WITS Voices: Writing Towards the Shadowed Horizon

By Laura Gamache, WITS Writer-in-Residence

Years ago, my friend Linda and I were sitting in a circle of new mothers. Her son, Peter, was nine or ten. He was by far the oldest child at our gathering. He amiably agreed to go into the backyard with a group of little boys. After a bit, a mom went out to check on them. “He’s tied two of your kids to a tree!” her face and voice registered horror, and the moms hurried outside.

Peter said the boys asked to be tied up, that they were playing pirates, that the game had not been his idea. The clutch of mamas gathered boys and belongings, got into their cars and drove away. Linda said, “Boys are raised now almost entirely by women, and we don’t understand them. We want to tamp down and squash their impulses we don’t share. We fear they will grow up to be violent if they pick up a stick and pretend it’s a gun, if they want to be tied to a pretend mast as pirate prisoners.”

My younger daughter found sticks everywhere we went, including Alderwood Mall, when she was small, and I don’t mean to lean too heavily into violence being the sole property of boys. What I am interested in is fostering the creativity of the kids I work with as a WITS writer, which sometimes means I support them in writing about difficult subjects that emerge unexpectedly.

This December, I was working with seventh graders at Blue Heron School– kids just older than Peter was at that time. I asked them to pull words from a pair of poems I read aloud, “Smolt” by Judith Roche and “Meeting a Bear” by David Wagoner. I asked the kids to write down words from each poem that sang to them and then build new poems from their choices. I thought of Linda and Peter when I discovered two boys in fifth period who had found “blood,” “vengeance,” and “knives” when I hadn’t seen those words at all, drawn instead to “smolt” and “dawn,” “snout” and “sidelong.”

The day the students were revising poems for publication in class anthologies, Troy raised his hand. “I think this is school-inappropriate,” he said. “Will you look for me?” The poem’s setting was a corpse-littered battlefield, some of the bodies “latticed by knives,” the sort of vivid imagery we writers try to get from students, though this one could get him into trouble. I said something about how strong this line was, but that he was right, he needed to write for his audience, which was middle school kids, his teacher, parents, and the principal.

Here is Troy’s final draft of the poem:

WAR NEVER CHANGES

War is loud and unforgiving
He takes what he wants and destroys what he doesn’t
He is angry and insecure
War is comfortable with his ritual
A shadow of fear, a wave of pain
Intolerant of safety, lonely and colorless,
War tortures memory in a community of distress
He controls loss, and has certainty in his rules
He’s a dystopian land ravaged by death
War envies an end that will never come.

-Troy M.

There is so much to celebrate here! Troy has personified war, and the character sketch is raw, insightful and unflattering.

It is tempting to forbid topics in class, to guide students like Troy to write about peace, understanding, or tolerance. With such restriction, such censorship, he never would have given us searingly true lines like “he takes what he wants and destroys what he doesn’t,” or “war tortures memory in a community of distress.” It is important that Troy thought his way into and through this poem. Is war glorious? What are its human consequences?

The kids had just read The Giver, which is where Troy got the word and idea of dystopia. That “War” is “a dystopian land ravaged by death” gives strong evidence that Troy not only knows what the word means, but can use it to express his strong negative opinion of war. The process of writing a poem welcomes inclusion of new vocabulary and ideas, the exploration of what it means to be human. Troy entered the process. While his original draft thrilled on its surface, like a 3-D movie often does, the final poem reflects the deepening of his attention. The poem is moving in its clear-eyed certainty, undeceived by war’s violent glamour.

Troy wrote rapidly to finish his first draft, thought about it, then scribed rapidly the next day to finish his second. A writer with my own Rorschach-blob-to-music-box writing process, I believe a part of what I can give budding writers is my willingness to watch for and encourage the varied moves each makes to get to a finished, not to say final, piece of writing.

Across the room, Dalen worked with the poem he’d begun the day before, each line deliberated over, again and again, the page gray with erased pencil lead.

Here is Dalen’s finished poem:

SHADOWED HORIZON

They crossed our territory with bitter intentions
seeking vengeance on the shadowed
trembling of the fact there’s blood upon my knife
fearing of the sound of thumping
hoping it would vanish
displeasure is the snap of fire
I can’t stand to hear the weeping of disapproval
as I watch the fire dance from my window
hoping for monotonous
imagining the horizon

-Dalen U.

This is the sort of poem Cormac McCarthy might write if he wrote poems. The persona Dalen has taken on committed violence, and others are coming after him, “seeking vengeance on the shadowed/trembling of the fact there’s blood upon my knife.” The deliberate elongation of “the fact” into “the shadowed trembling of the fact,” and the almost stilted formality of “blood upon my knife” heighten the tension of the pursuit. The character fears “the sound of thumping” which well could be his guilty heartbeat. This character who has done such wrong experiences displeasure as “the snap of fire.” He “can’t stand to hear the weeping of disapproval.” He hopes for “monotonous” but knows he will have to pay for what he’s done, the “Shadowed Horizon” of his title is the bleak horizon he imagines in the last line.

Expanding the subject matter for poems into wherever our hearts and minds lead us is the work of writers. Expanding the accepted subject matter for poems into wherever kids’ hearts and minds lead them is our job when we work with them as writers in the classroom. Kids often expect to be given a theme for their writing, but I try not to give in to that. Our issues, worries, fears and preoccupations won’t often show themselves if we polish the silver and set the table for them. The horizon is shadowed for all of us: violence, intolerance, poverty and war are all part of our lives.

Writing that reveals something important to and about us, seventh grader or adult, emerges in unpredictable ways. If we don’t tamp it down for fear of its violence or strangeness, it just might grow up to teach us how to better cope with our lives and maybe even make improving changes to our beautiful, broken world.

Laura Gamache is a poet and educator who has published work online; on the air; on buses, t-shirts, bikinis, and bookmarks; in journals, anthologies, and her chapbook, nothing to hold onto. Currently, she is at work on a book about teaching creative writing in a rural school.

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