Human Writes: Interview with Elizabeth Sampson, Director of the Hands On Stanzas Program / by Aidan Forster

"Radioactive" by Jenn Moon (Adroit Journal, Issue 14)

"Radioactive" by Jenn Moon (Adroit Journal, Issue 14)

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What was the inspiration for this unique project?

On a daily basis, walking into a school and hearing young people (whether 8 or 15 years old) exclaim “Yes! Poetry!” is an awesome ongoing inspiration.

The program started in the 1990s when the Poetry Center of Chicago staff became concerned with the lack of arts-focused literary curriculum in the schools. The Poetry Center worked with poet and teaching artist Kenneth Koch and the Teachers & Writers Collaborative of New York City, the program on which Hands On Stanzas is modeled, to build this program. Hands On Stanzas has been placing Poets In Residence (our teaching artists) in Chicago Public Schools ever since.

Our initial inspiration continues to be a driving force. In addition, there are few programs in which a teaching artist is with the same students for nearly the full academic year, and this extended length allows the Poet In Residence to build trust and nurture their student’s creative voices in an impactful way.

 

What do you see for the future of this project? What is the ultimate goal of this project?

Our dream is for a Poet In Residence in every Chicago classroom. In the last few years we’ve added a scholarship program, so schools that can’t afford the program receive it at no cost to them. We’d love to grow the scholarship program to support more classrooms!

Hands On Stanzas is big in our hearts because at once it allows us to provide paid teaching opportunities for Chicago poets, and bring poetry to Chicago’s students. The more working poets and student poets we can support, the better.

If any of your readers would like to see a super cute video of some of our student poets reading poetry about what poetry means to them (their very own Ars Poetica, if you will), you can check it out here https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/poetry-center-of-chicago, and of course, feel free to support the cause! This video is good for your heart, I strongly recommend a viewing!

 

Before this, you taught creative practice workshops in Cairo and Sinai in Egypt. How does this compare to teaching in Chicago?

I’ve taught all ages, and in many different educational environments. They all seem to boil down to the same core elements, as a teacher. If I am prepared and eager with my material, but also open and ready to be flexible after meeting my students, if I show up with love and eagerness to meet the other people in the room, things go really well.

My favorite teaching environments are those where my teaching leads to other’s making, and so in that sense, the creative workshops I taught in Egypt (focused on maps and place as creative practice) and the Hands On Stanzas residencies I teach now, are the most fun I’ve ever had as a teacher.

 

How did you choose the other Writers in Residence for the schools?

We are lucky to have awesome teaching artists that stick around for a long time. Larry O. Dean, Kenyatta Rogers, and Rachel Javellana pre-date my time as Executive Director! Our newest Poet In Residence, Timothy David Rey has that perfect combination that our other PIRs have: years of experience as a teaching artist, and he’s active in Chicago’s writing and performing communities.

We look for working poets with a strong teaching background. As a teaching artist you need knowledge of poetry, but you also need a personality that can walk into a room of 3rd graders, or 8th graders, or sophomores, and hold their attention, have fun, and earn their trust.

 

Do you have any favorite lines that students have written?

So many! Here’s a few—

After reading “Blake’s” Tyger, this second grader was asked to write a poem to a mysterious animal. One couplet went: “Are you tall like the Sears Tower? / Or small like a tiny doctor?”

The other day I encountered: “I wish I can have all of the watermelons / I wish I can be a god”

Those are from the more humorous end of the spectrum, I love how kids combine two ideas that would be such a non sequitur to an adult, and something beautiful appears in the juxtaposition.

A short poem written by one of Larry O. Dean’s student poets a few weeks ago really floored me:

Body Language
Ibrahim B.

I feel like
being speechless.

Using my body,
you know what that means,

it means

Danger

There’s too much to list, but if your readers want more, they can find a whole archive of student work at poetrycenter.org/hands-on-stanzas/

 

Who are your personal favorite poets? Do you find that their particular qualities influence the kind of work you encourage in your students?

Hmm… I have special love for hybrid-form writers, like Bhanu Kapil and Claudia Rankine, and I’m sure their leanings inform my teaching style. One of the exciting things about this program is that I find I can reach way back or go totally contemporary, and the students are game. Sylvia Plath, it turns out, really speaks to people of grade school ages. Before teaching here, I might have thought she was too intense or… adult? But it turns out students love her.

 

Why does your project focus on students in particular? What, do you believe, is special, about young people and poetry?

This program was built out of the belief that poetry is good for everyone, that creativity is vital to a good education, and that everyone deserves the same resources in their education. Our Poets In Residence, our classroom teachers, and our students know first hand what a benefit it is to the whole community, as well as one child’s life experience. To watch students move from very little confidence in reading towards flourishing self-expression is a gift.

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