Three Years in Review by Isabella Hansen

I began my first year in Creative Writing as a timid and tiny freshman. I am writing this now as a remarkably taller senior. As I look back on the years I have spent in this department, I can only feel gratitude for the space I was given to grow, both as a human and a writer. The Creative Writing department at SOTA is one of the most close-knit departments in the school. We are a tight-knit community. This intimacy and closeness to other students are often difficult for me to find but after spending three years here, even through the pandemic, I am grateful that I have been able to explore my creative work while also furthering friendships. 

I am currently in the process of writing my senior thesis. My thesis is a compilation of my work in Creative Writing which also doubles as a graduation requirement. One day, while on a particular procrastination spiral, I looked through some of my old work from freshman year and cackled. My fish stick poem, out of all my ninth-grade creative work, was a particular piece that brought amused tears to my eyes. I felt both sentimental and amused at my growth from my first year here. There are many memories from my time in Creative Writing that make me shudder in embarrassment while also simultaneously make me laugh. 

Now, as I continue to write my thesis which revolves around the theme of family, I feel a desire to include my fish stick poem for nostalgia’s sake. In all honesty, the tools I use to write now were gifted to me throughout my years here and some of which I would never trade, even for the world.  I have learned how to analyze creative work and engage in free-flowing discussions that once intimidated me. I learned how to write authentically and to ensure I always have a genuine voice in my writing. The skills that I have gained from Creative Writing not only help me with writing my thesis now but will follow me throughout college and years after.

Learning How to Read With “Wren: Three Mirrors” by Zadie McGrath

Early in the school year, I walked into the CW classroom and was handed a printed-out copy of a poem. As the low buzz of conversation slowly faded, I skimmed through it, the seemingly incongruent words stirring my mind into panic. Before CW, the poetry I read had been simple and relaxing, easy to digest. I would read a poem or two in the evening, lulled by the fluidity of the words, comforted by them in a distant way. Poetry is abstract, I thought. When I wrote my own, I never went beyond the first draft because I liked the sound of the words. What I write, it doesn’t have to be intentional, I thought at the time. For me, poetry existed in a bubble that I was afraid to pop.

The poem we read, “Wren: Three Mirrors” by Michael Burkard, infuriated me at first—I could tell there was something I was missing as I annotated the poem, but whatever it was, it eluded me. The piece read more like a paragraph than a poem, and it switched rapidly from image to image, leaving me disoriented. “Like waking in the small room, looking out,” it began, “seeing the moon, almost down, through the pale/trees. So then the incompletion is waking…” It continued on like this, describing wings, mirrors, a woman, and finally ending with the bizarre words “I have/missed you like a donkey on fire, like a donkey.”

As we moved into a class discussion, though, I began to glean some understanding of the poet’s intentions. The poem didn’t let me walk away from it with only a distant reaction; it contradicted all the conventions I knew and soon had me scrutinizing every word. 

I came to the conclusion that the confusing imagery had all been a distraction—the speaker, trying desperately to distract themselves from the woman described at the end of the poem, focused first on the small room, then the moon, then the trees, and so on. Like waking in the small room, they said. Not Waking in the small room or I woke in the small room, but Like waking, as if the poem’s speaker was comparing waking to something else, and the act of waking was just an illusion.

After frantically scribbling my theory down, I raised my hand to participate in the class discussion. It was the first time I had spoken up without stuttering over my words or trailing off, unsure of what point I was trying to get across. Now, the urge to have a complete, resounding idea of what a poem is trying to say is the norm for me. My annotations sometimes turn into full-fledged analyses, and at break time during arts block, my friends and I trade our takes on whatever poem we’re working on with one another. Surprisingly, this doesn’t feel like doing extra homework voluntarily; it doesn’t feel like work at all. It’s just the way I interact with poetry, popping the bubble and letting all the air in.

