Sure, reading poetry to a room full of people is fun, and I’ll do it whenever the opportunity presents itself. But on Thursday, May 6, I had a chance to experience poetry in a totally different way â€“ by talking about it in two classes at Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester.
My friend Julie White (to whom â€œIt Isn’t Merely The Fashioningâ€ is dedicated) works in the Student Life office at MCC’s Damon Campus, located in downtown Rochester. When I booked the Rochester Poets reading, I asked Julie whether there were any opportunities for me to talk with students at MCC about poetry. Julie reached out to several faculty members, and I ended up scheduling two classes with Julie Damerell, an MCC professor who is herself a poet.
I showed up in Julie’s first class at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday. She warned me that attendance wasn’t always stellar, and that the previous class had seen one student attend. The class was a transitional class, for students who needed some extra guidance in English as they began their college careers. On this day, four students came, and it turned into one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had with poetry.
I have to be honest â€“ I had absolutely no plan whatsoever when the class began. I’d given some thought to what I might say, and Julie Damerell had also suggested some topics. But when the four students were seated around the table and it was my turn to talk, I hadn’t decided on anything other than, â€œHi. My name is Jason Crane.â€ Once that was said, I was winging it all the way.
The first thing I did was read them a poem from Unexpected Sunlight called â€œThe Soft Friction Of Sliding Glass.â€ After I read the poem, I explained that it’s about my first serious girlfriend. This was all Lawrence, one of the students, needed to hear to begin a conversation. We talked about including a poem about an old girlfriend in a book dedicated to my wife. Lawrence thought that was a crazy thing to do, and he was sure that it would cause some kind of problem. I told him that my wife and I have been together 15 years, and that I want my memories to be close to the surface because I believe that makes me a better husband. Samantha, another of the students, chimed in to say that people don’t have to forget what happened to them just because they aren’t with that person anymore. The discussion carried on for several minutes, and I knew we were going to have no problem filling up the class time.
Next I asked the students to read â€œGene Ludwigâ€ and then tell me about the man described in the poem. I asked them to describe him physically and tell me what he did for a living and what he was like. They made their guesses, some closer than others, and then I told them about Gene and his career as a jazz organist. Julie looked up Gene online and showed the students his picture, and Lawrence talked about how Gene â€œis true to himself when he plays music. He can show people who he really is.â€
Laura, another student, had been reading my poem â€œFor Henry Grimesâ€ during the latter part of this discussion, and she said she wanted to know about Henry next. I asked her to read the poem, and then asked the class to describe Henry. Lawrence said Henry reminded him of the old men who sit on the stoop on his street and watch the neighborhood. I described Henry’s incredible story of success, disappearance and rediscovery and asked Laura to read the poem again with this new knowledge.
We read more poems and talked about them, with the conversation veering into general discussions about life and art and creativity. Laura told us about her grandfather and her siblings and Samantha talked about the poems she’d written. They read more of my work aloud, and I decided partway through the class to give them each a copy of Unexpected Sunlight.
These four students opened my eyes to a new way to hear my own work, and their intelligent, often surprising observations were a joy to hear. I’m truly grateful for the experience. After the class, I wrote a poem called “Attention” in tribute to them.