Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Life of a Poet - Richard Walker


Kids, I have always loved the name of Mr. Walker’s blog, Sadly Waiting for Recess, the more so as Richard is a teacher and it conjures up such cute images. He has also been sadly waiting for an interview, for a very long time, so today we are finally sitting down with him, to see how things are in the land of  poetry, and public education. Richard  has some very  astute things to say about what’s happening in our schools. Sharpen your pencils, kids, and go to your seats. Mr. Walker is about to give a class!
                                        
Poets United: Richard, nice to be talking to you at last! I so love the name of your blog. What is the story behind how you named your site?

Mr. Walker, Sadly Waiting for Recess!

Richard: I’m glad you asked that question. A number of years ago, I had a student teacher, and he wanted to try teaching our fifth-graders to write sestinas. So, I said, “Okay.” We taught the lesson and the students wrote sestinas. Then, Susan Sibbet, from California Poets in the Schools (CPITS), came in to our class to teach poetry writing, which she has done with my class for many years now. We showed her what the students had already written. One of the poems in particular impressed her, one titled “Sadly Waiting for Recess” by a boy named Matthew. At the end of our time with her, after eight sessions or so, she always puts together an anthology, with one or two poems from each student, and they all get to keep a copy. Everyone liked Matthew’s poem, so it was a natural choice for the anthology.

There are dozens and dozens of poets working with students as part of CPITS in classrooms all over California. Every year CPITS publishes a collection of student poems. That year, Susan Sibbet had an opportunity to submit poems for the state anthology. She submitted “Sadly Waiting for Recess” and it was published.

So, it’s a title that’s meaningful to me. One, it’s a great poem. Two, it speaks to collaboration. It wasn’t my idea. All I did was say “yes” to my student teacher’s idea. Three, I was so touched by Susan Sibbet’s generosity in submitting a poem for publication that didn’t come from one of her writing ideas. So, when it came to picking a name for my blog, I had a great title that combined teaching and poetry, collaboration and generosity, all rolled up in those four words.
Poets United: What a wonderful story. I am so happy poetry is being taught to children in the early grades, so they will hopefully continue to pursue its enjoyment as they get older. Can you tell us a little about yourself, your life, your career as a teacher?

Richard: My wife, Kelley, and I have been happily married for ten years, though we’ve been together as a couple almost sixteen years now. We have two children, Liam and Aidan. That baby on my profile picture  is Liam when he was quite small.


While we both work in San Francisco, we live in the suburb of San Bruno, a little ways south of San Francisco, near the San Francisco airport. We used to live in the city as well, but we decided to move so we could afford a bigger home for our family. We met at the law firm where I used to work, and where she still works today.

