WITS Voices: Movements
March 31, 2016
By Vicky Edmonds, WITS Writer-in-Residence
Hearing the poetry of children has been one of the most meaningful experiences in my life. I am awestruck at getting to hear that kind of sincerity nearly every day. It’s why I remain a teaching artist after 26 years, even though it’s the most challenging work I’ve ever done. Honestly, you never know if you’ll have work from one month to the next, even though you try to keep believing that what you have to offer could genuinely be of service to students, communities, at-risk populations. There are hours of paperwork for every hour of teaching and many times we travel to several different locations – sometimes even in different cities – in a single day.
It’s exhausting, but it’s beautiful.
And it’s not only the poetry keeps me coming back – it’s the way the students begin to see themselves, the new ways they attempt solutions for their problems, and the depth of kindness they emit while they learn to support each other in their work. It’s palpable. I keep doing this because it’s my vocation and my avocation, because every time we get to be ‘in poetry’ it feels as though I’ve returned to the well of all things good, and I am restored. Sincerity is like a balm in a world full of invisible wounds, so both selflessly and selfishly I want to help children find their deepest truths – just because then there’s the possibility of getting to hear them!
Poetry started out as a completely isolated act for me – an instrument playing with no strings. It was a secret attempt to find myself under the rubble of other people’s ideas about me, and I could barely hear the sound of my own voice when anyone else was near. I was eleven years old that year, and poetry became that hand that held me.
But when I teach, poetry becomes a symphony, every instrument playing a different sound, each one causing the music to rise or fall, bringing strength or vulnerability, humor or sorrow, some playing louder and some so soft you can barely hear. Together, we can sometimes feel stronger than any one of us feels alone. We make this safe place to try each note, to not be afraid if you don’t know exactly where that sound is on the string yet, or how to tune the drum.
But sometimes there is a place in between the notes, a kind of music between people that can’t be heard by others, with movements so quiet that they make the room tremble. Last Thursday evening at a reading at Town Hall, I got to be an unexpected audience for that kind of music.
Logan and Gray Liteky are twin brothers that bring a tenderness and strength to one another in a way I have never before seen. They were eleven years old when I met them last year, the same age I was when I started in these movements. I have watched them write in different classes and the same, wondering who they were together and separately. I couldn’t tell them apart then: both had an earnestness and a humor about them that brought me to laughter and tears.
When it came time for me to choose my students to read at Seattle Public Library and to be included in the WITS chapbook, I was torn in two. I loved both of their poems, written about learning the language of working through deep challenges with another. They were so vulnerable, and yet a message of strength for all of us. How could I choose one twin? Should I choose at all? I wondered if I should pick someone else just so I didn’t have to.
I called their mom to ask what to do. She told me that they are at once together and their own, that they are twins but also individuals that have their own strengths, challenges, hopes. She said I should choose the poem I want and let the boys find their own places in the world.
So, with great sorrow and joy, I chose Gray’s poem, “Burning.” Nearly a year later, I got a message that Gray had been invited to read his poem to open for Emily St. John Mandel at Town Hall. I was so happy for him and his family. I got there early to meet with them and tried to give Gray some last minute encouragement before going on stage in front of about 700 people. I was so happy to see Logan as well; his kindness toward his brother was beautiful.
The moment was tense for all of us… Gray got on stage and even though he was nervous, he read his poem beautifully, and the audience cheered in response! When almost any of us read on stage there is a flash of energy followed by reverberations, like thunder explodes and then rolls across the sky. Sometimes there’s a kind of shock that comes over us, like our electrons start making wider and wilder circles through our skin.
Gray sat down, his father and mother on one side, his brother on the other. I could tell how proud they were – they literally wrapped around him like a blanket. But after a few moments, I could tell they also wanted to honor the author; they sat back to listen to her speak, arms still across each other’s shoulders. I was sitting just across the aisle with my son and couldn’t help but glance over to try to motion to him how well he’d done. I couldn’t catch his eye, but I kept trying, and each time I glanced over I was more and more moved by what I saw between these boys.
I am struggling with how to describe this to you, even as a poet, even after years of working with children. Sometimes even then words can’t say the felt sense of what you’re seeing, like the word ‘blooming’ can’t make you feel the heat of the sun, the yearning of the flower in its opening.
Logan put his head on Gray’s shoulder in comfort, in kindness. It was as if he was helping his brother feel how much he was surrounded and held. But when he rose back up, Gray curved over toward him, the connection just a part of their being. I don’t know how many of us are lucky enough to get to feel this kind of closeness in this world.
One of the boys leaned forward. Without a sound, like a secret thread between them, the other did as well. Their silhouettes fit together even with the space between them – the curve of their shadows lined up like separate puzzle pieces that, together, show so much more of the true picture. I watched them in awe, the kindness palpable. I touched my son’s arm and looked over at the boys. Later, he told me wistfully that he only knew the closeness of a brother with four years in between.
They moved like this for nearly an hour, all of them still held together but separate, like notes on their own lines with the spaces beautifully between, but creating a masterpiece. After a while, I realized that this is probably why I write poetry in the first place – to feel that closeness with whatever I’m writing about, whether myself or something else, so I can understand our nature better and feel the effect that all things have on one another – sounds that together make music and take us into movements where we didn’t know we could go.
When I asked Logan how he was feeling before the reading, he said, “Envious, but he expresses his feelings better than I do.”
I know this isn’t true. You are also made of poetry, and I just wanted to tell you how much you move me.
Vicky Edmonds is a poet & teacher who uses poetry as a means of bringing our deepest truths to the page and to the world. She is the author of 5 chapbooks, has worked with writers of all ages for over 23 years and has compiled over 250 books of the writings from children & at-risk youth she has taught.