“If we forget poetry, we will forget ourselves.”
Most know Ann Gengarelly through the children– and the poetry they write– under her care. These poems have traveled from the hearts of families and friends in her home state of Vermont–to the floor of the United States Senate, where “Distance,” a student’s poem about a grandmother suffering from Alzheimers was read by Senator Jim Jeffords at the 103d Congress. (Written by Hannah Pick of Putney, VT.)
Ann has been sharing the gift of poetry with children for over thirty years. Her work as “a-poet-in-the-schools” has taken her all over southern Vermont– and as far away as The Little Singer Community School on the Navajo Reservation in the state of Arizona. Ann also teaches at area colleges, and offers classes for adults and children at her studio in Marlboro, Vermont.
I had the pleasure of joining Ann while she led a workshop at the local elementary school. My visit came at the end of a four-part session with the primary students there– a multi-age class of six, seven and eight-year olds.
The relationship between Ann and these young ones is palpable the moment they see each other. “I’ve missed you!” she croons as the children arrive in the school library. “Nice hair cut, Lloyd,” she says. “Hey Tim, how are you?” Ann makes a point to greet each child individually, and she laughs as a succession of children drape themselves over her in an embrace before taking their place on the floor.
Each class begins like this– with a warm reunion and a circle gathering. The children are bubbling by the time Ann is ready to begin, but they quickly respond to the sound of her voice. (She can’t help but whisper a few last hellos.)
“Can everyone look at me so I can tell you something?” Ann says softly with a touch of intrigue. “I woke up this morning feeling… Oh… I’m not sure how to describe the feeling in my heart,” Ann says as places her palms over her chest before continuing. “I felt both so excited to see you, but also a little sad. Does anybody know why?”
Hands shoot into the air with the obvious answer: Today is the last day of poetry. The children hang their heads in shared disappointment.
“Until we come to your house!” offers eight-year old Anna, reminding them of the visit they make to The Poetry Studio each spring. The children remember Ann’s stone pathways, her bright gardens, and especially –the small frog pond– surrounded by birches and evergreens.
Ann shares that she looks forward to their visit after the snow and then introduces the theme for today’s class, encouraging the children to close their eyes. “I want you to take a minute to go inside yourself, talk to yourself, and think about this:
How do you know when something or someone is your friend?
Ann repeats the question with great emphasis, adding, “I really want you to help me with this. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. How can you tell?”
The children respond as thoughtfully as Ann asks the question. “You tell by time,” says one boy, “by getting to know them better.”
“Did you hear that?” says Ann. “Say that again,” she asks, focusing the children’s attention on each response as the conversation unfolds. Ann intentionally keeps the themes broad to allow for personal expression while carefully guiding the children’s awareness to greater depths, “I’m going to ask you a different question now so you might want to close you eyes again:
Does anybody here in the circle have a very special friend that’s much, much younger than you; or much, much older? ”
One child raises her hand to ask Ann’s age. “Oh me?” she says, “I’m poetry age!”
The children giggle with delight. Another child raises her hand and offers that her grandmother is her friend, even though she has died. This causes quite a commotion, but Ann stills the room to say, “Wait a minute… let’s just stay quiet, so that you can breathe that in.”
This is how it is with Ann–heartfelt, focused, attentive. “Children are hungry to be listened to,” she says. “We all have the need to tell our stories. Poetry is often the telling of the soul. It can be the key to unlocking thoughts and feelings and visions.”
If poetry is the “key”, then Ann Gengarelly is one of its most trusted keepers: “Poetry is a dance between our inner landscapes and the external world,” she says. “We could all go out and look at the full moon, but our individual response is what creates our unique vision, our particular voice. Poetry, in many ways, is the invitation to pay attention–to notice–to be ‘present’; whether it’s to a birth of a pet, the death of a grandparent, the song of a whippoorwill, war.”
Ann models this attention, this ‘being present’, with each child. “I have watched, shy, silent kids pour out passionate words to her eager face,” says Rebecca Bateman, an intern from Antioch Graduate School. “I have seen angry, stubborn kids melt when she handles their truculence with a gentle embrace.”
Ann continues to explore the theme of friendship with the children with work from the great Masters: Emily Dickinson, Monet… and from the Masters To Be: Art and poetry from students who have written with Ann on other occasions, her ‘poetry children’ she calls them–some who have graduated from this very school, leaving the legacy of “voice” behind.
Ann offers a variety of verse to the children, “Poems that are ‘paintings in words’, poems that are songs, poems that are messages from heart and spirit, poems born from imagination, poems rooted in literal experience,” she explains.
There is a building sense of excitement and momentum as the children prepare ‘to give birth to their own poems’. By the time they pick up their pencils, they are overflowing with inspiration. “Nick you have five poems in you!” Ann says after he shares that rocks are his friends, and later that his dreams are too.
