“Certain aspects were uncalled for,” Or, Graywolf poets invade a high school near you
In early 2008 we launched a program called the High School Book Club. The gist is simple: Graywolf donates 35-50 copies of a new poetry book to a high school class, usually an advanced English course, and the poet visits the class to discuss the book and the glamorous world of poetry. I was not involved with the initial planning of the program, and I’ll admit that I was a bit skeptical. We knew (hoped) that our authors would enjoy the experience, and we hoped (really hoped) that the students would, but, I mean, poetry? For high schoolers? Right. Isn’t poetry, you know, kind of totally not cool? What I took away from my high school experience is that poetry ceased to be written after 1950. Expect for my poetry, of course, which rhymed and talked a lot about how Scott Miller was a jerk. I loved my English teachers—they’re the reason I pursued a degree in English, and ultimately why I ended up in publishing—and I am very thankful for their guidance. But the truth is that contemporary American poetry was simply not on the syllabus.
So when Tony Hoagland, whose wonderful collection Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty came out in February, came to Minneapolis for an event at the Loft Literary Center, and we arranged for him to visit a local high school, I was nervous. He’s far and away one of our bestselling poets of all time. He’s won major awards—the Jackson Poetry Prize, the Mark Twain Award, the James Laughlin Prize—and nearly every intern we’ve ever interviewed lists Tony Hoagland as the reason they’ve heard of Graywolf. Tony Hoagland is the reason I heard of Graywolf. His poem “Grammar” bowls me over every time I read it. But what if the students didn’t like his poetry? What if they passed notes and whispered and didn’t pay attention? What if they said that poetry is useless, just like the argument I made for calculus way back when?
I didn’t give the students (or Tony, who is whip-smart and has a wit not to be reckoned with) enough credit.
The students in the two classes that Tony visited were extremely sharp, engaged, and thoughtful. What’s more is that they were appreciative. For many of them, this was their first real exposure to poetry of any kind.
After each High School Book Club, I ask the teachers to collect feedback from the students about the program.
The comments ranged from humorous:
“It’s always nice having speakers come into class. Sometimes for me it’s hard to listen to your teacher day in and day out.”
“We saw his picture in the book, but it was interesting to see him in real life.”
“I enjoy hearing and learning from a live poet.”
“We generally read books written by people who are either dead or for some reason totally inaccessible."
“Hoagland’s vivacity was a bit overwhelming at first, but the class quickly embraced his energy.”
“I saw most of his poetry to be really good, although certain aspects were uncalled for.”
“All too often high school kids are confined to classical or childish poetry, not exploring the reaches of the art. Tony Hoagland’s presence offers an insight into the world of American poetry, and his wit and poise leave the student with a lasting interest.”
“His poems were unique and broke the stereotype that had developed in my mind. The fact that he took the time to come talk to our class had a positive affect on my opinion of modern poetry.”
“Every year we spend a little time on poetry, but it is never that interesting and it’s hard to get into. Having Tony visit made it a lot more interesting and fun to study.”
To sort of sad:
“It was nice to have the book as well, because they weren’t written in or missing pages and it made me more interested to read the poems.”
“This was the first time I read a book full of poems, and the first time I met an author.”
“I had never, personally, owned a book of poetry until this year, thanks to Graywolf Press.”
“I am planning on taking a poetry class next year in college.”
And my personal favorite:
“He was a little odd and I wasn’t always sure he knew how to defend his poems, but it was okay.”
So often we focus on getting our books into college classrooms, trying to rustle up review coverage, and trying to sell some books. We’re not in the business of young adult or teen literature, so it’s easy for us to overlook an entire group of readers who perhaps need the exposure to contemporary poetry the most. One of the high school students said, “I definitely think what you guys are doing is worthwhile.” And it is.