a old concept in education ever transforming

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Poetry Inside Us All - Georgia Heard, Writing Toward Home (Heinemann 1995)

When we begin to speak in the language that is ours and tell our own stories and truths, we are surprised that this too is poetry.

In the small town of Ganado, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, snow was ripe and crunchy under my boots, the sky wide and blue, the air so cold even my thick gloves couldn't warm my hands. I walked into the small elementary school to work with teachers and students for a week. Before meeting with students, I led a writers workshop for teachers. The cozy teachers room was unusual in that it had crowded bookcases, comfortable couches, and freshly made coffee. After we had introduced ourselves, I began talking about the importance of poetry and how even if we aren't conscious of it, there is poetry inside us all.

One man looked at me with a serious face and said, "There is no poetry inside of me." I looked back at him, a little startled, but I could see that others were relieved that he had spoken what was on their minds as well.

Most of these Navajo teachers had attended Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, sometimes hundreds of miles away from their homes. The US government had set up the schools to deny the Navajos their culture and to propagate white culture. Speaking Navajo was forbidden and punishable -- Navajo cultural ways were not learned or celebrated except on vacations, when the children went home to their families. Many o these teachers had read Shakespeare and Keats and had learned that writing was something for other people, certainly not for them.

I asked the man with the serious face what he taught his students about Navajo culture. "Well, a lot of different things," he said.


"Like what?" I persisted.

"Like, for instance, the Navajo names of the months."

"Can you give me an example?"

"For instance, what you call October is called Ghaaji in Navajo -- the month of the dividing of the seasons. Ghaaji means back to back and refers to the fact that for six months the yellow of summer has been walking forward. Now the yellow of summer meets the white of winter. They turn their backs on each other. Summer walks back, and winter walks forward. It is the dividing of our season. It is the beginning of the Navajo new year."

A few of his colleagues who already considered themselves poets said in unison, "That sounds like poetry to me."

He looked shocked. "That's poetry? I thought it had to rhyme."

After that first day, teachers stopped me in the hall in between my classes with their students to hand me poems they'd written. Jackie Chee gave me this poem about her regret for not having learned the Navajo ways from her grandmother:


The Song

I can hear her singing
to herself but also to me
Her songs are of everything
the rain, the mountains, the sun

She speaks in that gentle voice
Listen to these songs, she'awee

These are your songs now
For you to know is to live by what she says
I wish I knew then
that her words were true
Now I cannot sing the songs
of my grandmother
to my children

There are many times when I've felt that there was no poetry inside me, that I had nothing valuable to say. That the real writers were other people. It has taken me a while to believe that the way I feel each day, and the way I and others speak when we're least self-conscious, is where writing comes from. When we begin to speak in the language that is ours and tell our own stories and truths, we are surprised that this too is poetry.

Exercise: Your own stories, thoughts, and language are the stuff of writing. Not, as many of you may feel, the sanitized versions of your selves and your lives. Maybe you feel you have nothing to say because you're excluding your own real, ordinary, and beautiful life. Does this sound like an accurate portrait of how you sometimes feel about yourself? Write down your thoughts about this. One of the first rules of writing is to try to write in your own voice. Write a brief description of something you did or saw today, and write it in a voice that is absolutely yours. Resist any attempt to transform it into Great Literature. Make the writing sound as much like you as possible.

See: http://www.edu.uleth.ca/currlab/handouts/poetry_ideas.html for ideas directed to teachers but adaptable to personal development.

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