Friday, April 17, 2015

Shane Koyczan's To This Day...For the Bullied and Beautiful

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To This Day

When I was a kid
I used to think that pork chops and karate chops
were the same thing
I thought they were both pork chops
and because my grandmother thought it was cute
and because they were my favourite
she let me keep doing it

not really a big deal

one day
before I realized fat kids are not designed to climb trees
I fell out of a tree
and bruised the right side of my body

I didn’t want to tell my grandmother about it
because I was afraid I’d get in trouble
for playing somewhere that I shouldn’t have been

a few days later the gym teacher noticed the bruise
and I got sent to the principal’s office
from there I was sent to another small room
with a really nice lady
who asked me all kinds of questions
about my life at home

I saw no reason to lie
as far as I was concerned
life was pretty good
I told her “whenever I’m sad
my grandmother gives me karate chops”

this led to a full scale investigation
and I was removed from the house for three days
until they finally decided to ask how I got the bruises

news of this silly little story quickly spread through the school
and I earned my first nickname

pork chop

to this day
I hate pork chops

I’m not the only kid
who grew up this way
surrounded by people who used to say
that rhyme about sticks and stones
as if broken bones
hurt more than the names we got called
and we got called them all
so we grew up believing no one
would ever fall in love with us
that we’d be lonely forever
that we’d never meet someone
to make us feel like the sun
was something they built for us
in their tool shed
so broken heart strings bled the blues
as we tried to empty ourselves
so we would feel nothing
don’t tell me that hurts less than a broken bone
that an ingrown life
is something surgeons can cut away
that there’s no way for it to metastasize

it does

she was eight years old
our first day of grade three
when she got called ugly
we both got moved to the back of the class
so we would stop get bombarded by spit balls
but the school halls were a battleground
where we found ourselves outnumbered day after wretched day
we used to stay inside for recess
because outside was worse
outside we’d have to rehearse running away
or learn to stay still like statues giving no clues that we were there
in grade five they taped a sign to her desk
that read beware of dog

to this day
despite a loving husband
she doesn’t think she’s beautiful
because of a birthmark
that takes up a little less than half of her face
kids used to say she looks like a wrong answer
that someone tried to erase
but couldn’t quite get the job done
and they’ll never understand
that she’s raising two kids
whose definition of beauty
begins with the word mom
because they see her heart
before they see her skin
that she’s only ever always been amazing

was a broken branch
grafted onto a different family tree
but not because his parents opted for a different destiny
he was three when he became a mixed drink
of one part left alone
and two parts tragedy
started therapy in 8th grade
had a personality made up of tests and pills
lived like the uphills were mountains
and the downhills were cliffs
four fifths suicidal
a tidal wave of anti depressants
and an adolescence of being called popper
one part because of the pills
and ninety nine parts because of the cruelty
he tried to kill himself in grade ten
when a kid who still had his mom and dad
had the audacity to tell him “get over it” as if depression
is something that can be remedied
by any of the contents found in a first aid kit

to this day
he is a stick on TNT lit from both ends
could describe to you in detail the way the sky bends
in the moments before it’s about to fall
and despite an army of friends
who all call him an inspiration
he remains a conversation piece between people
who can’t understand
sometimes becoming drug free
has less to do with addiction
and more to do with sanity

we weren’t the only kids who grew up this way
to this day
kids are still being called names
the classics were
hey stupid
hey spaz
seems like each school has an arsenal of names
getting updated every year
and if a kid breaks in a school
and no one around chooses to hear
do they make a sound?
are they just the background noise
of a soundtrack stuck on repeat
when people say things like
kids can be cruel?
every school was a big top circus tent
and the pecking order went
from acrobats to lion tamers
from clowns to carnies
all of these were miles ahead of who we were
we were freaks
lobster claw boys and bearded ladies
juggling depression and loneliness playing solitaire spin the bottle
trying to kiss the wounded parts of ourselves and heal
but at night
while the others slept
we kept walking the tightrope
it was practice
and yeah
some of us fell