Intellectualism in Creative Writing by Leela Sriram

Creative Writing has been taking trips to the De Young since before I came to CW. After two years in person and one online, I have started to appreciate the smell of paint and hand sanitizer hung near the exit of each exhibition. I have fallen in love with wandering around each of the cream and maroon colored rooms with my heavy shoes clunking on the polished hardwood floors. 

The De Young is a quintessential aspect of the Creative Writing experience because all kinds of visual and performing arts are influential to the pieces we as writers create. Without learning the technical skills of other forms of art such as film and fine arts, CW would not be as well rounded. My knowledge of different forms of painting styles throughout history has heavily influenced my writing through imagery. A painting is a story told through texture, color, and subject matter. 

The last time CW went on an excursion to the De Young, we visited the Faith Ringgold exhibit titled American People. This series of interdisciplinary fine arts including textiles and abstract paintings explored the dynamics of communal relationships during the civil rights movement. Her use of color and texture in her quilts and paintings immediately made me want to sit down on one of the vinyl benches in the center of the exhibit and write a poem on my relationship with my community. While I have always had a certain sense of distaste for the Art Girl cliche, the De Young has always been an inspiration for me, artistically. When I wander around the museum, I feel like I am walking through time. Every sculpture, painting, textile, has a unique take on the world from when it was made. This will always cause me to ponder how I fit into the world, and how my art can touch on my perspective on society. 

While I do sometimes hate to walk around museums with my hand pressed on my chin in a thinker position, I believe this is excusable in the De Young.

Sharing a Part of You by Kendall Snipper

Creative Writing began the first workshopping sessions of the year this week. We were instructed to print out three of our summer work poems. Wanting something better to work with than the haiku and tanka poems I wrote, there were three longer poems left. I read each line over, making sure there was nothing to be kept away from my classmates.  Each poem was a part of myself, something I had written to express my emotions in the moment. Honestly, I thought about the different ways to avoid the assignment. Writing a newer poem, pretending to forget to print, anything so I wouldn’t have to show this part of me. My writing was never something I’d shared with others. I keep each piece to myself as if I’m rationing off parts of my brain for me alone to enjoy. 

Inevitably, the time for Creative Writing came along and we split off into workshopping groups. In a group of four, I was among a junior and two sophomores. “Freshman first” is such a common phrase at this point, so I wasn’t surprised when I was urged to go first. Each poem I printed out seemed way too cliche for me to read aloud. Reading over my summer work was just like the feeling of hearing a second grader’s joke: cringe-inducing. But I handed each group member a copy of my poem and began to read it aloud. Reading my writing to others was never such a problem to me, it was more of an issue when I knew they had a physical copy. My issue was realizing that somebody could now read over a line multiple times and see that it doesn’t make sense. Sitting at a table in silence while your older peers critique your work is probably the scariest thing I’ve done in high school so far. After each of them finished reading and annotating my poem, we discussed it. Hearing my classmate’s voices on my work was such a relief to the quiet, that I forgot about my nerves. Instead of overthinking what my peers were going to say about the poem, I sank calmly into the discussion. Each and every person was respectful with their critiques, and overall each sentence was something helpful or reassuring. I learned so much about how others can perceive your writing, and ways that I can definitely improve. Opening up the portion of my brain that once hid all my thoughts is something I find enjoyable now. I’m grateful to have a safe place to share and put my emotions down on paper.

Open Up to Vulnerability by Oona Haskovec

As a current sophomore, I associate workshopping with laughs, improvement, and an overall pleasant time. However, this time a year ago, I had an entirely different take on the matter. As a freshman, I was put into a group with only upperclassmen, including a senior, for my first workshopping experience. I was terrified, both of the critique I would receive, but also the critique I would have to share. Those were people who had been doing this for years and I felt incredibly out of place as I smiled and nodded along with others’ intellectual insight. However, as the year progressed, I found comfort in workshop days, and I gained a more established sense of the writing styles of those around me. This could not only aid in better critique for others, but also in getting to know them as people.