I have lived in the San Francisco bay area since I was almost ten. It’s a wonderful place. Where we live now is on the peninsula, between San Francisco, where I’ve lived for most of my adult life, and Sunnyvale, where I did my growing up after moving to California.
I like to joke that I had my mid-life crisis early. As I was about to turn thirty, when I was still working at the law firm as a records manager, I asked myself if this was the work that I truly wanted to do. And the answer was no. Teaching always had an attraction for me, but I was so burned out after graduating from college, and the teaching job prospects then were not good, that I entered the private sector. But teaching continued to call to me. With Kelley’s full and enthusiastic support, I quit my job at the law firm, and enrolled at San Francisco State University to earn my teaching credential.
During my student teaching semester, my master teacher heard about an available position at an elementary school, where he knew the principal; they had gone through the administrative credential program together. One day, he introduced me to her. She asked me back a few days later to teach a lesson, and a couple of days after that, she offered me the job. With the full support of my master teacher and my supervisor at San Francisco State, in November, I took over that classroom, a 3rd/4th grade combination class until the end of the school year. I have been at that school, Lafayette Elementary, ever since, mostly teaching fifth grade students.
Poets United: What a wonderful story! And what a beautiful, happy family you have, Richard. Have you always written?
Richard: I started writing in high school. I had an English class when I was a junior, and my teacher had us do some narrative and expository writing assignments. I wrote a story once, and when I read it aloud in front of the class, the other students laughed. I didn’t know it was that funny, and I started giggling, unable to contain myself in the face of their laughter. That was the first time that I had a positive reaction from other people, with words I had written. That was very encouraging, and I started thinking about writing more. That same teacher encouraged me and she gave me positive feedback on a couple of essays I wrote about the job I had at the time.
As a senior, I took a writing class, where we wrote more stories. That’s where and when I started to write poetry.  The only one I recall from that time was a poem that I wrote about an imaginary home. I wrote about “a stinkweed by the sea.”  When I read it aloud the teacher commented, “There’s one in every class.”
Other boys didn’t give me a hard time about it. I didn’t have many friends, being an introvert, and those I did have didn’t know I was writing. That first teacher in high school definitely encouraged me and helped get me started with poetry and writing.  It was around this same time, that I decided I wanted to study literature in college.
I first went to De Anza Community College, a junior college in nearby Cupertino. I took all the general education courses that I’d need as a freshman and sophomore, but I also jumped into English literature. I took an introduction to poetry class with John Lovas, and he was a big influence on me, introducing me to a lot of great poems and poets. He took us on a poetry field trip, an activity that I’ve also done with my students. It’s just a matter of asking each student to pick a poem that they like and which they’d like to share with the class, and then you find some sunny, grassy place, and sit around sharing poems with each other.
And I took a poetry writing class with George Barlow. He definitely encouraged me. I learned a lot in that class. And I was just so impressed with him. He was a published poet and had gone to the Iowa Writers Workshop. I remember writing a poem inspired by William Blake, whom I was quite taken with at the time, and only George got it. He even asked about it in class, trying to get the other students to see what I was trying to do in the poem.
I also took a class where I was on the staff of the literary journal, Bottomfish. That was a great experience, reading poems and stories that writers were submitting for us to publish. We also put out a student anthology and one of my poems was accepted for that.
Poets United: Such wonderful experiences! I love the story about following your heart and changing your career.   I LOVE the sound of poetry field trips! How cool is that? (I want to go on one!) And now do you encourage your students to write poetry?
Richard: Absolutely.  I love it when students write poems on their own accord and share them with me, so I always encourage that. And I also teach poetry writing lessons and make my students write poems. For me, it’s a way to be their teacher and not be their teacher. When they’re writing poems, they don’t have to worry about getting a grade. Anything (pretty much) goes. It lets me step out of the teaching role, and just be encouraging. And as a teacher, it allows me to see my students in new ways, to get a glimpse of who they are as people, not just as students. I have a student in my class who lost her mother to cancer a couple of years ago, and she’s already written about that in a poem. That takes incredible bravery – and that just moves me. And if it weren’t for that poem, that self-expression on her part might not have happened in the classroom, with all the pressure to do well on standardized tests. Having my students write poems just adds a depth and breadth to my teaching – and my understanding of my students.
Poets United: Oh, what a moving story about the little girl. It sounds like your students are pretty lucky to have you for a teacher, Mr. Walker! So, what is it about poetry that makes you want to write? What made you choose poetry as your means of expression?

Richard: Poetry has always called to me. When I transferred to UC Berkeley from De Anza, I applied for a poetry writing class with Thom Gunn. I submitted some poems, which was a requirement, but I wasn’t accepted into the class. That was discouraging. I continued to write poems while I was in school, immersed as I was in literature, but after I graduated, I wrote less and less. I would write the occasional poem when I was inspired, but that was not too often.

In November 2008, I was in my local Barnes & Noble, browsing the writing section, when I came across Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! I bought it that night, went home, logged onto the website, and began my first National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  It was already November 11th, so I had a late start and literally no plot. But I wrote 16,000 words that month.


Poets United: Wow!


Richard: In November 2009, I participated in my second NaNoWriMo and completed my first novel. That year, in the forums on their website, I read about other writing events that people participated in during other months of the year. I learned that people were going to be writing a poem a day during April as part of National Poetry Month.



In April 2010, I just wrote poems to prompts from Poetic Asides, where Robert Lee Brewer ran his Poem-a-Day Challenge. I didn’t start posting them on my blog until about half way through the month.  I continued writing for a little bit over that summer. And I started learning about other sites out there, like Read Write Poem. I discovered it just as it was closing up shop, but I learned about Writer’s Island and Big Tent Poetry shortly thereafter. But at some point over that summer, I stopped writing again.

In November 2010, I finished my second novel as part of NaNoWriMo.