but I want to tell them
that all of this shit
is just debris
leftover when we finally decide to smash all the things we thought
we used to be
and if you can’t see anything beautiful about yourself
get a better mirror
look a little closer
stare a little longer
because there’s something inside you
that made you keep trying
despite everyone who told you to quit
you built a cast around your broken heart
and signed it yourself
you signed it
“they were wrong”
because maybe you didn’t belong to a group or a click
maybe they decided to pick you last for basketball or everything
maybe you used to bring bruises and broken teeth
to show and tell but never told
because how can you hold your ground
if everyone around you wants to bury you beneath it
you have to believe that they were wrong

they have to be wrong

why else would we still be here?
we grew up learning to cheer on the underdog
because we see ourselves in them
we stem from a root planted in the belief
that we are not what we were called we are not abandoned cars stalled out and sitting empty on a highway
and if in some way we are
don’t worry
we only got out to walk and get gas
we are graduating members from the class of
fuck off we made it
not the faded echoes of voices crying out
names will never hurt me

of course
they did

but our lives will only ever always
continue to be
a balancing act
that has less to do with pain
and more to do with beauty.

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A Poetic Reflection to the Day of Silence

After the Day of Silence lesson...

1. WRITE A POEM - no minimum - no maximum -  no word count - no required form.

Only requirement: Be thoughtful.


3. Plus PRINT a HARD COPY for Monday.

After Friday's class - Day of Silence: Watch and Listen as your Lesson Today

I would like you to respond in verse.

WRITE a thoughtful POEM
that incorporates words, thoughts, ideas from the videos from FRIDAY (or below).

Consider the following titles - please feel free to create your own:

"Get over it"

"Kids Can Be Cruel"

"They were wrong."

"The Underdog"

"Stop it"
"This is who I am"

"My Closet"

"Be Real"


"I love Nathan Lane"

"Be Authentic"

"Never Apologize"

"Your Story"

"Bust a Door Open"

What do you think would be a good title for a poem after hearing these videos?

Be original.

Day of Silence 2015: A Lesson Plan for Empathy

(The following is a lesson I posted to my courses via Canvas LMS. Students posted to the discussion board. It may have been one of the most meaningful classes I have taught and I said nothing...)

Welcome to class. Today I will be silent.

Today is GLSEN Day of Silence April 17th, 2015,

Last year, I had students watch these videos and discuss online what they learned and what they found interesting.

In class, honoring this Day of Silence, here is your assignment:

Watch any and all of the videos below.
Hopefully, you brought headphones.

Take notes for your poem due Monday.


Comment on the videos - or share additional content/videos that relate to today.

Yes, you're required to "Reply" - Post at least twice - hopefully more.

Watch any of the videos - your choice - here's a playlist of a baker's dozen:

Share lines that resonate with you - write them down in your journal or post them

Maybe work them into your own poem.

Click here for more details on your homework for Monday.

Click for more information on the Day of Silence.

Kids can be cruel. Stop all bullying. Please speak up and be an ally.

Here's a prose poem that I wrote last year...

Walking in Silence

While not malicious gossip, nor direct threats,
perhaps, the meanest action may be ignoring someone.

Not just giving a person the silent treatment,
but ignorance to the fact that they exist
and that person's story and identity is
different than your own. Isolation

will drive a person mad in prison, but
what does it do to a person among us
in society. They float unacknowledged in the halls,
on the sidewalk, in our world, in our lives.

A sea of faces blending into the background,
extras in a movie where we are are the stars
and they are minor characters: student
#1, student #2, student #3, etc.

I wonder what would happen if we walked
in other shoes, saw through their eyes.
What do we see? If we listen,
what would we not just hear but truly learn?

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” 
― Ralph EllisonInvisible Man

GLSEN wants to know: 

What are you doing to end the silence around 
anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment? 
Share what you are doing #DayofSilence

Follow on Twitter @dayofsilence

Context for International Day of Silence - see this Flipboard Magazine.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Crediting Poetry by Seamus Heaney

Every now and then, usually in the spring, I listen to Seamus Heaney.

If you are interested in poetry, you must listen to Heaney's Noble Lecture for Literature, "Crediting Poetry" recorded in 1995.

Read and listen to the audio here.

