by Scott Owens
SOLO CAFÉ, 8 & 9: TEACHERS & STUDENTS
Edited by Lenard Moore, et. al.
Solo Press, 2011
I have never written a review of a magazine. It’s not the sort of thing I usually set out to do as most magazines don’t cohere tightly enough to be written about as a single piece. But I have written reviews of anthologies, and when I came across the 2011 issue of the annual journal Solo Café, it was clear that this was as much an anthology as it was a journal, and the subject of this journal/anthology, “Teachers & Students,” was of particular interest to me.
The various poetry and prose pieces found in this anthology are just the sort that bring great joy, contemplation, and insight to teachers, students and poets, and perhaps most of all to teacher-poets or poet-teachers, however one with such dual “citizenship” might identify oneself. One will find here a full range of learning and teaching situations, including “students writing their fierce and luminous poems” in Laura Boss’s “Workshop at the Great Falls, Paterson,” where “William Carlos Williams . . . looked / at these same falls so many decades ago” and both prose and poetic tributes to specific teachers, like Earl Sherman Braggs’s “Mrs. Davis,” who “farm plowed and pushed a field full / of books . . . . / taught Shakespeare till Shakespeare, / himself, shook / the classroom walls . . . . /” and made clear that in the world of her students, the world of ongoing race war, “’To be or not to be’ was never a question” but rather an existential imperative.
As Braggs’s poem suggests, learning is not always a simple matter of X’s and O’s. When things go smoothly, as presented in Sally Buckner’s “Teacher,” learning is a fine balance of knowledge and passion that meet as they might nowhere more powerfully than in a classroom:
I will fill your plate as full as you will let me. //
I’ll bring the bread,
and you — with yearning green in your young heart
and eyes that can see newly each new moment —
You bring the wine.
On the other hand, sometimes learning is a struggle between creativity and correctness, between autonomous vision and received knowledge or expectations of obedience, as in Randy Pait’s “Boy in a Classroom” or Susan Meyers’ “First Grade,” where a young student, having excitedly colored “a bold yellow sun” belatedly discovers “Words her other hand, / . . . / has hidden from her: / Color the pretty ball red.”
Just so, this anthology provides what at times seems an exhaustive variety of educable opportunities, demonstrating learning from history (Kelly Cherry’s “War and Peace: Cliff Notes”), and philosophy (George Burns’s “Partly Heliotropic”), from art (Ray Gonzalez’s “The Long Library”), and books (Michael Harper’s “Negritude: a Poem Written When Everything Else Fails to Translate”), from teachers (Kevin Lucia’s “Physics”) and observation (Terre Ouwehand’s “Vital Signs”). Similarly, the selections here cover every level of education: first lessons (Shayla Hawkins’s “The Seed”), grade school (Lenard Moore’s “The Art of Living”), middle school (Lamont Steptoe’s “Instructions”), high school (Nancy Simpson’s “In Room Nine”), college (Ray Gonzalez’s “Fear of Dying”) and adulthood (Teddy Macker’s “Teacher”).
In addition to the poems, a selection of reviews and essays further examine the influences particular teachers have had upon their students who have become writers. Of particular note in these prose selections is the frequency with which the word “generosity” is mentioned in regards to a poet-teacher. It is there in Mary Ann Cain and George Kalamaras’s reflections on Judith Johnson and Muriel Rukeyser, in Karen McKinnon’s recollection of George Sidney, in Shelby Stephenson’s discussion of Guy Owen, and in John Tritica’s homage to Mary Rising Higgins and Gene Frumkin.
If I had known about this journal before it went to press, I would have certainly submitted a poem of my own, and so I add it here to those in Solo Café 8 & 9 not because I think it is as good as those in the journal but because I think it expresses what every teacher-poet knows and one of the things the wonderful writers collected here would like us all to remember. I include it as tribute to the spirit of the poet-teachers this volume celebrates and includes and as tribute to the poet-teachers that have been so instrumental in my own life: Galway Kinnell, Robert Waters Grey, Paul Nelson, Tim Peeler, Ann Carver, Hepzhibah Roskelly, Stuart Dischell, Fred Chappell, and many others:
All There Is to Say
If it happens that you find yourself
at the front of a room full of people
younger than you
listening to all you have to say
about what you think you know
and suddenly you hear
from an open window
you hadn’t even noticed was open
the voice of a mockingbird
as clear as the voice of God
singing in every language at once
you owe it to yourself
to stop in the almost silence
and say out loud, Listen