A few miles from where I live in upstate New York, workers at the Syracuse Pottery make pots out of the red clay they mine from the surrounding hills. The work is tedious, each wet slab of clay pressed by hand on a spinning wheel. Later, the pots are fired in huge kilns. The smaller of these clay pots can be purchased for fifty cents--fifteen cents if there is a slight flaw. I go for the flawed pots and bring armloads of them into classrooms and after-school programs. These pots help the children write clay poems.
Before we write, I lead the children into a calm and focused state. I do this by turning on calm music. Then I give each of the children a peacock feather to balance in the palm of their hand. This is easy to do if you keep your eyes focused on the eye of the feather. Some of the children are no taller than the peacock feather they balance. The calming is instant, visible in the children's eyes, the smiles on their faces. "If you can balance a peacock feather," I say, "you can write a poem." With older children I sometimes use brooms, chairs and small ladders. "If you can balance a chair, you can write a story. It's all in the focusing."
After the children have selected their own pots, I tell them that they themselves are clay pots. I have every reason to tell them this because the God of Genesis is taking slabs of clay in hand and one by one creating each child in the room, and their teacher as well. I tell the children it's all in the breath, the breath of God inside the clay pot that makes each of us spring to life. Some of them give me a look.
That is when I pull out a poem from a 15th century master named Kabir and give a copy to each child. "Here it is," I say, "'The Clay Jug. In Which the Poet Thinks of His Body as a Clay Jug.'" We read the poem aloud together:
Inside this clay jug there are canyons and pine
and the maker of canyons and pine mountains!
All seven oceans are inside, and hundreds of mil-
lions of stars.
The acid that tests gold is there, and the one who
And the music from the strings no one touches,
and the source of all water.
If you want the truth, I will tell you the truth:
Friend, listen: the God whom I love is inside.(1)
After we have read and talked about Kabir's poem, I give the children simple directions for writing a poem of their own: Write a poem, or what you think is a poem, in which you think of yourself as a clay pot. If you want, you can think of your poem as a kind of letter written to someone who is close to you, someone who thinks they know all about you, what you think, how you feel. But there are some things that they don't know. This person could be your mom or dad, your teacher, your grandmother or grandfather, a favorite aunt or uncle or friend. Write a poem in which you tell them something about yourself that they don't know, something you really want them to know.
I think it's that "really" that gets them because pot poems come rolling out as if they've been waiting at the tip of the pens. The poems are accompanied by the children's own drawings of clay pots.
Every time that I have taught this lesson, without fail a couple of pots slip off desks and smash to the floor. When this happens, I am always secretly glad because it gives us a chance to consider brokenness. Gently, I pick the pieces up from the floor, place them on an empty desk top so all the children can see, and then offer them the opportunity to write about a cracked or broken pot, if they wish. This is how Joseph Snyder, a tall, affable boy, came to write his poem.
In this clay pot is a lot of love.
In it are a lot of good feelings.
There is a lot of trust for people.
When someone lies to the pot,
It feels like it is going to
shudder into a thousand pieces.
Then a trustworthy person comes
and tries to help.
It feels like re-gluing the pot back
To feel good again.
In another classroom a young boy, who calls himself St. Tommy, also writes about a pot "cracked with memories it will never forget." St. Tommy does everything I ask him to do, even if he can't always find the papers in his myriad notebooks. He writes with humor, an unconventional bent, and energy. He shows remarkable control on the paper, even as he seeks my confirmation. Later I am informed that St. Tommy has self-destructive tendencies.
Don't we all, I think, as I look into his eleven-year-old eyes. If you can lead the fierce beast into a good place, so can I.
I am not the school therapist. I am the writer-in-residence. I deal in harnesses, "yokes," if you will--the easy, light, poetic kind. Sometimes the room looks more like a rodeo than a classroom. Adam Antczak, a slight fellow, has "broncos broncing." Tiffany Galvin has wild mustangs, which she harnesses, if only for a moment, in two stanzas:
Inside of me are wild
They roam freely.
I also have a very
deep wound which is
just scabbing up.
Nicole Fiero, on the other hand, has a hard time with butterflies. There is a plea for understanding in her poem:
I have flying butterflies
in my clay pot.
Every time I'm at a friend's house,
the butterflies act up.
It's hard having butterflies
flying inside you
you never know when they
will wake up.
When the regular school is over, I replenish the pots and feathers and set out for the after-school.
In its heyday, St. Anthony School bulged with students K through 12. Then the dwindling started, all the way down to K through 4, until the school was forced to close. Sister Ann Christi, the principal, wanted to stay connected to the children, so she enlisted the help of her friend, Bernie Syrocki, and together they started an after-school program in the church basement. Once a week children walk from their regular schools or arrive in Bernie's packed car. They are greeted with juice and snacks, journals and crayons. And, of course, clay pots and feathers.
The three Chandler boys help pass out the goods, then seat themselves elbow to elbow. The littlest, nine-year-old Jeremiah, claims a peacock feather prize for his "confessional" poem.
I have a clay pot.
It has seeds in it.
When I am in the house,
It is nice.
When I'm outside, it's mean.
It pokes people.
I'm a nice guy.
Yes, I am.
At the dinner party Bernie and Sister Ann Christi throw at the end of the program, the children's poetry and drawings are hung all over the concrete walls. After dinner, Jeremiah's mom, Renita, does a spirited reading of each child's poetry "off the walls." She chuckles when she reads her son's poem. Darius Adjei is just as he describes himself: "a lamb within a lion, big on the outside, soft and fragile on the inside." Maggie Figueroa draws a dark pot with an uncolored triangle in the center to say, "I am a secret in a shadow." Samatha Strickland insists, "I am never anyone but me. Anyone but me."
We applaud each poet as Renita reads. Finally, she comes to her niece's poem and her voice cracks a little:
I am a blue and yellow pot
with different seeds.
I am a very fragile thing,
and I even sometimes break.
Towards the end of the musical Les Miserables there's an astounding line that rings unforgettably throughout the theater: "One who has loved another has seen the face of God."
Even as I leave the theater, I say to myself, I am one who loves, has loved. So what does the face of God look like?
It looks lonely and unappreciated. The face of God looks wounded.
Just when I think I have a pretty good idea of who God is, there comes a voice like Meghan Dillon's to say, "Know ME? I think not." So back I go into the cloud of unknowing, looking for a "secret in the shadow."
What I find is that the face of God looks playful, maybe even mischievous. The voice insists, "I'm a good God. Yes, I am." The face of God is like Diane Ucchino's face--kind, gentle, and volcanic. It is the face of the Lamb and the face of the Lion, the same face of God that is seen in the Scriptures, now seen in the children God has fashioned. What else is there to say except
Friends listen: the God whom I love is inside you.
(1.)From THE KABIR BOOK by Robert Bly. Copyright [C] 1971, 1977, by Robert Bly. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press.…