This is why, in my second year, I have been making it my goal to enforce workshopping as a marvelous time for this year’s freshmen. Not only does it open up the opportunity for improvement, but also to get to know your peers and their work. The sooner you allow that vulnerability, the easier you will find it to be absorbed by the wonder that is the Creative Writing community, both social and academic. In my personal experience, workshopping opens up ideas in your work that not even you, the author, noticed at first. This can lead to richer pieces as well as richer bonds with everything. 

 I truly find critiquing to be one of the most beneficial activities one can partake in. If you can allow yourself to accept your flaws, and find a way to see benefit in the momentary discomfort, before long, the answer to that awkwardly worded line, or sometimes even just the flow of a piece, will be revealed.

Looking Back Through Lesson Leadership by Gemma Collins

When I first came to the Creative Writing Department, I was in awe of how Heather (our department head) was willing to listen to student input and feedback. The seniors took on leadership roles—my ninth-grade self was awed by their intelligence and maturity. I watched upper-level students playing active roles in class and marveled at how they spoke so eloquently. I saw them do presentations and wondered how they talked fearlessly in front of everyone else. I listened to their writing and wished I would one day know as much as them or be able to express myself so clearly. Now, as a senior, I view Creative Writing from the opposite perspective. A few weeks ago, the senior class (shoutout to Emilie) led units on analyzing and writing poetry while Heather was out. We instructed the rest of the group by developing games and fun activities about various literary devices. The lesson included a thirty-slide-long presentation that took racking our brains of every literary device known to humankind to create. I even decorated my slides with funny anecdotes, pictures, and examples. We sat in the room as peers, helping each other deepen the conversation around the poems we discussed. If you asked anyone in this department, I am sure they would tell you that the community is what makes us unique. The units we taught last week showed me how much the students shape creative writing. Heather and artists-in-residence may manage the class, but student participation and discussion fuel the community’s energy. We build our analysis of poetry through hearing each other’s points of view and thrive off of hearing everyone’s creative interpretations. Sitting in class that day made me realize how fast time has gone from being a freshman to being a senior and how I am now so comfortable in a once foreign and frightening place.

Learning The Ways And The Words by Chloe Schoenfeld

I still think of myself as new here. I’m a freshman now and I have been for about three weeks. Creative Writing  is much more fascinating and enthralling than any other class I’ve had before. The department head, Heather Woodward, isn’t here yet, so the seniors have been leading us, and I never thought I’d say I had enjoyed analyzing texts. Sometimes I worry about my place in the group. That maybe my placement here was a mistake or a second choice, or perhaps I am not who they hoped I’d be. I try to reassure myself that I am wanted. Somehow I’ve made friends here, I can converse with people as if I’ve known them my entire life when a month ago we were strangers. 

We began analyzing a poem this week. It was “Self-Portrait” by Afaa Michael Weaver. I read this poem through what must have been at least twenty times, each giving me another understanding and meaning of the words on the paper. This one man’s story has been hosting a raging party with all of the literary devices I learned only last week. I feel I’ve gained so much more of an understanding of Judaism and life and purity than I’ve ever known before. My mind has started spinning every time I look at the words or even my annotations.

I see myself in the shadows of a leaf

compressed to the green blades growing

to a point like the shards of miles of mirrors

falling and cracking to perfect gardens. 

– Self-Portrait, Afaa Michael Weaver

I was delighted to share an “Aha!” moment on this poem with a fellow freshman in Creative Writing, who I’m glad to say is my friend now. I’ve never had an experience like this, one that presents the core of the English language in such an inviting way. These concepts have been driven so far into my head that I’ve started to see them everywhere, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Everyday I continue to be surprised by the talented writers and thinkers that surround me, somehow creating a comfortable environment for everyone even with the absence of the usual teacher.

