Hunting for Poetry by Benjamin Leuty

Hunting is the wrong word. It is only fitting that this blog post about writer’s block should begin with a contradiction. But hunting is the wrong word. Too brutish, too primitive. As if I’m leaving the house wearing nothing but fox pelts, a notebook in one hand, and a club in the other. I’m leaving with neither and I wear regular person clothes. Sometimes I’m not leaving the house at all.

That first paragraph is perhaps the most appropriate example of my dilemma. Absent-minded musings about “hunting” and “poetry” and “foxes,” disgusting. I’ve been scouring the internet for some time now and much to my chagrin, most of the articles and remedies for writer’s block are written with an aura of thin detachment like the authors, between bouts of writer’s block, have already forgotten what it was like. So I thought to myself “Hey Benny, you write. You’re a writer. You write. You should write about writer’s block but not after you’ve overcome it, while you’re still in its grip,” as a catalog of sorts for future study. Genius. What my writing has been lacking for some time now is any sense of urgency and forward motion. I might enjoy individual sentences within that first paragraph, but altogether it doesn’t really get the reader anywhere, not to me at least.

It’s easy to chalk up this lack of focus to the quarantine and not my approach to writing but that notion is the opposite of comforting. The idea that writer’s block could swing in like a train (wait a sec); the idea that writer’s block could snuggle (nope); the idea that writer’s block could suddenly creep up on me like some sort of lizard-bug (time to move on) has the power to stick with me and keep me doubting any future success I have in writing. I refuse to live the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, wondering when I’ll suddenly be unable to write again. So ok, forward motion. What have I been doing to counteract this writing lethargy?

When I have writer’s block, it does not mean I am lacking in some kind of nebulous creative energy or divine writer’s karma, just lacking the ability to string that creative energy together in the moment. So I’ve been training myself to pounce on any remotely interesting thoughts I have and let them stew for a while in my notes app instead of immediately trying to jam them into a poem and forgetting them. Perhaps this is why I used the word “hunting” in the title. One part of me has hidden the poems, and they do not want to be found, and the other part of me is seeking them out. Eventually, I discover my poems in bits and pieces. Coaxing them off the street and into my notes app. Here are my notes after a short walk through my neighborhood:

  • I want to hop that fence
  • Some days I only see the sun in windows and mirrors
  • A ball bouncing against the rim
  • Brake lights = very red
  • DUCK QUACK QUACK DUCK
  • Fireflies and embers
  • Yummy stew (I never said these were all good)

And here is the rough draft of a poem I wrote the following week:

Noriega

                       I crave a “hop the fence” kind of certainty 

I crave the truth                                 until it turns me brake light red 

And some days I only see the sun 

Through windows and mirrors.

And some days I only see the sun. 

                                                          And speaking of red, some days fireflies 

                                                                    And embers are the same     

And some days, 

across from the burger restaurant,

The old men congregate to smoke cigars beneath 

This week’s billboard for cannabis. 

      

                                                               I see them on my walk.

And speaking of the restaurant 

      See at the condo beside it 

   Standing above the houses, standing 

Or leaning   against the grey sea   

See the planter bursting with too much dirt, bursting

                                                                       And now I stroll towards the ocean.

Look, there are basketball courts 

Where the school was

                                                           The ball bouncing on the rim sounds the same

Regardless of where it falls- 

Through the hoop or not.

Regardless of where it falls

And it scares me. 

Reach the ocean.

Find the Bird scooters and Lyft bikes 

Abandoned or locked by the beach’s edge

A ball will never bounce on sand 

A condo will never be larger than the sea

Embers and fireflies both start fires 

Not all fences are chainlink 

Some have teeth 

And minds.

It is by no means polished, but this piece is the first step towards slowly lifting myself out of this writing rut I’m in. One poem at a time. 

Benjamin Leuty, Class of ‘22

What I Love About My Class by Parker Burrows

A few weeks ago I met with the other juniors in Creative Writing for a Community Meetup. Having the exciting opportunity to spend time with them reminded me of all the great things that I appreciate about each of my friends in the junior class. Here is a short summary of each of them!

Zai is really nice and has babies (but only ones that are made out of plastic). The babies are disturbing but they make them happy so I don’t complain often. I love how much they love their rings and boba tea. 

Benny is funny, sweet, and terrifyingly good at biking. His newfound love for ducks rivals only his ancient love of cats. Sometimes we play video games, but only cooperative ones, because I’d never want to fight him.

Paloma is enchanted by Amish culture, and I like to think that she is inspired by their practices. Paloma, just like the Amish, is hard-working and knits sweaters without using electricity. She is also kind and cares for her friends, which is probably something Amish people do too.

