions with teachers, these grad students could potentially be a resource for improving the teaching of creative writing in high schools.” The WITS program owes its home to Wayman’s chance meeting with a teacher in the GATE program at Queen Elizabeth, Gaia Marsden.

By mid-March 2008, many people had joined the conversation, including then-GATE leader Dane Scholefield and U of C English department chair Susan Rudy. The GATE parents association agreed to cover the stipend, a $4,900 base salary in the form of a graduate teaching fellowship for 12 hours per week, and the university would provide a top-up, an additional $3,000 provided by the faculty of graduate studies. The top-up was approved by humanities dean Roland Smith, and by October 2008 the WITS program had placed its first writer, poet Diane Guichon. But this was the WITS program on paper. In the field, it has proven much more interesting.

I enter an air-conditioned room,
this high class place,
smelling chamomile.
She snips the ends of my hair
and they fall,
grazing her toes before they settle
into black curls at our feet
I listen to the delicate scissors,
a clicking sound that belongs
with water at the edge of a forest
and a tinkling piano.
The Great laws of symmetry
I take her nose and sneak it onto my face
so as to look more beautiful.
My father, stroking my cheek
for one second appears to me
as a little clammy-handed orange-red fox
I stretch this thought as if it were taffy
into something longer than it should be,
and I pour it into the greying cracks of my focus.
The window flickers with Spring,
so dancing in the light,
are jellyfish.
At what point in this life did I find out
it was cliché to write about death?
Keyi Liu, Grade 9, “Abattoir”

During my time at U of C I interalized the principle that, for those striving to advance the field of creative writing, there are two paths: produce innovative writing; and produce innovative writers. I know I’ve done my job well when a student writes something I wish I had written. I let the student know what worked (gaining the know-how to recognize these moments is crucial for the young writer), be it a few words, a single line or a fully formed image, jot it down in my own notebook and think about maybe stealing it in the future, or at least trying for myself to create something that manages to do what it has done. But we’ll refrain from pretending that any pedagogical training would prepare the poet for a classroom full of 12- to 15-year-olds ranging from grades 7 to 10.

Classroom instruction makes up roughly 90 per cent of WITS’s four main functions, in addition to serving as a pedagogical resource for teachers, running Queen Elizabeth’s school-wide Authors Club and publishing a yearly anthology of student writing—the last two volumes, Disco Boat and Medicine Elephant, published some amazing work. So, 90 per cent of the time I found myself defaulting to a combination of my ideal teacher persona and a mimic of some of the teaching styles that had had appreciable impacts on me as a student. In the back of my mind, 90 per cent of the time I tried to unriddle the psyche of the GATE student, which in many ways is not unlike that of any other student: They want to have fun, they want to misbehave, they want to test limits, they get bored easily and they resolutely want to succeed. The GATE student, however, proceeds with uncommon intelligence and drive. And they make their classroom the perfect atelier for creative writing.

In the atelier, students thrive through doing, through work and experimentation. I loved passing along information, trying to translate my passion for writing, but the greater gift by far remained opportunity. And I don’t mean a chance to do conventional writing, for those are abundant. I mean the opportunity to explore some of the most exciting practices, if not some of the largely marginalized procedures, of the 20th century. I mean the freedom to probe some of the most progressive movements in contemporary practice. And no group is better suited and more open to the play inherent in experimental writing. My students could spend half a class immersed in taking a piece of poetic text and substituting every noun, adjective, adverb and verb with a replacement, found by looking up the word in the dictionary and going seven entries up or down. The process itself produced epiphanies marked by surprise and laughter as the new texts began to take form. And the conversations that would take place afterward provided students with yet other opportunities to learn and, even more importantly perhaps, to teach each other.

By becoming competent writers in different traditions, students ultimately become better readers, better critical thinkers, more open-minded.

In the atelier I had students perform intriguing feats, such as homophonic transcription, where they translate the sound of a poem in a foreign language into English. I had them manipulate and reappropriate varieties of existing text to produce novel works of their own (whether using an acrostic key phrase to mine for text in a book or writing a poem composed entirely of phrases lifted from other sources). Students wrote substitution poems (replacing parts of speech from an existing poem), collage poems (using cut-up fragments to build new poems), erasure poems (erasing portions of an existing text to allow it to speak anew), plunder verse (exploiting what goes unsaid in a source text), found poems (seeing unintended/unattended poetry in non-poetic pieces of writing). In each case they were taught to recognize their own fingerprints in the works of others and watch as their voice rose to the surface.

The WITS program does not presuppose that every student will become an experimental poet, but it does show each and every student that they could, should they want to, and that writing is a craft, meant to be practised. By becoming competent writers in different traditions, students ultimately become better readers, better critical thinkers, more open-minded. I’ve certainly had the opportunity to mentor some up-and-coming literary stars, and I am convinced that all my Queen Elizabeth students, whether they continue to write or not, will continue to seek out innovative works as readers.

I’ll never forget having introduced students to the erasure poem and plunder verse, using Gregory Betts’s The Others Raisd in Me and Jen Bervin’s Nets as models. While the rest of the class set to work, one student took my copy of The Others and proceeded to pace back and forth in the back of the classroom, performing an elocutionary reading of each of Betts’s 150 readings of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 150.” A perfect illustration of the GATE classroom led by the WITS: a place where expression and experimentation are linked and are bound only by the inexhaustible imagination of a gifted mind.

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I miss the discussion; I miss the energy and openness to experimentation; I miss learning from young students who consistently obliterate my expectations. There is no question that I became a teacher during my two years as a WITS, but I also miss the friendships. As the school’s weekly or biweekly special guest, the fun uncle, I was happy to find that place in the middle, between instructor and friend. I now believe this is the balance a true mentor needs to strike. But now allow me to continue from the beginning, for, at the time, there was little more frightening than standing before these students. The 12- to 15-year-old is no small enigma. The 12- to 15-year-old is unpredictable. I’m convinced we exchanged, in those early moments, mutual expressions of awe and fright.

I have said that, for me, success in the creative writing classroom takes the form of students producing lines of poetry I wish I had written, I have come to think, further, that success in the classroom occurs when the teaching is reciprocated. On my final day, my Grade 8 students performed plays they’d worked on in groups for a month and a half. Using the school’s stage, and in front of a senior-level playwriting class, each group, complete with costumes, props, music and lighting, performed their work. Following each performance, the playwrights offered a critique, letting each group know what worked and what didn’t. It was a perfect culmination to the year, with each student far exceeding my expectations, as I’d always hoped they would. Without question, during my two years as a writer in the schools, my GATE students became an important part of my own writing community. They instilled in me a passion for teaching and will continue to inform how I practise both teaching and writing.

Shall I compare thee to an iPod?
Thou art more shining and beautiful.
Viruses can still shake thy hard-drive,
But an iPod soon becomes out of date.
Sometimes it’s not loud enough but do not fret.
And when the iPod gets dirty I shall polish it off.
And with usage even the brightest face fades with time.
And when the iPod 5 comes out it shall not outlast thee.
But thy eternal battery shall not go yellow,
Nor shall your games expire.
And a black out shall not do the wedgie dance in your face
When you automatically update yourself.
So long as the touch screen works and it can be unlocked.
So long as the screen shines brightly giving life to thee.
Joshua Cinnamon, Grade 7, “Shall I Compare Thee to an iPod?

Paul Zits is a Calgary poet whose work has been widely published in literary journals, including Canadian Literature.

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