The lecture concludes:

When the poet W.B. Yeats stood on this platform more than seventy years ago, Ireland was emerging from the throes of a traumatic civil war that had followed fast on the heels of a war of independence fought against the British. The struggle that ensued had been brief enough; it was over by May, 1923, some seven months before Yeats sailed to Stockholm, but it was bloody, savage and intimate, and for generations to come it would dictate the terms of politics within the twenty-six independent counties of Ireland, that part of the island known first of all as the Irish Free State and then subsequently as the Republic of Ireland.

Yeats barely alluded to the civil war or the war of independence in his Nobel speech. Nobody understood better than he the connection between the construction or destruction of state institutions and the founding or foundering of cultural life, but on this occasion he chose to talk instead about the Irish Dramatic Movement. His story was about the creative purpose of that movement and its historic good fortune in having not only his own genius to sponsor it, but also the genius of his friends John Millington Synge and Lady Augusta Gregory. He came to Sweden to tell the world that the local work of poets and dramatists had been as important to the transformation of his native place and times as the ambushes of guerrilla armies; and his boast in that elevated prose was essentially the same as the one he would make in verse more than a decade later in his poem "The Municipal Gallery Revisited". There Yeats presents himself amongst the portraits and heroic narrative paintings which celebrate the events and personalities of recent history and all of a sudden realizes that something truly epoch-making has occurred: " 'This is not', I say,/'The dead Ireland of my youth, but an Ireland/The poets have imagined, terrible and gay.' " And the poem concludes with two of the most quoted lines of his entire oeuvre:
Think where man's glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.
And yet, expansive and thrilling as these lines are, they are an instance of poetry flourishing itself rather than proving itself, they are the poet's lap of honour, and in this respect if in no other they resemble what I am doing in this lecture. In fact, I should quote here on my own behalf some other words from the poem: "You that would judge me, do not judge alone/This book or that." Instead, I ask you to do what Yeats asked his audience to do and think of the achievement of Irish poets and dramatists and novelists over the past forty years, among whom I am proud to count great friends. In literary matters, Ezra Pound advised against accepting the opinion of those "who haven't themselves produced notable work," and it is advice I have been privileged to follow, since it is the good opinion of notable workers and not just those in my own country-that has fortified my endeavour since I began to write in Belfast more than thirty years ago. The Ireland I now inhabit is one that these Irish contemporaries have helped to imagine.

Yeats, however, was by no means all flourish. To the credit of poetry in our century there must surely be entered in any reckoning his two great sequences of poems entitled "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen" and "Meditations in Time of Civil War", the latter of which contains the famous lyric about the bird's nest at his window, where a starling or stare had built in a crevice of the old wall. The poet was living then in a Norman tower which had been very much a part of the military history of the country in earlier and equally troubled times, and as his thoughts turned upon the irony of civilizations being consolidated by violent and powerful conquerors who end up commissioning the artists and the architects, he began to associate the sight of a mother bird feeding its young with the image of the honey bee, an image deeply lodged in poetic tradition and always suggestive of the ideal of an industrious, harmonious, nurturing commonwealth:
The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
I have heard this poem repeated often, in whole and in part, by people in Ireland over the past twenty-five years, and no wonder, for it is as tender minded towards life itself as St. Kevin was and as tough-minded about what happens in and to life as Homer. It knows that the massacre will happen again on the roadside, that the workers in the minibus are going to be lined up and shot down just after quitting time; but it also credits as a reality the squeeze of the hand, the actuality of sympathy and protectiveness between living creatures. It satisfies the contradictory needs which consciousness experiences at times of extreme crisis, the need on the one hand for a truth telling that will be hard and retributive, and on the other hand, the need not to harden the mind to a point where it denies its own yearnings for sweetness and trust.