Otto, like the most celebrated Jedi’s in the galaxy, has a pure heart and unflinching compassion. However, just like the fearsome Sith, Otto contains a ruthless, evil laugh. 

Kai has all the tools to be the next great president. Diplomatic and confident, but also personable and approachable, don’t be surprised to see “Caceres 2040” posters in the distant future.

Jessica is as smart as a dolphin, and as lovable as a… dolphin. Gifted with beauty, brains, and benevolence, Jessica has been blessed with all three of the B’s. When I hug her I have to kind of crouch but I would crouch a million times if it meant I could hug her again soon.

Parker Burrows, Class of ’22

Stretching My Fingers Between Revelations: Poetry With Tongo Eisen-Martin by Jessica Schott-Rosenfield

We had only three class periods with Tongo Eisen-Martin, current poet laureate of San Francisco, yet his effect on my zest for craft was immense. He imparted countless quotable pieces of knowledge. My hand could not write them down fast enough, and more than once I had to stretch my fingers between revelations. What were perhaps most notable were his various definitions of poetry, a bottomless well of angles:

“Poetry is a play on perception.”

“Poetry is how your mind wants to communicate when not tasked with social survival.”

“Poetry is in the intersections of a place’s backstories.”

Tongo’s preface to the unit was to assure us that if the advice he gave was not proving helpful for any reason, that did not put us in the wrong, or make us worse at our craft. This introduction paved the way for a laid back environment, and set everyone in the room equal to each other in terms of whether what we had to say was valuable. This was not a throwaway sentiment either, or a false impression of understanding. I believe his words were, 

“If you don’t vibe with what I say, don’t worry about it.” 

“I’ll be giving you potentials, not policies.”

“The speed of light in your universe can be different than it is in mine.” 

“My best line is no better than yours. It’s just that I extend them, hit them more often.”

The acknowledgement that as students we were worthy of respect, as well as not-yet-seasoned writers, was a large part of what made Tongo’s unit so beneficial to me. It did not hurt that, as many of us observed, Tongo’s intonation makes everything he says sound wise and significant.

The second day of the unit was dedicated to tips on dealing with writer’s block. I have often become frustrated in my education with the concept of manufacturing a push of creativity when writing poetry. Every one of my instructors has told me that the solution to writer’s block is to write; the act of expelling the bad poetry makes way for the good. I have ignored that lesson an egregious number of times. Writing bad lines when one could be avoiding it by not picking up the pen in the first place is horribly painful. Instead, I would wait it out, and when the next line hit me, unfortunate relief came with it. The self-righteous element of my mind said it was alright to wait for the elusive burst of inspiration, as it always yielded the best work. That is a blatant lie, but how convenient would it be if it wasn’t? I rarely pushed myself past the line where bad poetry finally turned useful again, like giving up on running water through dirty pipes until it emerges clear. 

Tongo told us that “writing is the art of beating writer’s block.” From this , I was already beginning to mentally reframe the experience. He gave us a list of tricks, simple exercises and tools. For example, line one can be bad. Then make line two a negation of line one. Then make line three something both the first and second voice can agree on. I’ll give you another: think of the poem as a living picture, and work at bringing individual craft techniques to the foreground.

“Use your internal weather to induce different voices,” or

“Don’t move the camera, move yourself,” or

“In every good line, there are implied questions.”

I could go on. Would you look at that, I said to myself, writer’s block is a persistent and constant part of writing. Here are ways to play a game with it, and cheat it out of the pleasure of clogging creativity up.

Tongo’s three days with us left me with pages of nuanced perspectives and fresh tactics. And it was not only the content of his lessons but the way they were presented which struck a particularly resonant chord. Not a lecture, not a diagram of the perfect poetic process, but an honest reflection of what he had learned in his time, and what we could learn in ours. 

Jessica Schott-Rosenfield, Class of ’22

Finding My Voice by Colette Johnson

As my senior year of high school comes to a close I’ve noticed a few changes in myself. One, I’ve been a lot more vocal in my Creative Writing department. Two, I’ve gained more confidence in myself not only as a writer, but as a Black woman navigating a predominantly White space. Three, distance learning has its challenges but it’s not impossible to navigate. Four, I am not longer afraid to reach out to my teachers and counselors when I need help, Five, My mental health is important. Six, I wish I had reached this point in my life sooner. 