One by one they leave the circle–some to find a quiet spot on the floor, others to nestle in a corner, and yet others to sit at tables with one or two poet friends. The atmosphere in the room shifts dramatically as Ann encourages a ‘quality of silence,’ enabling these young poets to hear their ‘inner voice.’
At this young age, the composing process is initiated through art. The children begin by folding a large piece of paper in half, using one side on which to draw and the other on which to write. “When you start with your drawing,” says Ann, “I don’t want you to think so much about what this friend looks like… think more about what this friend feels like to you.”
Ann moves about the room offering her support as needed. “Let’s draw a picture about that,” she suggests to a little boy whose pet frog has died. “Close your eyes, travel back, and tell me–How was he your friend? You’ve got to help me see it in my imagination.”
“He lived in a little castle in a fish tank,” shares the boy. “But it wasn’t really a castle.”
“It seemed like a castle to you, right?” says Ann. “Let’s write that; we can do that in poetry land!”
Ann refers to this part of the writing process as ‘witnessing.’ “There is the poet as witness–witnessing his own experiences, feelings, dreams, hope. And then there’s the teacher as witness. When a teacher shares a dialogue with a student about a poem, she offers dignity to the human experience… of being human together.”
The witnessing process continues as the children read their completed work to each other. Ann brings the class together again, saying, “Our last poetry party, come on over, let’s share!” She calls this final gathering, ‘a circle of humanity.’
“Who will offer the first gift?” Ann asks expectantly. Most are eager to share, and after each poem is read, another ‘gift’ is requested–that of the listener. Ann directs the children’s attention, deepening their understanding and appreciation of each others work and of the craft of writing poetry.
“What part makes you go ooh?” she asks. “What part was a poetry way of saying what was felt? What part makes you feel convinced that someone was a friend?”
As the last gifts are offered, Ann laments that the session is about to end. “I wish we didn’t have clocks in poetry land,” she says. “These poems were just extraordinary.” She takes a deep breath and looks around the circle at each face, exclaiming, “What friends we have here!”
There is a sweet sadness as goodbyes are spoken, but the children’s time with their poems hasn’t ended. In the upcoming weeks, the students will edit and type their work, compiling their poems into handmade books to be presented to parents at a poetry celebration. Ann will rejoin them on this occasion, and will also stop in to see them in the months to follow when she returns to work with other classes.
By the end of the school year, the entire student body will contribute a piece of poetry to a bound collection–one that is sent home with each child–a tradition that has continued for more than twenty-five years. At a special ceremony before graduation, Ann will read the 8th grader’s earliest poetry from a decade ago. The newest kindergarten class will also be present, seated beside their eighth-grade ‘elders’, who will support them in reading their very first poems.
Ann is passionate in her belief that everyone has poetry inside them, affirming that the journey of self-discovery is as critical for children as it is for adults. “The power of metaphor, of the image world, is evident with people of all ages,” she claims. “Poetry, in the deepest sense is an invitation to remember who we are.”
At her poetry studio, Ann delights in bringing together multi-age groups, and often does so in after-school and summer programs. One of the most memorable gatherings was a spontaneous one following the events of September 11th: “Twenty-five people, mainly families, joined together to give voice to their feelings and reactions, beginning a ‘journey of healing’ as a community.”
Ann feels strongly that we are living in a time where there’s a vital need for compassion in the world, and she believes that poetry plays crucial role. “In a profound sense, there is a compelling connection between compassion and imagination. If we were truly able to imagine what it feels like to live in a war torn country or to be homeless, wouldn’t we be more likely to develop a deeper sense of compassion and commit fewer acts of violence! If we could feel the souls in trees, flowers, and stones as do Native Americans, maybe we would experience a deeper reverence for nature.”
Ann shares the power of poetry, relaying her experience with a young poet, “I remember a 5th grade boy who many years ago came up to me and said, ‘I often make fun of old people.’ I was in awe of this child owning this behavior and proceeded to ask him how he thought that made elders feel. His response was: ‘I’m going to find out today in poetry’– and then picked up a wooden figure I have of an old man. What unfolded was a persona poem in which the boy assumed the voice of the old man whose heart felt like ‘a broken window’ in response to the mockery of a young boy.”
As the recess bell sounds to announce the closing of the morning session, Ann offers these parting words to the young faces before her, “I just want to thank you for the gift of listening to you. It’s been most powerful to hear what is inside you. I hope that even though I’m not doing classes with you, that poetry will remain your friend and that you’ll feel poetry saying- Listen to me, I’ve got something to say.”
Poetry, the one thing you’ll
It’s always with you
like your heart-
Poetry soars above you
like a raven,
taking away your fears-
Poetry takes care of you,
listens to you.
Ann listens to me
as a sister
Poetry will always
be with you
(Zoe Chaine, age 7)
7 year old Poetry author Zoe Chaine is now teenager now– still writing–and publishing– her poetry.
To read more about Ann’s legacy at Marlboro School–even with older children– click here.
Photo taken at Poetry/Art day on Hogback Mountain, 2009; Pam Burke, Marlboro Elementary School.