It is a proof that poetry can be equal to and true at the same time, an example of that completely adequate poetry which the Russian woman sought from Anna Akhmatova and which William Wordsworth produced at a corresponding moment of historical crisis and personal dismay almost exactly two hundred years ago.
When the bard Demodocus sings of the fall of Troy and of the slaughter that accompanied it, Odysseus weeps and Homer says that his tears were like the tears of a wife on a battlefield weeping for the death of a fallen husband. His epic simile continues:
At the sight of the man panting and dying there,
she slips down to enfold him, crying out;
then feels the spears, prodding her back and shoulders,
and goes bound into slavery and grief.
Piteous weeping wears away her cheeks:
but no more piteous than Odysseus' tears,
cloaked as they were, now, from the company.
Even to-day, three thousand years later, as we channel-surf over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery, highly informed but nevertheless in danger of growing immune, familiar to the point of overfamiliarity with old newsreels of the concentration camp and the gulag, Homer's image can still bring us to our senses. The callousness of those spear shafts on the woman's back and shoulders survives time and translation. The image has that documentary adequacy which answers all that we know about the intolerable.

But there is another kind of adequacy which is specific to lyric poetry. This has to do with the "temple inside our hearing" which the passage of the poem calls into being. It is an adequacy deriving from what Mandelstam called "the steadfastness of speech articulation," from the resolution and independence which the entirely realized poem sponsors. It has as much to do with the energy released by linguistic fission and fusion, with the buoyancy generated by cadence and tone and rhyme and stanza, as it has to do with the poem's concerns or the poet's truthfulness. In fact, in lyric poetry, truthfulness becomes recognizable as a ring of truth within the medium itself. And it is the unappeasable pursuit of this note, a note tuned to its most extreme in Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan and orchestrated to its most opulent in John Keats, it is this which keeps the poet's ear straining to hear the totally persuasive voice behind all the other informing voices.

Which is a way of saying that I have never quite climbed down from the arm of that sofa. I may have grown more attentive to the news and more alive to the world history and world-sorrow behind it. But the thing uttered by the speaker I strain towards is still not quite the story of what is going on; it is more reflexive than that, because as a poet I am in fact straining towards a strain, seeking repose in the stability conferred by a musically satisfying order of sounds. As if the ripple at its widest desired to be verified by a reformation of itself, to be drawn in and drawn out through its point of origin.

I also strain towards this in the poetry I read. And I find it, for example, in the repetition of that refrain of Yeats's, "Come build in the empty house of the stare," with its tone of supplication, its pivots of strength in the words "build" and "house" and its acknowledgement of dissolution in the word "empty". I find it also in the triangle of forces held in equilibrium by the triple rhyme of "fantasies" and "enmities" and "honey-bees", and in the sheer in-placeness of the whole poem as a given form within the language. Poetic form is both the ship and the anchor. It is at once a buoyancy and a steadying, allowing for the simultaneous gratification of whatever is centrifugal and whatever is centripetal in mind and body. And it is by such means that Yeats's work does what the necessary poetry always does, which is to touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic nature of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed. The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry's power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry's credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.
From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1995, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1996

Adam Gottlieb, "Poet Breathe Now"

POET BREATHE NOW by Adam Gottlieb

everybody’s got something to say about poetry
           because rhymes peak in meaning shedding light on our unspeakables
           for an ample example
           take the other day when i sat not knowing how to write a poem
           and assuming I was fruitlessly booming the thin air
           I yelled and spat my frustration:

how do I start?
           and my dog looks up from her water dish and says
           “I hate to encroach on your ‘artistic space’
           cuz I know you're like ‘in-the-zone’ or whatever,
           but if you really want my advice here it is”
           and then my dog says

“poet breathe now –
            because it’s the last thing you’ll ever do for yourself.

poet breathe now because there’s a fire inside you that needs oxygen to burn
            and if you don’t run out of breath you’re gonna run out of time

poet breathe now because once the spot gets packed
            you gotta save that air for screamin, your --
            inhalation takes saviorisms to sky-highs
            you gotta go with the flowin of your own voice, poet.
            breathe now because once you spit you won’t even need air
            you'll be rockin rhymes respiratory,
            you’ll breathe poetry baby.

