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

I Am Not Afraid of Death but I Am Afraid of Playwriting by Paloma Fernandez

I absolutely despised playwriting my freshman year. I thought all plays had to be serious to be “good” and respected. Unfortunately, last year our playwriting unit got cut short due to the pandemic, and during that unit as odd as it was with distance learning, I realized I enjoyed playwriting, maybe I was even good at it.

Coming up on the one year anniversary of school closures, and our playwriting unit being cut short, I reflect on how my love for playwriting and screenwriting has grown over the past twelve months. One could view the conversations in playwriting as a substitute for all the real-world interactions we would normally be experiencing. I find that a little sad even though it’s true, at least for myself. I get to create characters and eavesdrop on their conversations. At times I even insert characters similar to myself in hopes that it will make me feel like I’m apart of the conversation. I am fully aware that sounds odd, but after a full year in quarantine, I’ve realized how much I miss interacting with strangers, all characters start out as strangers anyway. 

So, I guess that all I am attempting to say is that my freshman year hatred for playwriting has somehow turned into nothing but love and admiration. I realize now that I perhaps never actually hate playwriting, I was simply scared of it, and rightfully so. I still find playwriting terrifying, you would have to be completely fearless not to. But, let me tell you, playwriting is completely worth every moment of terror. The most accomplished I have ever felt in Creative Writing was when I shared a play I had written, completely convinced it was not going to land, and people actually ended up liking it, maybe I could even say loved it but that may be too egotistical. 

Paloma Fernandez, 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

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

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)

Apocalypse: Day 40 by Benny Leuty

I’ve spent many days shadowed by the feeling that we are drawing ever closer to the complete final destruction of the world, an utter apocalypse. The “we” in that last sentence, changes every day. On Friday, for example, “we” was just me and the catalyst for the apocalypse was a missing English assignment. On Saturday, “we” was everyone and the threat was climate change. Today, the “we” was one of my favorite professional cyclists and the impetus for his doomsday was a thigh bone fracture that nearly ended his career. And how could I talk apocalypse without talking COVID? 

I’ve begun to catalog many of my mini apocalypses. The only rule that I have for myself is that I get it on paper. The more interesting apocalypses become poems, short stories, or personal narratives. In one of my earlier apocalypse writings, which would eventually become a short personal narrative, I discovered my retainer no longer fit after not wearing it for a week. In it, I reflected on, and eventually came to terms with, how weird it was that I was fretting about crooked teeth during a global pandemic. But even the less interesting apocalypses usually still get a sentence or two. Shortly after my routine was established, I realized that there are very few apocalypses I can think of that literally spell doom for the entire planet. Even in some of the worst scenarios, there is usually a Noah and his ark and the fish below it. There are almost always survivors of the zombie horde and a case to be made for zombies themselves being “alive.” My day to day “apocalypses” are important to me. Not only because of what they take away from me and stop me from completing but because of what I continue to do in spite of them. I brush my teeth, I eat lunch, I ride my bike, I write. My apocalypses reveal to me what I could let go of. Going to bed later than midnight is one thing I should do away with. My base functions are revealed to me. Because “apocalypse,” in Greek, is a verb. Apocalypse is something that is done. It means to uncover, reveal, and lay bare and I welcome that.

Benny Leuty (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)

Standing on a Ledge by Rae Dox Kim

Here I am, in a place I have never imagined actually being in. I’m about to be a senior, or more specifically, a senior in the summer after junior year. Here is when all my morals will be tested, and I will be at the mercy of faceless bureaucracies until I get into a college. My parents’ friends are descending on me like vultures, taking advantage of my vulnerable situation to talk at length about their own college experience. “It was so easy,” is a favorite line. As I stare down into the swirling whirlpool of application and rejection, I cannot imagine any easy path. Watching my senior friends, warm and content in acceptance letter light, gives me a watery sense of peace. I am happy they are happy, and I know that if they can succeed, I could too one day when it’s my turn at the chopping block. Until then, I’ll have to get my self in order, organizing my personal internal chambers so when the College Board comes a-knocking, I’ll be ready. 

–Rae Dox Kim, Class of 2020

Year Eleven by Charlotte Pocock

When introducing myself to someone for the first time, I often find myself describing myself first as a high school junior. This, by default, means that I have completed ten whole years of grade level academics and am working on my eleventh. I am now sixteen years old, and, if you count Pre-K, I have been involved in some sort of schooling for exactly three quarters of my life. Recently, I have been thinking about how my high school experience has culminated. As a newly minted upperclassman, I have been able to review the past few years with all the wisdom of a middle aged parent.

I remember freshman year as being in a constant state of confusion. My fourteen year old self was still reeling from the whirlwind that had been my middle school experience that everything was the biggest deal in the world to me. I was anxious about how I came off to my peers and unsure how I would strive in both my academics and art. By sophomore year, I had sunken to such lows that I feared I would never claw my way out. This was when I encountered a phenomenon known to the public as the Sophomore Slump, which is self-explanatory. I was morose at the idea of not even being halfway through high school and was unsure what the point of the content I was learning was.

Now, I am nearing the end of my third month in the eleventh grade, a little less than thirty percent done with my junior year. I can no longer say that I am confused or unmotivated, as I have been here too long to be confused and the threat of colleges lingering over my GPA is enough to get me out of bed to do work past midnight. No, the only way I can describe myself is tired. I am tired of waking up at half past five to get myself to school on time, and I am tired of being awake until the early morning. I am tired of my caffeine dependency. I am tired of biting my nails, waiting to feel important and having stress dreams in which the grade book on Synergy has me marked down for assignments that don’t exist.

I am so hungry to learn, and I am too exhausted to fill my plate.

Charlotte Pocock, class of 2019