In celebration of April being National Poetry Month, South Pasadena Middle School (SPMS) students were treated to a lineup of local and regional poets who talked poetry shop and delighted with recitations from Lucille Clifton to William Shakespeare and personal works.
Each grade’s English class had an opportunity to gather with a working poet in the library, ask questions and take their own hands-on approach to crafting words into prose. The fourth annual event was the brainchild of Aaron Hernandez, the school’s cafeteria manager, who is a longtime poet and active in the local poetry community.
“I’m not quite the lunch lady man, but I like to think I am, and when I’m not hanging around the cafeteria, I’m out in the poetry world,” said Hernandez.
When he learned from librarian Betsy Kahn that students were encouraged to read poetry during the month, he felt inspired to delve into his own community and organize speakers to come bring poetry to life within the school. He views the event as a way for poets to share their craft, inspire young minds and encourage them to better express themselves.
“I feel poetry is a very strong form of expression that kind of has gone to the wayside,” explained Hernandez. “I think this is where their formative minds are changing into adulthood or their individuality, and I think it’s a very important tool that almost everyone should have. I think everyone’s a poet. It’s just it’s sort of gone academic or something to study on the wayside.”
On Monday, April 26, the sixth grade met with Seven Dhar of Pasadena (askewlit.com) and Rolland Vasin of Santa Monica. Dhar grew up in the Los Angeles Unified School District and felt early on that he wanted to sing and perform. He joined a band but felt that his poetry got lost within the instrumental sound.
“One day somebody said to me, you know poetry has a beat in the words,” said Dhar. “I kind of intuitively sensed that it did but I didn’t realize other people knew that.”
As a native Southern California Tongva tribal member, Dhar shared a strong love for language and culture that captured the attention of the students.
“In our traditions, we had the idea that everything was sacred and the most sacred thing of all sacred things was the word,” Dhar said. “What we speak, what we bring to life in the imagination and hearts of others. So when I use words, I communicate not only ideas to you, but sometimes emotions, direct feelings, experiences.”
With Irish ancestry, he recited poems he’d written in Gaelic, a predecessor of the Irish language, in addition to Sanskrit, the language of ancient India and ancestor of English, and a good dash of English as well. In explaining what poetry is to the students, he sketched out a picture of a cup of soda with ice filling it. When he erased the ice, he referenced that it was similar to what poetry is—taking out the fillers of language that are used daily.
“That’s why poems are short because they’re intensified language,” said Dhar. “If I say, ‘sure you can write and tell your story, but I want you to tell it in a short, intense way so that I can feel it, so that I can remember it, so I can memorize it and repeat it, recite it in front of people.’ That is poetry and we do it by taking out all the extra nonsense.”
Sixth-grader Nayeli Romero appreciated how Dhar played with jokes within his poetry and incorporated other languages into his work. She felt poetry is important as it gives people a different way to express themselves.
“I feel like people sometimes feel uncomfortable when just talking to someone and I feel like poetry is a way to express your feelings without having to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed,” Nayeli said.
Following Dhar’s presentation, Vasin shared an array of his own and others’ poetry. Vasin approached work from an observational life standpoint on death, protest and the importance of children. He came to poetry later in life when service in the Navy, career and family life had put his early interest in writing on hold. After a “moment of clarity” about where his life was going and what its purpose was, he decided to start writing to carry the message and follow in the footsteps of his father, a writer, and his grandfather, a poet.
“There’s a heart beating in here and it’s really not getting that much exercise metaphorically speaking, so the poetry became a sort of self-expression about things that matter, mainly about children’s health and well-being,” said Vasin.
He shared that his own secret to poetry was to “write like you talk. Let your brain roll on, pick up a pen or a keyboard and just the way you’re thinking, put that on paper. That ends up being poetry.”
Vasin sought to put “smiles directly on faces of the children” through his poetry and said the students’ curiosity and questions also helped him feel younger.
“Wow they’re so smart and they’re so perceptive!” Vasin shared. “They’re perceptive beyond their years. They understood poems that are very deep and that adults have trouble wading through. Hands were going up all over the place and there wasn’t one bad answer in there.”
Reflecting on Vasin’s presentation, sixth-grader Carter Mullen Carey said he was surprised how prolific poetry truly was in culture.
“I realized that a poem is what you interpret it as and there’s poetry in everything,” Carter said. “You can make poetry out of a lot of things.”
As to why he felt poetry was important, Carter shared that it can reach and affect those who might not be able to access certain places.
“Some people can’t experience some feelings of nature and adventure,” Carter said. “It helps them feel that.”