you breathe now and you’ll never forget that breath
            you got --
            pulsasive passages passing the mic
            and hot hallelujahs when verses you write
            and your sin is your savior your song is your life
            and your words are like wonders to wandering fifes pipin ceremony:
            poets you man, words you wife
            and your honeymoon orbits around your love like metronomic metros
            keepin time to the heartbeat of your heavenly drums –

poet breathe now because you might have something to say
            because peace might depend on your piece
            because you breathe
            and that air might help your brain tell your heart to keep pumping
            one more cycle and that blood might help your lips form one last word
            that hits the audience hard –
            because we are all made from the same elements
            and we all breathe the same air
            so celebrate our mutual recipes of existence
            by persisting to stay alive
            ducking sageless luckless ages
            like intellectual hippies!

when you take a breath
            the universe rings out like circular beats –
            landing planets are seraphim
            storms are spit –
            stars are soul candles!
            and you breathe like chest rebounds
            even when all hope seems lost
            our sounds pound mics
            like hope-stars
            like “we’re still here” hollas!
            we make angels of our nightclubs,
            bards of our bums,
            outlooks of our outcasts
            and infinity of our sums,
            we are the children of empathy,
            the pathos of slums,
            we heal like Helios
            like cyclical drums
            we enlist life from listless
            and sometimes
            even get things done

poet breathe now
            because once you start your piece
            you can die behind that microphone
            death may be breathless
            but poetry’s deathless
            so breath be
            our savior

poets breathe once with me now

that’s one poem we all wrote.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

101 Great American Poems

When teaching American Literature, I find it difficult to cover the poetry throughout the year that I would like to do. With AP exams and traditional syllabus wedded to the novel, poetry can be marginalized and pushed to the side or into a two week poetry unit. The analysis of poetry tends to be tedious. As Billy Collins says in his rye poem " Introduction to Poetry", we (teachers and students) tie the poem to a chair and torture the meaning out of it.

Below is a list of poems from our $3 anthology. I appreciate the chronological order of poets and the relative diversity of voices. When class time is precious, how do we hit 101 poems between now and the end of the year. Does a poem a day work? Is that possible too tedious?

Let's see.

Anne Bradstreet (1612?-1672) "To My Dear and Loving Husband"
Phillis Wheatley (1753?-1784) From "To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth"

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Seamus Heaney's "The Bookcase"

"The Bookcase"

Ashwood or oakwood? Planned to silkiness,
Mitred, much eyed-along, each vellum-pale
Board in the bookcase held and never sagged. 
Virtue went forth from its very shipshapeness.

Whoever remembers the rough blue paper bags
Loose sugar was once sold in might remember
The jacket of (was it Oliver & Boyd’s?)
Collected Hugh MacDiarmid. And the skimmed milk

Bluey-white of the Chatto Selected
Elizabeth Bishop. Murex of Macmillan’s
Collected Yeats. And their Collected Hardy.
Yeats of 'Memory'. Hardy of 'The Voice'.

Voices too of Frost and Wallace Stevens.
Off a Caedmon double album, off different shelves.
Dylan at full volume, the Bushmills killed.
'Do Not Go Gentle.' 'Don’t be going yet.'


Heavy as the gate I hung on once
As it swung its arc through air round to the hedge-back,
The bookcase turns on a druggy hinge, its load
Divulging into a future perfect tense

Where we hang loose, ruminating and repeating
The three words, 'books from Ireland', to each other,
Quoting for pleasure the Venerable Bede
Who writes in his History of the English Church

That scrapings off the leaves of books from Ireland
When steeping in water palliate the effect 
Of snake-bite. 'For on this isle,' he states,
'Almost everything confers immunity.'

Chiefly I liked the lines and weight of it.
A measuredness. Its long back to the wall
And carpentered right angles I could feel
In my neck and shoulder. And books from everywhere.

Cash in As I Lay Dying makes a coffin - 
For thirteen stated reasons - 'on the bevel'.
From first, 'There is more surface for the nails
To grip,' to last, 'It makes a better job.'

In Riders to the Sea Synge specifies
In the opening stage direction 'some new boards
Standing by the wall,' and in Maurya's speech
'White boards' are like storm-gleams on the flood

At the very end, or the salt salvaged makings
Of a raft for books, a bier to be borne.
I imagine us bracing ourselves for the first lift,
Then staggering for balance, it has grown so light.

Check out this NYTimes video dedicated to Heaney:

Interesting essay that discusses Heaney and cites this poem