One Small Drop of Water: Poetry at the Cellular Level

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photo from pixabay

“No more pleasant sight has met my eye than this of so many thousand of living creatures in one small drop of water.”
– Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, 17th century pioneer in microbiology

Last fall I did a poetry residency with a seventh grade science class. They were studying cellular structure and respiration followed by a unit on genetics and DNA. Their teacher and I discussed ways we could connect poetry and science with the students. We landed on the big idea of close observation, noticing deeply and seeing patterns—essential skills for both poets and scientists. We wanted the students to practice looking closely and describing what they saw in precise detail.

We asked them to consider the question:

What do we learn from looking closely? Continue reading One Small Drop of Water: Poetry at the Cellular Level

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How to Do What You Love

Edouard_Manet,_A_Bar_at_the_Folies-Bergère
Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.                                                                                                           Henry David Thoreau

In a box somewhere I have a list I wrote at age thirteen of ways to make money. If memory serves, it included crafts I could make and sell, chores for which I could possibly get paid and babysitting for my neighbors. Babysitting’s the only one that provided any significant stream of income. In high school and beyond, I worked as a lifeguard, caterer, house painter and substitute teacher. But most of my adult life I’ve earned my living with some combination of teaching and waiting tables.

In the ‘90s I discovered the profession of teaching artist—someone who implements long-term residencies and short-term workshops in their art form in schools, jails, community centers and hospitals—and I’ve been doing it ever since. Last year I did residencies in Chicago, Evanston and Independence, Kansas, designed and led a handful of professional development workshops for teachers, directed the Chicago Public Schools All-City Theatre Ensemble and wrote educational materials for Lyric Opera Chicago’s student and general audiences. I also waited tables at two different restaurants. I got fired from the first by a sketchy owner, which led to an anxiety-ridden, touch-and-go September: no teaching work and no restaurant to fall back on. I’m still feeling the effects of a month of no income, though I did find another job—at a place where I work longer hours for less money. The whole thing left me demoralized and a teensy bit frantic—and wondering for the millionth time why I’m still waiting tables. Continue reading How to Do What You Love

Strange Paths

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Even before I walked around every day with a massive research library in my pocket, I often looked things up. In the olden days, when I was working on a project, I’d hunker in library stacks for hours, lug home bags of books. My life was full of Post-its, torn off slips of paper, scrawled, sometimes indecipherable notes. I fondly recall sitting hunched in a carrel in my college library with books at my elbow, books at my feet. I liked finding notes or marginalia left by other readers who—months or years previous—had been curious about the same thing I was investigating at that moment. Continue reading Strange Paths

Till You’re Done Growing Up: An Open Letter to My Theater Students

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The All City ensembles are part of a free Chicago Public School program which provides opportunities for collaborative arts making to CPS students. This spring, I directed the All City Theater Ensemble with fellow teaching artist Ashley Winston. Our 8th through 12th grade students created an original performance called “Listen,” which explored the theme of voice and which they performed at the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago. This is an open letter to my students.

Dear All City Ensemble,

I want to share some thoughts that have been percolating since our show last month at the Harris Theater.

This spring, Saturday afternoons were my favorite part of the week, and that’s because of you. It was inspiring to see you dive in wholeheartedly to the process of creating an original performance that was fun and full of meaning for you and for your audience. It was a joy for me to talk, read, write and bring about a show about ideas that matter with some cool and interesting people. (That’s you.) I felt proud and moved by the energy and commitment you brought to rehearsal—reading Langston Hughes, Casandra Lopez and Afzal Ahmed Syed; discussing race and music and community; writing poems, rants and new definitions; blocking and choreographing and memorizing.

Sometimes, when you’re a teacher, you’re not sure if your students get it—that is, whatever you’re wanting them to get—you’re not sure what they take away. I hope you learned something about trying new things and messing up and trying them again. I hope you discovered something about taking risks and setting boundaries. I hope we created a space where you felt safe and respected. I hope you gained a sense of how to make something from scratch, from just an idea, of how to collaborate with a group, of how to say yes, and. I hope you learned some things about theater and writing—about rhythm and repetition and imagery, about physicality and blocking and specificity. I hope you walked away feeling heard. I hope you continued to develop a sense of your unique voice and some thoughts on how you might like to express that in the world.