And then in March 2011, I started writing poems again, to warm up for April, which is also when I discovered Poets United. I’ve been writing and posting poems since then.

So, writing has been on my periphery for a while now. I never thought I could write a novel, and I don’t think I would have attempted it without NaNoWriMo. I can say the same about poetry. I definitely would not be writing as many poems as I am if it weren’t for all the sites out there posting prompt ideas. I’m just amazed at the generosity and creativity that’s out there.

Poetry is still my first love and the kind of writing that most calls and appeals to me. I tell my students that the left-side of my brain loves the logic and consistency of math, while my right brain loves the ambiguity and complexity of metaphors and poetry. I love how you can break the rules of punctuation and capitalization in poetry, and yet people still understand what you mean. I think I chose poetry as my main means of expression because it just suits me. I think it is a calling. It has been calling to me for a long time, and now I’m finally answering on a regular basis.

Though I’ve written novels, poetry is closer to my heart and mind. Sure, I write persona poems, where I pretend to be someone else, but a lot of my poetry is personal. Even if a poem doesn’t seem confessional or personal, there is a lot of me in there, my thoughts and feelings.



Poets United: And we are so happy to be reading it! You are an extremely productive writer. Good for you, completing a novel. What style of poem do you write the most?

Richard: I mostly write free verse. I can’t rhyme or sustain a consistent rhythm for any length of time. I’m always unsatisfied with those poems when I attempt them, which is less and less. I do like to try different forms, though.  I like sestinas, and syllabic poems, and poems that use math concepts, like pikus and Fibonacci poems. Any form that has rhyme and meter, those are difficult for me.
Poets United: I know teachers' evenings are busy grading papers and preparing lesson plans. When do you write the most? When you are happy, sad, lonely, day or night?
Richard: I don’t write when I’m particularly happy or sad, at either emotional extreme. I tend to write when I’m somewhere in the middle, a more pensive, content state. I try to write in the morning. I’m not really a morning person, but I have been productive then. That time before work in the morning is also the time in my household when I’m least likely to be interrupted.
I like to write in our sunroom. Most of my poems are written there. And once or twice during the week, I’ll head out in the evenings, usually to Barnes & Noble, with my notebook in hand, and I’ll write in the cafe there.
Poets United: That sounds cool. But now I want a latte! Do you have a favorite poem, written by you?
Richard: No. That would be like having a favorite student or a favorite child.
Poets United: Then, a favorite poet?  In what way does this poet’s work influence yours?
Richard: In general, the English Romantics spoke to me a great deal, when I was introduced to them in college: Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley, in particular.
Amongst American poets, Emily Dickinson, e. e. cummings, and Langston Hughes are favorites.
I would say my current favorite poet is Billy Collins. I love his poetry. As a teacher and poet, he’s my role model.

[image from the poet's site : billy-collins.com]
Poets United: Is there a connection between poetry and music for you?
Richard: I love music. I have a “Poetry” playlist that I listen to when I’m reading poems online. Sometimes, I listen to music when I’m writing, but sometimes not. It has to be instrumental, nothing with vocals. And for my students, I’ve been thinking about reading them some music lyrics as poems. I was thinking about “Eleanor Rigby” and “Sounds of Silence”.
Poets United: Cool idea! I remember one really excellent English teacher playing us some classical music, then inviting us to write what we "saw" or heard in the music. I still remember that. Do you have any personal heroes? Why do they inspire you?
Richard: Billy Collins, as I’ve mentioned before. His poetry is amazing, and his Poetry 180 project, to have poems read aloud to students – that inspires me.
Harlan Ellison. His short stories are amazing. And he’s a gadfly. He’s always marched to his own drummer.
Thomas More. He wrote Utopia, and defied Henry VIII. If you’ve seen A Man for All Seasons, I think you might understand why he’s a hero to me.
Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson. Two important writers and leaders of the American Revolution, a subject that I teach, that I love teaching, and about which I learn more every year.


