Monday, January 27, 2014

Poetry as Gift: My Experience Teaching a Community Outreach Workshop

It was exactly a month ago that I taught a community outreach workshop through the Palm Beach Poetry Workshop. The theme: “Gifts Given & Received,” & was to be held at the Crest Theater in Delray Beach.
The Director of Community Outreach thought it would be fun. “I really think this should be a fun workshop,” she told me. “And our participants just want to generate new poems—not attend a highly academic seminar.” Fun? And paired with “poetry workshop” to boot? Was she friggin’ crazy? My experiences in Graduate Workshops (Capital “G” & “W”, if you really know what’s good for you) led me to believe that the purpose of workshops was to unravel bones, no?
“I’ll bring the snacks & cider!” she added.
It took three weeks of serious thinking in preparation for the two & a half hour class. I emailed colleagues & former professors & consulted some literature; a few tips here & there. Finally I was ready, & then an amazing thing happened: I threw it all away—all except the prompts & a couple of worksheets I’d made. I had the entire workshop scripted, only to decide as I was sitting in my car inside the parking garage to leave it all behind. I decided I didn’t want to be just another piece of furniture in a classroom—I wanted to be there, in the moment.
I wanted to have fun, too. Then I proceeded to walk into a room where I was the only male in a room filled with females, not one of them under the age forty-five. Most were old enough to be my grandmother.
            And yet, it only took only two writing prompts for a truly amazing thing to happen: a breakthrough. The most rewarding thing that can come out of any writing workshop. Unfettered writing—the most righteous kind.
               One woman shared a poem about a father who abandoned her & her younger sister before she broke down crying in the middle of class. Another about growing up a Jew in a Bronx tenement building filled with Latinos. “They taught me how to love,” she said. Another about being White & privileged, born on the “right side” of the track. How she’d sneak away to the “Black side,” the “wrong side.” How they taught her about Jazz, & how she came to love them for it. 
               At the end of the workshop, one of my students shared about teaching writing to special needs children & children who came from violent backgrounds & how important it was to make them feel safe—only then could they write. Then she turned to me & said: “This is a safe room. I feel safe here,” everyone nodding their heads in agreement.
               For the record, that was the single most rewarding workshop I’ve ever attended & not because I was the one teaching it—I barely taught anything. I was more like Ariadne in Inception—the architect who designed the world—& they filled it with their ideas & creativity.

A graduate of Florida Atlantic University's Creative Writing M.F.A. program, Michael J. Pagan’s work has appeared in The RumpusDIAGRAM,  Pacifica Literary Review, Spork Press Verse, The Coachella Review, BlazeVOX, Spittoon Magazine, Tupelo Press, Menacing Hedge and Mad Hatters’ Review among many others. He currently lives in Deerfield Beach, FL with his wife & daughter.

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