Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Poetry for Children and for Prisoners

On March 26, 2012 I started a new adventure - teaching a class on art and ethics to inmates of Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, CA. I designed my four-part class as lessons in connecting feelings to thoughts, by using artwork, music, and poetry - a full range of artistic experiences - to teach virtues and called it EVA Ethics and Values in Art. The framework is provided by the Four Cardinal Virtues - courage, justice, wisdom or prudence and moderation, or temperance. Known since antiquity and used to teach moral values and character through over two thousand years of Western history, the virtues have largely been forgotten. Their presence in the lives of artists and their artwork is very strong, from Rembrandt to Chopin... I associated each virtue with an emotion - grief, shame, joy and calm and with a moral action - compassion, forgiveness, generosity and gratitude...

While designing the curriculum, I thought I would be teaching women, so I was quite surprised when I was sent to a men's institution. At Pitchess, they have been given a chance to think through their decisions and change their lives. The group I'm working with has decided to do exactly that. They enrolled in and graduated from the MERIT-WISE program, a part of the Sheriff's Education-Based Incarceration project.

Now, they participate in various workshops and classes taught by volunteers like me. The majority have never been to an art museum or a classical music concert. My goal is to help them find their way to the Hollywood Bowl . . . That and not to return to jail. How does one do that?


Justice: Do what's right, what's fair.
Fortitude: Keep smiling. Grin and bear.
Temperance: Don't take more than your share
Prudence: Choose wisely. Think and care.

Find yourself deep within your heart
In a circle of cardinal virtues
The points of your compass
Your Cornerstone.

Once you've mastered the steps, new ones appear.
Faith: You are not alone.
Hope: And all shall be well...
Love: The very air we breathe
Where we are.

The framework I designed and teach right now is non-religious and, therefore, I skip the three Theological Virtues mentioned at the end of my poem. There is enough material for discussion though in the paintings of the Prodigal Son and Tobias by Rembrandt, Guernica by Picasso, City Whispers by Susan Dobay... There is enough inspiration in the Revolutionary Etude by Chopin and the Ode to Joy by Beethoven. If I put my own poetry in this context, am I acting grandiose and, as someone once called me (to my immense delight) - a megalomaniac? The point is to find yourself in your own words. I may "know" what's out there or what I've been taught, but I truly know only what I have experienced myself. I have to go deep inside, to the truth about me, to express a vision of the world that is both deeply personal and unique in my poetry.

Non Omnis Moriar

Only the best will remain.
Startled by beauty
I fly into the eye of goodness.

Only the best . . .
Wasted hours, words, signs,
Sounds and fake symbols.

Blue torrents of feeling
Crystallized in empty space
Twisted above our heads
Where light freezes
Into sculpted infinity


If I could be there



On March 2 2012 I paid my annual visit to the Pacoima Charter School to participate in the Read Across America event during which volunteers go to classrooms and read books to the kids, to inspire in them a life-long fascination with reading. My fifth graders were fascinated with the fact that they saw in front of them an actual poet, someone who wrote books she held in her hands.

This year, I selected several poems about art - including Water Lilies by Claude Monet, paintings from the Awakenings series by Susan Dobay, a number of landscape paintings from the annual Manzanar Internment Camp Workshop, and my own photographs from the "My Sky" poem. At the end, I led the children in writing their own two poems, a haiku of sorts, and a couplet stanza. The assignment was to describe the feelings one has in the spring and the favorite things to do at that time.

swimming in happiness
sunny and sleepy
we bloom in the spring

And the second one:

fun in the sun
getting a tan
under the trees
feeling the breeze

Just right for a bunch of ten year olds... When I was leaving, a girl handed me a strip of paper that she tore out of her notebook. She wrote: "Thank you, Maja for a sweet treat to read the Poems that sink Into our heart." A sweet treat, indeed.


Photos from Big Tujunga Wash and Pacoima Charter Elementary (c) 2012 by Maja Trochimczyk

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