I’d never had an issue with my confidence before high school. I think this had a lot to do with the environment that I was in. My middle school had been predominantly Asian and Latino, and while I was one of the only African American students I was still surrounded by other minorities. High school was a culture shock as I had never been around many White students before, and many other students with a different socio economic background than myself. When I had auditioned for the Creative Writing department I knew that I would be the only minority, however I wasn’t prepared for the micro aggressions that I’d face from both teachers and students. 

During my freshman year, I was unaware that talking down to a student was a micro aggression. I did not know that singling out a student to answer questions that you think they wouldn’t know the answer to is a micro aggression. There were many times where I was called on to answer a question that I, in fact, did not know the answer to. However, being surrounded by white students who are looking at me with blank stares as I stumble over my words to fabricate an answer to suit the instructor terrified me completely. I felt that I had something to prove because at the time I was the only Black student. Subconsciously I was putting pressure on myself that I had to be a good example of what a Black woman is to trump any of their assumptions, something I didn’t realize I was doing until my senior year. 

Freshman year was the beginning of my quietness in school. I would never volunteer to read a passage out loud, or give my opinion on a discussion topic. I was silent for the most part. Keeping to myself and only reluctantly speaking when spoken to. This led to a series of conversations had between the department head and myself. She’s been an influential part of my journey to finding my voice, always encouraging me to share my thoughts, opinions, and takeaways that may be different from my peers. I could never bring myself to do this out of fear of being judged; I didn’t want my intelligence to be questioned. I think many African American students like myself are taught with the understanding that we are going to be judged no matter what we do for simply existing. It was drilled into me at an early age that I had to show that I wasn’t incompetent, that I could keep up with the other kids. 

I didn’t start to gain the courage to speak up in class until we started distance leaning this year. Perhaps the fact that we’re virtual and not in the classroom contributes to my boost in confidence. I feel more comfortable in my own home behind a computer screen. At the beginning of January the juniors and seniors started our fiction unit working with an Artist in Residence named Danny Nuygen. Danny chose to bring in a series of short stories for us to read, many of them dealing with subject matters involving race, social class, and economic status. I related to many of the pieces in this fiction unit than I have in the past, most likely because I understand the adversity and struggles faced by the characters. I started speaking in class, sharing my own thoughts and experiences on race living as a Black woman in America, something I would have never done in the past.

Colette Johnson, Class of ’21

Extravagant Breakfasts and Adjusting by Kaia Hobson

In order to further harness my own writing ability, I now make myself a conventionally nice breakfast every morning. Perhaps not every morning—perhaps twice a week. I hate to bring it up, but we are still in a pandemic. I’ve become surprisingly less self-aware; I went from feeling as if I knew every little wacky detail about myself after a month in isolation, to forgetting it all after realizing that rehashing every fact I knew to be true about life gets repetitive after a while. I’m like a machine at this point. I need this ritual (hardly) to remind myself of who I once was, and of who I’ve become. I’m a monster, chowing down on an egg while my teacher’s voice buzzes from my nearby computer. If it’s not clear already, I would, without hesitation and despite its unpopularity, remove every breakfast item from the face of the earth if given the chance. But how’s this got to do with writing? I’m not quite sure. I have a shaky hypothesis about this phenomenon, this act of going against your own normality to remind yourself that you are still there: I think I’m pushing towards a conscious image of myself, an image that doesn’t rely on the presence of others to challenge itself. Here’s the beginning of a piece I have just written as an assignment for our brand new fiction unit: 

‘“Did you think it was a good idea to start off with a line of dialogue.” 

I can smell sweet potatoes, candlewick, and breath. 

“Has it not been done before?” 

I hate sweet potatoes. 

“Right, fix it,” says Sally. 

I don’t feel well. 

“Nonetheless, I’ve heard it’s good to start in the middle of the action, is it not?” 

I touch my tongue to the inside of my bottom teeth, which have acquired a sensible amount of plaque along the bottom corners.

It’s almost as if I needed to remind myself of the task at hand: yes, Kaia, you’re writing fiction now, get used to it. CW has managed to effortlessly slip into fiction writing, with a new instructor, a new syllabus, and the same Zoom meeting link. I just have to catch my mind up to the change. So I’ll continue my uncomfortable breakfast routine until I decide I’ve had enough and that it’s time to get into the swing of things. I can feel this moment approaching. 