Watching “Sonny’s Bridge” by Teya Cooksey-Voytenko

It was quiet, except for the occasional squeak of someone’s sneaker, and the low hum of people muttering to one another, discussing ideas and thoughts on different pieces. One out of a pair of headphones was lazily hanging from my shirt neck, the other was tucked into my ear playing some version of a slow song. I was sitting on a bench having angled myself to face “Sonny’s Bridge,” one of Faith Ringgold’s quilt canvas pieces, which was quietly tucked into a back corner of the second exhibition room. The piece caught my eye the moment I noticed it. The colors with the bridge had made such an interesting connection, and my heart almost sang with inspiration when I got a good look at it. 

I could see the outlines of all the other people surrounding me in my peripheral vision. I couldn’t care to pay attention to them though, I was mesmerized, watching my pencil move up and down scratching its lead into the paper, seeing the steady motion, watching as it formed letters and later words. Slowly crafting every piece of the poem, glancing up at the art piece every so often to see if I could glimpse more insight into where to take my writing; trying to fit the meaning of Faith Ringgold’s work into my work. Trying to find the connection between the two worlds. Working to weave the colors, take the strands of cotton, and sew them into my story, tell my thoughts, my journey through the poem. It became a sort of carpal vision: just me and “Sonny’s Bridge.” For the moment in time, it was just us. The whole world revolved around us. 

I sat for twenty minutes, writing, just me and my thoughts. At this point I had put in my other earphone, completely tuning out the world. It was just me and my writing, just me trying to figure out the connection between my thoughts. Trying to think and put it down on paper, where it was just me and my writing. My writing and my thoughts.

Jude’s Guide to Writing the Bus by Jude Wong

If a nearly naked man begins bathing himself in milk by the folding bus doors, try to stay dry. Or if a guy playing air guitar in a cascading cream ball gown offers you a lint-laden lollipop, gently say no. But if a dude enveloped in a Power Puff Girls bathrobe and bunny slippers starts describing his tumultuous love life, listen. My family never owned a car, so I grew up taking buses and have penned stories, poems, and even a play using scenes like these from San Francisco city buses. 

In earlier years my poetry tended to be dark, abstract, and related to experiences I had never had. I wrote about ferocious fires, glorious battles, and dying soldiers. I began a dystopian novel set in 3868 about the daring breakout of a slave named Zed. Stories enabled me to build and inhabit other worlds, no matter how removed they were from my life. I used writing to escape into a fantasy bubble, isolated from the people around me.

For my thesis I am writing about lives not often seen in poetry, especially those of the marginalized and disadvantaged people I ride with on the bus. People notice, think about, and help those around them in a healthy, caring society. I want to encourage this through my writing, suggesting that people “shout ‘Thank You!’ to the driver. This is non-negotiable.” Or that riders give up their seats as the “triple-sweatered old lady heaves herself onto the bus … freighted with torn pink plastic bags bearing broken bok choy and broccoli.’’ Or smile and make space for the “life-sapped mother … clinging to a stroller, a boiling tea kettle of sorts … inside a ceaseless screeching”. 

Many riders don’t observe the range of lives around them, often just looking at their phones. I also used to be oblivious to those shaping the city around me. Still, the bus brings other people’s lives so close that we all become “like a can of stewed tomatoes with riders mushed together practically becoming red sauce.”; and these days, I pay close attention. I save fleeting glimpses from our rides that would otherwise be lost, suspending them in time through meter and metaphor. While these moments are random, they are essential because they embody our shared experience of moving through the city together, our community. 

I recently published “How to Ride the Mission 14 Bus” in Parallax Literary Magazine and performed it to a large audience of 300 people in our school theater. I paced my words, leaving time for the listeners to respond, and used arm gestures to engage and draw laughter from them. One person even chased me down in the parking lot to share how much he liked my piece.

I used to write only for myself, but now I use my work to connect to audiences and encourage their participation in our community. I write to inspire people to put down their phones, pay attention, be kind and connect with the people around them. To be present and to observe the little things in life.

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