On Tuesday, April 12, sixth graders at Shady Side Academy Middle School had the unique opportunity to meet and learn from two award-winning poets who visited the school in person: Robert Hass and his wife, Brenda Hillman, whose grandson is a sixth grader at SSA.
Robert Hass is one of the most celebrated and widely read contemporary American poets as well as a leading translator of others' poetry. Critics celebrate his poetry for its clarity of expression, its concision and its imagery, often drawn from everyday life. He served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1995-1997 and is currently a Distinguished Professor in Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, Berkeley. He also cofounded River of Words, an ecopoetry foundation that sponsors a writing and arts contest students are preparing to participate in.
Brenda Hillman is one of contemporary American poetry's most eclectic and innovative writers. Her poetry investigates and pushes at the possibilities of form and voice, while remaining grounded in topics such as geology, the environment, politics, family and spirituality. The award-winning author of more than 10 books of poetry, she is currently the Olivia Filippi Chair of Poetry at St. Mary's College in California.
In the morning, Hass and Hillman joined a sixth grade English class and led a discussion of "The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky," an Emily Dickinson poem students have been reading. Hillman edited a pocket-size edition of Dickinson's poems and brought copies for the class and signed them. Hass and Hillman asked the class to share what was challenging for them about poetry and reassured them that poems are often confusing but that exploring the mystery is enjoyable if you can be patient. They said you can never read a poem too many times, and that each time you read it, you discover something new.
After lunch, the couple led a poetry reading and Q&A discussion at an assembly with the entire sixth grade. Hass read "Iowa City: April Morning" from his book The Apple Trees at Olema and "Measure" from his book Field Guide, while Hillman read "The Letters Learn to Breathe Twice" from her book Seasonal Works With Letters on Fire. In the Q&A discussion, they answered questions from students about how and when they decided to write poetry (Hillman in about sixth grade and Hass in his 20s), how long it takes them to write a poem (anywhere from a few weeks to many years) and when they find time to write poetry (you don't find time, you make time). Students also asked Hass about his work with haiku – the class has used his book The Essential Haiku, in which he translated the works of three Japanese haiku masters - and about his job as U.S. Poet Laureate, which he is credited with transforming into a role of an advocate and ambassador for writing. Students lined up afterwards to talk with the poets, and some will be sending them some of their poems through their English teacher, Pam Onest.
The visit came about when the couple's grandson, Leon, spotted his grandfather on a poster in Mrs. Onest's classroom and began working with this grandmother to coordinate a visit.
Thank you to Mr. Hass, Ms. Hillman for sharing your expertise and to Mrs. Onest and Leon for making the visit happen!