Kaia Hobson, Class of ’21

Secret Santa & The End of the Semester by Jessica Schott-Rosenfield

The fall semester has finally come to a close. Finals week in academic classes was spent reviewing, being gently reminded of gradebook status, taking tests. Creative Writing spent finals week tying up loose ends and bonding as a whole department for the last time before break. The week’s finale of holiday fun? Secret Santa. Secret Santa is a department tradition, and was a challenge this year, for obvious reasons. Though it took place solely on Friday, this last week and the week before were spent organizing a criss-crossing network of gift pick-ups and drop-offs around the city. Many parents volunteered time and their vehicles to the effort, all orchestrating what would culminate in a beautiful secret Santa experience. 

Forming community in the department has been one of the foremost difficulties of this year, especially in terms of bringing the freshmen into the CW experience. A writing community has to be one built on trust, as we are constantly sharing our art with one another, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and open to critique. In a workshopping group, it is far more difficult to share writing which might divulge innermost thoughts when one does not trust one’s peers to read the work without judgement. Without the bonding moments that creative writing usually partakes in, (camping trips, swims in the bay, field day) I was worried about how effective our attempts to bring everyone together this year had been. It’s hard to try and measure the strength of a personal connection through a computer screen. If I relay information, and it’s answered easily, with a smile, does that mean it’s been accepted well, or tolerated?

Secret Santa rid me of all doubt. Not only the hour and fifteen minutes of live gift opening,* stray laughter, layers and layers of wrapping paper, but the week’s worth of planning, and driving to one another’s homes to leave parcels on front steps. I hadn’t been able to see the picture of us all, spread across San Francisco, on Zoom together every afternoon. Driving to dozens of neighborhoods around town and feeling a peer’s tangible presence was a relief of sorts. Perhaps subconsciously, the image of my fellow creative writers in my head was fading into something abstract. I’m so thankful that students and parents alike committed to bringing us all together on the final day of a laborious semester.

*Props to Sequoia for giving me an absolutely stellar gift.

Jessica Schott-Rosenfield, Class of ’22

CW2 Final Poetry Project by Otto Handler

In Creative Writing Two, we finish off each unit with a larger project. Due to the fact that we have different fellows teaching each of these units, these projects look different every time. I am a junior and getting ready to finish off my first poetry unit in Creative Writing Two. The project that our current poetry fellow, Angie Sijun Lou, introduced was a call for seven poems, most of which we had already been working on over the course of the unit, plus an artist statement, a short artist biography, and an introduction to your work written by another student in the class. This all may seem like a lot, but I planned out my timing well enough and it worked out fine. 

When I started the poetry unit back in early October, I was purposefully trying to write my poems in a singular voice so that the collection would be unified. I had recently immersed myself in the work of Raymond Chandler, and my poetry is inspired by his short and precise images. Chandler was an American writer best known for his mystery stories, including The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.  His characters are lonely and sharp-tongued, and the world they live in is dark and desperate.  My poems’ speakers feel like the similar people, the way many of Chandler’s stories feature the same famous detective, Philip Marlowe. My poems talk about isolation and being stuck in one’s own thoughts–I was, without meaning to, writing about the pandemic. 

My poetry has taken on a new tone throughout this unit, either because of the current turmoil going on in the world, or just because I felt like I needed a change from the work I was producing before the pandemic started. Whichever was the case, I feel as though this change was an improvement and a sign that I had grown as a poet since Freshmen year.

Otto Handler (Class of ’22)

Poetry With Angie Sijun Lou by Zai Deriu

Our first Creative Writing 2 unit of the year has come to a close. In Creative Writing, we are either taught in one large class with all four grades, or split in two, with freshmen and sophomores in CW1, and juniors and seniors in CW2. This is the first year for my grade, the class of ’22, to be a part of Creative Writing 2. Rather than being taught by Heather, our lovely department head, we are taught by fellows artists. In normal classes, this would typically mean working in the annex of the CW room, but now, it means a separate zoom meeting.

This past unit was poetry, taught by Angie Sijun Lou. Despite all the current difficulties of maintaining a successful class online, Angie has been a wonderful teacher for these past seven weeks. We would typically read a few pieces of poetry, discuss them, and then spend the rest of our time on a writing exercise. Other days, we would workshop each other’s poetry, offering compliments and criticism. By the end of her unit, I feel sad to see Angie go. Being stuck at home and doing school online makes it difficult to feel motivated, and without leaving the house, it is easy to feel as though the days mush into one another. The structure of CW during Angie’s unit helped remedy that for me. 

Being taught in a small group with the class of ’21 again for the first time since my freshman year feels quite nice. With the smaller group, class feels more intimate and community-based. I feel close with my own grade, and I think we and the class of ’21 work well together. Moreover, after two years of being taught by Heather in CW1, it’s nice to feel as though I have graduated to my next stage of writing, so to speak. Still, I am excited to go back into the larger group in the coming week and help CW1 with their poetry workshops.