[Portrait of John Dickinson from http://www.ushistory.org/]
Poets United: Have you ever been tempted to write about that era?
Richard:  Actually, I have thought about writing about that era. I've done research, of course, and have written some things for my students. But I have been thinking of writing something fictional. A friend of mine, who is also a teacher and writer, introduced me to the Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card, which is set shortly after the Revolution. It's fantasy with real historical characters. He also introduced me to the Age of Unreason series by Gregory Keyes, which also has another of my heroes in it as a main character, Benjamin Franklin. So, I have thought of writing a fantasy book set during the Revolution, or perhaps an alternate history type of book.

I already have something in mind for this year's NaNoWriMo, but perhaps next year.

Poets United: It would make for an interesting work of  historical fiction. So, Richard, I have been itching to ask you, in  your opinion, does public education do its job, or is there room for improvement? Are there any frustrations?
Richard: Public education does its job, and there is room for improvement. There’s always room for improvement, which is what public education is about, improvement, moving forward, being better today than you were yesterday, if only by a millimeter.

The double edged sword of public education is the diversity of our country. It is the source of our strength, and yet it can be our weakness. What frustrates me is when people quote statistics comparing our students to students in other countries, like Korea or Japan. I don’t think it’s fair to compare our sprawling, pluralistic society with a relatively small monoculture like that. We incorporate people from other countries and cultures into ours; not always well, and not always with a welcoming hand, but we try. And then we throw standardized tests at students who speak English as a second language. Of course they don’t do well. They may learn to speak English relatively quickly. What child doesn’t learn a new language quickly so that he or she can make friends? But that doesn’t mean they can read and write it well yet.

 And every state has its own standards. We may have a Department of Education as part of our federal government, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same in all fifty states. It’s not. Would I give up our diversity? Absolutely not. Will a ten-year-old tell you that you can’t compare apples and oranges? Of course they will. And yet I have to read articles criticizing or lamenting the state of public education. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.  And literally everyone has an opinion about public education in this country. I just wish more people had an informed opinion, an educated opinion, if you will.

The other thing is our society’s attitude towards public education. Frankly, we don’t support it. We don’t put our money where our mouth is. Yes, I know the economy is bad now, but lack of funding for public education in this country has been a problem for a long time now.  If you ranked California according to Gross Domestic Product, it ranks as the ninth largest in the world, above countries like Canada, India, and Russia. Yet, if you compare how much California spends per pupil with other states, it ranks 24th, solidly in the middle. I’m no economist, but you can’t tell me that doesn’t strike you as a little out of whack. On the other hand, we treat public education too much like it’s a capitalist venture, which it’s not. Students are not products on an assembly line from kindergarten to high school. Teaching is a service. Public education is about acquiring a variety of basic skills and general knowledge, being able to read and write, being able to think, and participating as a robust member of our democratic republic.

Poets United: So well said! I knew your response would be well-thought-out and interesting. Who would know better than a teacher, the response to that question? What is the very best thing about teaching? What is the saddest?
Richard: The best part? Working with young people. I love the brutal honesty of children. There’s no guile there. You essentially know where you stand with them, good, bad, or indifferent. And all the potential they represent. They’re still forming. They still question so much; they’re curious. And they laugh. Too many adults aren’t growing any more, they’re shaped already, accepting so much without question, and don’t laugh nearly enough.

The saddest? Children in pain. I am privy to a great deal of confidential information about children and their families. And nothing saddens me more than knowing that a child’s home life is unhappy. Family is so important to them, and separation, divorce, or death can be so devastating to them. And though I have that knowledge, I often feel impotent to help them.
Poets United: I suspect you help them more than you know, Richard, simply by being the caring teacher you are. I imagine poverty is another factor that impacts children in the classroom - we could do a whole other interview on that alone, most likely. If you could have dinner with any famous person, who would it be? Where and what would you eat? (Vegan, I know!) What would you talk about?
Richard: I would happily have dinner with any of the people I mentioned above. I would invite them to Millennium in San Francisco, hands-down the best vegan restaurant.  Most of them are writers, so I’d definitely want to talk to them about writing, who inspires them, and who they are as people, what I see in them that makes them heroic to me, so that I could understand them just as the people they are, which I think would just make my view of them as a hero that more profound.
Poets United: You know, I think teachers are unsung heroes too, and not nearly highly enough paid. Poets are often creative on many different levels. When you are not writing, what other pursuits do you enjoy?
Richard: Writing is my main creative outlet. Teaching, also, is a form of creative expression. It’s like poetry, in that it requires the heart and the mind, art and craft. But, honestly, writing has taken up more of that place for me over recent years. I still pour a lot of myself into my teaching, but writing is something I do just for me.

