By Peter DeVries, Claudia Esparza, Jolynne Fisher, John Franklin, Steve Maack, Brittany Rubin, & Kiara Sosa-Suarez
At the 2021 KATE Conference, I (Steve Maack) led a session about reigniting our teaching passions and reemerging from pandemic isolation following the last 20 months. I began with a piece by an incarcerated former student, Alex Tretbar, who published a piece in KATE’s journal, Kansas English (vol. 102), called “‘A Pair of Ragged Claws’: Poetry and Pedagogy in Prison.”
We looked at some of Alex’s poetry (from which the title of this collaborative poem comes and can be found in “A Pair of Ragged Claws”) and at some poems by Jimmy Santiago Baca, a poet and memoirist who learned to read and write in prison.
Alex started a poetry study group in the Oregon prison where he lives, and just before COVID led to a lockdown, he had proposed his poetry study group write a renga, a style of Japanese collaborative poetry consisting of alternating 3-line and 2-line stanzas. In Alex’s honor, I proposed that the attendees at the “Sing Something Sideways” conference session write a collaborative poem to be shared with all of KATE, and the result is below.
I provided the opening lines of the renga in the session (an honor traditionally bestowed upon the poet who gathers their collaborators), and discussed renga format, but everything else in the poem comes from the contributors listed above. I provided only light editing to make pronouns and verb tense consistent and to try to order the submissions into something that seems whole. Individual line credits have intentionally been left off to emphasize the collaborative nature of the poem.
I could not be more pleased with the result, both as a collaborative exercise and as a poem in its own right. My thanks and congratulations to Peter, Claudia, Jolynne, John, Brittany, and Kiara for attending my session at the KATE Conference, but also for sharing their beautiful lines of verse and giving me permission to share them.
Here’s what we came up with:
“Sing Something Sideways”: A Poetic Collaboration for Reemergence
We awoke one day,
In nightmare solitude, sad
Glow of filtered screens.
A cracked-concrete world where the
Cold sun burns with wind unleashed.
Alone and yet not alone,
Surrounded day in and day out by chaos inside,
Longing for the peace of the outside once more.
We fearfully stagger,
Pursuing a light
That scatters across the cage.
Filtered, fractured, sifted, lost,
Shelved until a time unknown.
Burning rays of optimism --
Seclusion infringes on the need to be
Absolute and free.
Comets, stars, and crescent moons
Grace the path in purple chalk.
Months in agonizing isolation
Begging for just a glimpse
Sideways across a window
A sunbeam beckons us out.
Barred from grasping its glow
It dances —
The glare swallows the oxygen,
Leaving us empty with our solitude.
Listen to our poem
We want to read this aloud
We want to make you hear us!
Pieces of broken marble
Joined in hues of blue and gold.
We finally re-emerge,
Igniting feelings of warmth,
About the Author
Steve Maack is a National Board Certified Teacher and English department co-chair at Wichita High School East. He is a past president of the Kansas Association of Teachers of English and just completed his thirtieth year teaching in the Wichita Public Schools. Steve can be reached at email@example.com or on twitter, @stevemaack.
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