Poets find new readers through comics, slam, and teaching

John Johnson edited and published a book of illustrated poems that teachers in Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Illinois want to use in their English curriculums. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
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June 27, 2015 - 8:35am

School is where a lot of people are first exposed to poetry. That first experience with poetry can shade a person’s love – or hate – of poetry for a lifetime.

Poets do a lot of work not just writing but also teaching poetry. They often find themselves teaching workshops and doing readings at libraries, book clubs, and in classrooms. Nebraska’s State Poet Twyla Hansen is the state’s most visible advocate for poetry. And there are others like Don Welch who was the poet for rural Nebraska schools for 25 years.

“Those were some of the best times that I ever had. I was known as that poetry guy,” Welch said.

Read more of Don Welch's poetry at The Poetry Foundation.

He remembers a student’s first “a-ha!” moment with poetry in Eddyville, a town 25 miles north of Lexington.

“And I'm looking over his shoulder, and I'm reading, ‘I'm inside the P. It is noisy in here. I'm inside the O. It is quiet in here. I'm inside the E, there's not a thing on in here. I'm inside the M, I feel good in here.’ And I said, Patrick, that’s it! You went inside every letter in the word poem, and you felt what it was like, and you worded your way out!”

A person’s first experience with poetry can be formative. John Johnson said he didn’t come to like poetry until he was a senior in high school: “I started liking poetry about 1976. I had Christine Vandervoort as a teacher. And she was really great. She taught me to love poetry. And it changed my life.”

It changed his life a lot. Johnson became a career poet. And for a long time, he thought about how people react to poetry.

“Most people don’t like poetry! I can hardly get my friends to read my poetry!” Johnson said. So this past spring, he tried something new. Johnson published an illustrated book of poems. It’s basically a comic book.

See Tiauna Lewis perform at Great Plains Louder Than A Bomb 2015.

Johnson says he hoped the book would particularly reach those people who don’t typically like poetry. But he’s also found another audience for it. Teachers in Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Illinois have contacted him to use his book as part of his their English classes from middle school to college

Teachers are eager to get their students into poetry, using any means necessary.  In 2012, the Nebraska Writers Collective introduced slam poetry to school curriculums throughout eastern Nebraska. Slam poetry is meant to be performed by poets in front of audiences. Before discovering slam, Tiauna Lewis wasn’t that interested in poetry:

“I thought it was really boring,” Lewis said.

Lewis just graduated from Lincoln High after being on the school’s slam poetry team for all four years. She’s part of a slam team who’s won the Louder Than A Bomb state championship twice.

“Before I joined slam I just didn’t see the point in writing these poems. They were super convoluted, and I just didn’t understand. Now that I am more aware of the intricacies of what it takes to write a good poem, I have a lot more respect, and I like all forms of poetry a lot more than I used to,” Lewis said.

Poetry gives Lewis an outlet. And her love for poetry, and her teammates love for poetry, is having ripple effects.

“This year I had one of the freshmen come up to me and say Hey! I remember you! I really liked your poem. I thought it was awesome. And that was really a great feeling.”

And that’s the goal for any poetry teacher, whether you’re trying slam poetry, comic poetry, or you’re a more traditional teacher like Welch.

“This is the kind of thing that happened over and over and over again,” Welch said. “All you have to do is, like on the farm we had a pump. To get water out of the pump you had to prime it. All you have to do with kids is prime them to get them to write.”

Hear Tiauna Lewis talk about how slam poetry changed her:



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