Of course, I love to read.  I’m always reading several things at once. I try to read just one novel at a time, but I’m likely to be reading several nonfiction books at once, usually history, writing, psychology, and/or education. Naturally, I read a fair amount of children’s books. I’m proud of my personal library and the one in my classroom too. And I love my nook, my e-reader. I don’t go anywhere without it.
Poets United: I'm a voracious reader, too. What do you most enjoy doing with your children?
Richard: Swimming. We swam a lot this past summer. If it wasn’t at our local outdoor pool here in San Bruno, we swam at the YMCA.
Reading together is cool. That’s starting to happen now with Liam, my oldest.
I’ve also brainstormed some ideas with my sons for a children’s novel that I’m going to write this November for my fourth NaNoWriMo.

Poets United: Oh, that’s fantastic. The kids will give you some great ideas, I'll bet. There is a good market out there for children’s books, too. Is there anything else you would like to share with Poets United?
Richard: I’m grateful to so many people in the online poetry community. I’m humbled by the generous people who spend their time creating and maintaining places for people like me who write poems. I love visiting other peoples’ blogs and reading their poems. It’s such an inclusive community, like my school is, like our country should be. It’s warm and welcoming and enriches my life in so many ways, creatively, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. I hope that people think kindly of me, that I hold up my end of that bargain, that I give back some small portion of what I’ve received. I see myself as a misfit, so to be accepted so freely means the world to me.
Poets United: You have such a good heart, Mr. Walker. Those kids are lucky to have you as their teacher. I love it that you are turning kids on to writing and poetry. And, for what it's worth, I don't see you as a misfit at all, simply a good and decent man doing some real good in the world, as a husband and father, in the classroom, and with your writing. You sound like a hero to me, Mr. Walker! Thank you so much for this interview. I have so enjoyed my time with you, and I know our members will, too.
Richard: Thank you, Sherry. It was an honor to be asked to be interviewed. And I appreciate the opportunity to share a little bit about myself and my world.
Isn’t Mr. Walker just the best sort of teacher, kids? And isn’t it true that the people behind the pen are some of the most interesting around? Come back to see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!

9 comments:

  1. Sherry, thanks for interviewing Richard. I have been reading his poetry for a long time. I love his unique style and his varied subjects, and his poems always make me think. My commendations to you, Richard, for working with poetry in your classroom. With your enthusiasm and love of poetry, this enjoyment can't help but transfer over to them as well.

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  2. This interview was a real treat for me. Long interested in and impressed by Richard's work and his thoughtfulness, I now enjoy knowing a little bit more about the man behind the computer screen. He is one busy fellow! Thank you Sherry and Richard, for adding even more depth and connection to our community.

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  3. Good to know more about you Richard. Well done to both you and Sherry for a great interview. :-)

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  4. Richard, you're A Man for All Seasons!

    Good job Sherry.

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  5. Richard is one of a growing family of poets I unquestionably call friend. He is especially dear because, in a way, he allows me to sit in his classroom. I follow all his classroom poetry sites and he is introducing me the poetry curriculum that wasn't available when I went to school.

    Thank you, Sherry, for giving me this special conversation with my friend.

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  6. I too love the title of Mr Walker's blog, and the fact that he is 'Mr Walker ' there, his teacher name, and above all I love his writing. Great interview, utterly fascinating! It restores one's faith, to be reminded there are teachers like this in the world. I always thought teaching was one of those jobs that should ideally only be done by people who have a vocation for it; lovely to read of one who has.

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  7. Mr. Walkers students are very lucky indeed. He is a teacher and human to emulate. Sherry this was an exceptional interview. I really loved it. Thank you.

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  8. Thanks, Sherry, for the interview. It was a great deal of fun. You really did your research and came up with some great questions for me. And thanks to everyone who commented, both here and at my blog. I'm happy to be a part of Poets United.

    Richard

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  9. Richard has given a wonderful interview, generous in the extreme, and inspiring. I don't know how he finds the time for his professional, family and writing lives and yet contribute fully to poetry prompts and commenting on our blogs. Bravo, Sherry and Bravissimo, Richard.

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