Zai Deriu (Class of ’22)

Transitioning to CW 2 by Parker Burrows

Since the end of my sophomore year, I was eagerly anticipating the day when I would finally become a member of Creative Writing 2, an intimate class featuring the juniors and seniors of CW, as well as an artist in-residence. Following the conclusion of this year’s poetry unit, I got my wish. After being in the class for a few weeks now, I can already observe the big difference between CW 2 and CW 1. Creative Writing 1, a class for the freshman and sophomores, taught by Heather Woodward, is an opportunity to learn the basics of writing and analysis. Heather slowly guided us juniors through the essentials of writing, such as the importance of literary devices, how to find deeper messages in poems, and how to give constructive criticism in writing workshops. 

Creative Writing 2, taught by the wonderful Angie Sijun Lou, is a completely different world. Here, everyone is on their own, and given an opportunity to apply what they have learned after being immersed in the basics. A few days ago, we read through an Emily Dickinson poem as a class, a poem that I had read and struggled to understand in my freshman year. I found that I was pleasantly surprised with how quickly I picked up different techniques that Dickinson used, such as metaphor and rhythm. When Angie opened up a discussion about the poem as a class, I was able to meaningfully contribute to the conversation, and articulate how the literary devices enhance the poem, something I couldn’t have dreamed of doing during my freshman year. 

Workshopping groups are another showcase of growth. When reading a peer’s poem, everybody in the class is able to recall their experience of reading and writing poetry, and can give honest, constructive feedback. On some classes, we spend over thirty minutes identifying the strengths and weaknesses of a classmate’s poem. Every person in the class is extremely familiar with the workshopping process, as a result of many years of workshops in CW 1, which creates a comfortable environment in our CW 2 groups. 

This new feeling of independence has allowed me to think about my growth from a clueless eighth grader to an actively participating 11th grader. I am grateful for Creative Writing 1 for helping me get started in my writing, and just as grateful for Creative Writing 2 for giving me a chance to show what I learned.

Parker Burrows (Class of ’22)

Creative Writing II Poetry Unit by Tess Horton

The Creative Writing II poetry unit has spanned over the course of the past month. Our artist in residence, Emily Wolahan, structured the six-week unit in a refreshing way: every other week, we read poetry and essays concerning poetry at home, then discuss them in class. Every week in between, we workshop the poems we’ve produced throughout the previous week. This intensive poetry-production-process has tested my ability to constantly keep up the motivation to write. I’ve written poems I like, I’ve written poems I don’t like as much, but the important part of this exercise is that I am writing at all.

Part of the weeks when we aren’t revising is to respond to various in-class prompts that Emily gives us (usually in some relation to a poem/essay we’ve read); one of the prompts I have particularly enjoyed so far was the haibun prompt. A haibun is a three-paragraph prose poem followed by a haiku at the end. Here is the haibun I wrote in response:

The Tambourine Man Haibun

I met the tambourine man behind the carousel when I was a good age. I am not sure whether I was supposed to meet the tambourine man or not. He was sinking in his pinstriped cloak and the hairs shaking on his upper lip seemed to shine, like the black armor beetles sport even on hot Saturdays. The tambourine man was red in many unnatural places. Red on his scalp. Red on his chin and only on the tips of his fingers. Red on the sagging parts of his pants where his skinny knees were supposed to fit. Skinny knees, I thought. The air was hot and I was suddenly glad I wasn’t wearing anything underneath my dress. The tambourine man looked down at me and slapped his hand on his wrist as if he were expecting hard cow skin instead. I was three feet and his bulging sunshine boots were perfect.

 

Yellow morning was the time I put on sunscreen. The day is early and cold with the promise of heat and pink skin later. White cream becomes a pocket item. I hare that white cream. That white cream is sticky, it sticks to my tongue for many hours after I taste it on my thumb. Soap, like soap. Tied down to a felt seat backwards: is this supposed to be fun? I am sad with the white cream. This morning feels like a white box, sterile from its lack of color, and I feel as if I am suffocating in its whiteness, its medicinal taste.

 

The circus is wet and dark. The tent is orange, tethered firmly to the dew-grass beneath the tarp, and when my father opens the front curtain and we enter as a family, the white cream against his lapel smears. This tent is large and dark. The tambourine man plays his cowskin arm off to the side, quiet. I smile at him from my mother’s shoulders.

 

With a gentle hand

The tambourine man leans downwards to greet me

The cream on my hands is sticky, yellow shoes slip against the mud

 

-Tess Horton, class of 2021