I found a tribe and a home in theater when I was your age. (At which time I was obsessed with Prince the way some of you are obsessed with Drake and One Direction.) I loved how theater brought worlds into being. I loved telling stories. I loved living in stories. I loved the way the kids in a show fell in love with each other, the friendships and flirtations that came about from hanging out and getting to know one other. I loved the challenge of theater—all the skills it called into play, the ways it made me stretch. I loved the energy that sparked between performers, crew and audience.

I think you felt that energy that comes from working on a show with an ensemble you’ve come to know during the weeks of rehearsal. I hope you’ll continue to learn from one another. I hope you made some memories and some friends that will stick around a while. I know a lot of you had hurdles to overcome to be part of All City—you shuffled schedules, battled illness, juggled school and other extracurricular activities, memorized lines and blocking. I want you to remember the feeling of accomplishment you had that Sunday afternoon at the Harris. Take out that feeling whenever you need it.

I couldn’t find the right song for the end of our piece. I wanted something that related to our theme of finding your voice and asking to be heard. I wanted it to be uplifting, a little anthemic, but not too hokey, not too on the nose. I fell in love with the refrain in Chance the Rapper’s cover of the Arthur theme song “Wonderful Everyday.”

I’m gonna get by when the going get rough                                               I’m gonna love life ’til I’m done growing up                                                     And when I go down                                                                                             I’mma go down swinging                                                                                   My eyes still smiling                                                                                           And my heart still singing

Here’s the secret no one tells you about growing up—it never really feels like you do. I think that’s a good thing. Approach with caution those who think they’re done growing up. There’s always something to learn, something to love about life. We can always ask the questions I heard you ask in our discussions, the questions you ask in your performance: Who am I in the world? How do people see me? Who do I want to be? I hope for you what I hope for myself: that you can love life till you’re done growing up and that you’ll keep growing (learning, listening, dreaming, evolving) till your life is done—a long, long time from now.

Have a beautiful summer, young artists.

Love,                                                                                                                     Maia

Theatre

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Listen sample 3

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brandon

Missed Connections: Meet me in a field of snow.

English: Snowy field
English: Snowy field (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I started this blog to document the process of writing my first book, The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures. If you’ve spent time here, you know I mostly write about what’s going on in my brain as I write, revise and obsess over this massive project. I spend as much time as I can on the manuscript. But in the meantime, a girl’s gotta eat. So, today I’m going to share a story from my day job. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I wait tables a couple nights a week. But by day I’m an interdisciplinary teaching artist, which means I work with students, teachers and community members in schools, healthcare centers and jails on all kinds of writing and performance projects.

I’m currently working with a seventh grade class at a Chicago public school on the South Side through one of my favorite arts ed organizations, Urban Gateways. My students are creating a performance that investigates connection – the people, places and things they feel connected to and how they are impacted by that web of connections. Seeking material to inspire student writing, I started thinking about the missed connections ads in the classified sections of local papers or on websites like Craigslist. I thought that could be a fruitful place to start an exploration of connectedness. A little digging brought me to a beautiful site called Literary Bohemian, an online journal of travel writing where I found a prose poem called “new york craigslist > personals > missed connections>” by Megan Falley.

My students and I talked about the concept of a missed connection ad. I likened it to a flyer you might see stapled to a telephone pole or tree for a missing pet or person. We talked about the people we might miss a connection with – a friend or relative who died or moved away, a fictional character we could never meet in real life or someone we hadn’t yet met, but hoped we would someday. We talked about dreams and being weird and how in poems you can use images that are dreamlike and surreal to say something about a relationship that is hard to say in words. Here are some of the poems they came up with. I think they’re pretty brilliant. We’ll use these poems and more to compile a script the students will perform at the end of May. I can’t wait to see how it turns out. Continue reading Missed Connections: Meet me in a field of snow.