I fell into writing poetry by accident, by being stupid and lucky. There weren’t many places for a kid like me to be immersed in writing poetry—a kid like any other kid growing up in rural South Carolina in the early 80s. Like any other kid, I wasted my latchkey summer on intermittent spurts of watching television and trying to burn the house down. I didn’t start writing poetry until college, where I had no idea what I was doing. I thought I’d be an engineer or maybe work in forestry or specialize in welding or heating and air. I floundered.
My college adviser, a brilliant English professor to whom I owe my life, suggested I take a poetry writing workshop at USC. She was tough, so there was no argument from me, but I’ll admit I was nervous. Poetry seemed like a mountain I was too intimidated to climb. Like most people, I had the wrong idea about writing poetry. I thought I needed inspiration, which would somehow create the next “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I thought it meant I had to live in a city loft, cultivate a taste for cheeses, and listen to jazz music.
On the workshop’s first day, the professor came to class with box of crayons and had us pick out a crayon without looking. We were then instructed to write a poem about the color of the crayon, without using the sense of sight—what does red smell like, what does green feel like, what does yellow taste like. Each class, he had new prompts and exercises. We wrote constantly. We shared. We wrote some more. We shared some more. And within a few classes, we were all excited about the next workshop and who would rise to the challenge and slay it.
We were supportive, encouraging, and honest with each other. For once in my life, I was complimented in the classroom by both teacher and peers for what I wrote. I liked the way it felt. I liked it so much, I wanted to feel it again. I wanted to work even harder on the next prompt. And, it didn’t stop there. I started to work harder in my other classes, too, the results just as positive, eventually turning a dismal GPA into a 3.7.
For once in my life, I was complimented in the classroom by both teacher and peers for what I wrote. I liked the way it felt. I liked it so much, I wanted to feel it again
Adults had always told me I had a “wonderful imagination” and “the gift of gab,” but I didn’t know how to apply it. I wasn’t even sure what they meant. In the poetry workshop, though, it suddenly became clear—I had poetry super powers, and suddenly it was cool to use them. I couldn’t run a mile under 7 minutes. I couldn’t hit a baseball out of the park. I couldn’t even sit still. But, I could work phrases, turn them, and tear them apart. I could describe a pasture at dawn that made a preacher’s wife say, “Daaamn.” I could write closure on something that’d been bothering me. I attended more workshops, eventually understanding the responsibility it takes to possess super powers. I learned how to write traditional fixed forms with trading cards. I learned how meter works in language by breaking down Led Zepplin’s “A Whole Lotta Love.”
For the first time in my life, I had fun in class. For the first time in my life, I was excited about the future. But I couldn’t help thinking about the what ifs. What if I’d had the chance to take a workshop during my destructive, trying-to-burn-the-house-down summers? What if I’d had the chance to write poetry in high school English? Convinced the opportunities I didn’t have were still absent, I decided to do something about it. I would create a poetry initiative called Split P Soup, go to all the schools, and teach all the workshops I could teach; every kid in South Carolina would get a chance to write a poem, and each poem would be one step closer to saving the world. I wanted other kids to have the chance to turn their lives around, use their super powers for good. Wrapped in my cape of excitability, I was ready to leap into the hearts of apathetic teenagers. I was going to show the world kids love learning in the summer, and I had the enthusiasm to believe it would be easy.
I was an idiot.
What I forgot was the delight of any education—the F word (no, not that F word, the other F word)—is useless without the work it takes to maintain it. Like adults, kids engage content when having fun. But fun is easy. We can mix volatile chemicals in beakers and drop eggs from rooftops with parachutes, which is fun because anything is better than listening to a lecture on chemicals or weight displacement. However, when it comes to learning how to write poetry or about writing in general, fun becomes a hard sell for the long haul. I can set myself on fire to get their attention, but if students can’t see how it connects to the everyday, it’s a waste of time.
It took nearly two decades to develop meaningful programs grounded in multiple learning outcomes that can be taught—through a coordinated effort—with other superhero writers. We all work together, through tears, laughter, odd smells, in a concerted effort to give meaningful, accessible, and fun instruction. Kids write poems on just about any subject. They learn how to research what they don’t know, and to question what they do. They learn writing is a process that takes time to develop, but in most cases, students create amazing first drafts in under seven minutes. It’s magical.
Some people might say the kids I’ve worked with are lucky, but the truth is, I’m the lucky one. For twenty years, I’ve worked with amazing kids.
But to be honest, we’re not magicians. And perhaps we really don’t have super powers (though I’d argue we do). We just found a way to get young people excited about writing because we (or any workforce adult) know that communication is vital to individual success. The old adage is true: “Those who write well and speak well, do well. And those who don’t, work for those who do.” We’re getting young people to understand this, not by lecturing or coddling or letting them write only about feelings or fantasy-driven dragon ballads—but by writing poetry. We get them out of their comfort zones, giving encouragement to explore and grow. We set parameters and use approachable, age-appropriate, contemporary examples. We do the exercises with them. They begin to see writing is not punishment; it’s something they can do. They begin to see why it’s necessary.
I’ve worked with troubled teenagers who turned their lives around, eventually enrolling in college. I’ve worked with young people hiding under ball-caps and bandanas who became powerful community leaders. I’ve worked with kids who now write for non-profits, corporations, advertisers, TV networks, and political campaigns. And, I’ve worked with kids who are successful in fields far removed from those that entail writing creatively, yet they continue to write on their own. As a former student, now a computer engineer for a national tech firm, put it, “It’s sort of like brushing your teeth twice a day—seemingly small compared to everything else in one’s day, but definitely necessary.” Last I checked, he has beautiful teeth.
Some people might say the kids I’ve worked with are lucky, but the truth is, I’m the lucky one. For twenty years, I’ve worked with amazing kids. They came to me, unafraid of the mountain, and gave it a hug. I get a front-row seat, and you can have one, too. There are summer writing programs in almost every county in South Carolina, some I direct, like the Tri-District Arts Consortium and Serious Young Writers Workshop at Columbia College, and others like Hub City Writers Project, Contribute Your Verse, Watering Hole, Split P Soup, and the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities. We’re all lucky. All those houses escaped the flame.
Ray McManus is the author of three poetry books: Punch., Red Dirt Jesus, and Driving through the Country before You Are Born, and the co-editor of Found Anew. An associate professor of English at USC Sumter, he directs the South Carolina Center for Oral Narrative. He is also the Tri-District Arts Consortium creative writing program director, and was recently appointed the Columbia Museum of Art’s Writer in Residence. To read his poetry, see “Birds in the Hand.”