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

An English Class Poem by Emilie Mayer

Three weeks into my English class’s poetry unit I had managed to produce nothing that I could be proud of —although that could in part be due to my pandemic-induced creative rut. All of my poems were shine with no depth. They contained long, elegant lines, but I for one could not tell you what they meant. It was at this moment that a chance conversation with my student teacher completely turned my mentality upside down. Another student had expressed their struggle with producing work, which had compelled my student teacher to give an off-the-cuff monologue on writing. He had said, “Poetry is all feeling. Just write down your emotions, and then add in the fancy words later.” It sounded so simple. In fact, the Creative Writing Department Head had said something similar a few weeks before: “Your work doesn’t mean anything unless you’re taking risks. You should be crying over your poetry at times.” Even Emily Dickenson said, “If I physically feel as if the top of my head were taken off, I know it is poetry.” 

And so, I did as I was prompted. Later that class period I sat down with my notepad and wrote about a moment that I had been unable to express up until that point. My inability to write stemmed from my search for the “correct” words. The moment that I just wrote whatever came to mind, my memories were finally able to exist on the page. Granted, the piece I produced was rough. After several revisions, I still believe that it needs about a hundred more drafts of work. But still, while I was writing that poem I cried. And I remembered the hidden and beautiful world of literature—the reason why I came to S.O.T.A. in the first place.

Emilie Mayer, Class of ’23

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

Letting Go & Just Listening by Leela Sriram

Translation is a key factor of life. We translate words in our heads when speaking. We translate the world by noting the colors and sounds that are seen and heard around us. We translate from language to language in spanish class. 

Last weeks unit in Creative Writing 1 with CW alumni: Josie Weidner, Noa Mendoza-Goot and Violeta Sticotti, was all about how translation is not just translating from language to language, but a way to interpret the world and society and transform the world into how we see Earth and society from our perspective. 

On the second day of “A Week in Translation,” CW I partook in an independent activity that let us free ourselves from the eye strain and headaches from the piercing bright lights that illuminate from the computer, and instead just listen to the world around us. A sound map charts down all of the intricate sounds created by the world around us, such as the echoes in the voices of hikers walking in Golden Gate park, or the scratching sound of a dog’s paws on a dirt path. This activity helped me let go of my mind and just listen to the world, and observe the sounds in the park that I hadn’t ever really paid attention to due to being caught up in my own thoughts. 

After drawing out my sound map, I thought intently about the connection sounds in nature have to translation. The two almost seem completely incomparable, but translation is not as simple as speaking Spanish and then saying the same sentence in English. Translation is not just verbal, but also auditory. A large part of translation is connecting sounds to visuals and objects. Translation is just putting together one big puzzle that is understanding the world.

Leela Sriram, Class of ’23

Decisions on the Cultural Heritage Project by Gemma Collins

With the new semester just beginning, the start of the fiction unit draws near. This year CW 1 is starting off the fiction unit with the sophomore cultural heritage lessons. These lessons, carefully planned and culminated over the entire past semester, are crucial parts of the preparedness for CW 2. As of the past Thursday, the presentations have started. I spent a large portion of my time this winter break editing and perfecting my own lesson plan and coming up with my best idea on what to teach the group about. This was a daunting decision, considering that for most of the year, I was wavering between different subjects to talk about and contemplating what I thought would provide the most educational yet enthralling lesson. 

When thinking about my culture, the foundation of the assignment, I found myself coming up blank. The presentation is centered around talking about ourselves, something I am not used to doing. The freedom of subjects to discuss was both freeing and confusing, as with the ability to pursue multiple ideas comes the dreaded need to make decisions for oneself. I never felt connected to any specific background, so when deciding my topic for my project, I decided to steer clear of the “culture/race/ethnicity” genre and into other possibilities.

Then there were the options of music, but I am definitely not the most musical person. I spent winter break going back and forth until I finally solidified my idea. I thought about what I felt passionate about and began my project on environmentalist poems. The best plan I could muster, I found poems to use and began to build my powerpoint complete with writing prompts and a homework assignment all based on poems that make a call to action. Soon my presentation was complete and I just needed to survive the presentation. 

A poem that I wrote while working on my project:

A Walk

I don’t know that I’ll be alive
If the world is run hot and dry,
Like a desert with a red sky.
A red sky that possibly in the far reaches
Of the atmosphere has one breath that
Escaped my mouth when things were 
Green for a little longer.

I am here now in a little longer.

When things were green.
How long a little longer is, I’m unsure.
I’m going on a walk today to
Appreciate a the green
Although I admit it will be hard not to be 
Distracted by crusty gum on the sidewalk
Or sewage smell at the bottom
Of the hill. 
But the walk is meant to be appreciative, so
I better not get hung up on 
undeniable bad things. 

I run my fingertips in the rosemary bush
Which I haven’t done in a while. 
I may not know how long a little longer is
But I know a while is 5 years.
5 years but the fresh scent is still as sweet
As my memory of it.
I hear two parrots squawk
In the tree above me, dropping red berries.
Their noise isn’t exactly pleasant, but
I find some joy in the raining red berries.
I wish it still rained.

Reach the top of the hill and look out at the view—
Bunny shaped clouds and
shimmery water and small waves
the rolling hills 

Can’t forget the city
Downtown buildings twinkle
I can almost feel the hot glittering
Sidewalk,
I look out at the view.

In the corner of my eye

I see the red rolling in.

Gemma Collins, Class of ’23

Poetry & the Greener Pasture by Jesper Werkhoven

I would say that poetry was fun. It was the first step in an enigmatic journey that has, most definitely, started off on too many wrong feet. My Eighth Grade was cut short by a demon sphere I couldn’t ever see, and whatever this is isn’t exactly filling the void. Then, I come here, and I trip on two rocks back to back, landing myself neatly above a drop into a ravine. Finally, after clawing my way back out, I’m greeted with my least favorite way to write. Sounds unfun, doesn’t it? All thanks to some real good paraphrasing.
Poetry was a new experience. For one, I didn’t think I could write it at all during the summer. It turns out I can, and I should probably start trusting myself more. This unit opened my eyes to the possible beauty of poetry. Shame I wanted to close them immediately after reading the instructions for the sonnet. I might miss poetry, now that the unit is over, but I think the excitement of the new topic might eclipse that.

Short stories are my thing. I don’t need deep meaning, or put in thought-provoking imagery. I can just make people fight it out for seventy-eight pages and call it a day. Fiction is freedom for me. It has no restriction other than the restrictions you create for yourself. Now that we’re moving away from poetry, I can finally put the Creative in Creative Writing to the max- or at least, I hope. It might be awhile until I can make people fight it out for seventy-eight pages.

Whatever the next unit throws at me, I’ll be ready to enjoy it to the fullest. Motivation and confidence will replace reluctance and uncertainty, and I’ll be having fun showing off how good of a writer I am to my friends.

Jesper Werkhoven, Class of ’24

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)