When I am sad, I feel like a cut foot.
Carl Ferguson, third grade
An ape is a person who never shares.
Maureen Ryan, fourth grade
Thus did poetry pour forth last week at Fairfax County's Riverside Elementary School. There probably would have been no poetry at the Mount. Vernon area school without a young man from Charlottesville who sometimes calls himself "the Lone Ranger of poetry."
Phillip Graham, a 26-year-old poet with creative writing degrees from Sarah Lawrence and City College of New York, has been on the road for two years in the poets-in-the schools program in Virginia. It is part of a seven-year-old nationwide effort by the National Endowment for the Arts to put poets in schools.
When Graham showed up at Riverside on Monday he found the students nonplussed by poets and poetry, just as he usually finds them.
"They think poets are bald and smell of fancy cologne, that they are wimps and wear horn-rim glasses and bow ties. They think all poetry is about flowers," Graham said.
Graham is neither bald or wimpy. He does not smell of fancy cologne and he wears wire-rim glasses.
And Graham, who published his first volume of poems, "The Vanishings," last week, lusty poetry.
He does not, however, read that kind of poetry to the children.
Instead, he reads snippets of poems that tease students into writing their own verse. War, cancer, dreams, tornadoes and nuclear weapons are things he reads poems about. "Children are treated too much as little dollies. They are fed marshmallows, and candy buttons are put over their mouths. I tell the kids, 'come on, you know this stuff - let's write about it.'"
Elizabeth Pollard, a third grader, wrote this about the blues:
When my Uncle Tony died I sat down and cried. I saw the blus laughing at me and teasing me From way down deep inside.
Carl Ferguson, the third grader who compared sadness to a cut foot and who was too nervous to read his poems aloud at the beginning of the week, also wrote about the blues: "The blues made me sad when I dropped my mother's cake."
The 96 students chosen to spend five 75-minute sessions with Graham last week were a mixture of low, medium and high-level achievers. "Outside of the technical things, like spelling and grammar, most kids are equal in imagination," the poet said.
Fresh metaphors, piercing simplicity and an absence of cliches surprise Graham every day, he said.
On Friday he asked for proverbs. "You are full of wisdom," the poet told the kids. He tickled their minds with a couple proverbs to get them started: "Brag and be friendless," and "the cure for insomnia is to sleep it off."
Two fourth graders waxed wise. Gloria Hampton wrote, "Don't bother Mohammad Ali." Elizabeth Brooks wrote, "Never trust a woman if you've got money."
Graham says he teaches poetry to give the youngsters "imaginative release," and they can learn about the history of poetry from somebody else. He didn't even flinch last week when he mentioned Walt Whitman and many students thought he was referring to a nearby junior high school.
"Now," Graham said Friday to a class of fourth, fifth and sixth graders, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] , would like to read you some thing that is kind of heavy."
He read a poem by the French poet Francois Villon, a brilliant scholar who died a bum and a thief in the Middle Ages. The poem was about how Villon knew everything there was to know about the sleazy life he led, but didn't know himself.
Graham asked the students to reverse Villon's depressing knowledge, to write what they didn't know about and end each stance with "but I know myself." Graham inspired pencils to paper by saying, "Okay, let's get dumb."
[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCES] add six poems
Curtis Fogelman, a sixth grader, wrote:
I don't know what my dog thinks.
I don't know why a boat floats.
I don't know how many ball bearings are in my skate boar or what causes petople to flight, but I know myself.
Graham said, after Fogelman's reading, "Good rhythm."