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Visual Poetry in San Francisco

Because of the isolation during the pandemic, students’ poems had more depth and seemed even more powerful. Perhaps because we were so hungry for any types of connections with others, words shared by another individual in a poem were treasured even more.

Of course, the teaching was done remotely. Not having as easy a familiarity with technology as most of the high school students, the intricacies of teaching by zoom, and especially, screen sharing were a challenge that I resisted at first. And I certainly thought that because there was no in-person interaction, that students’ poems would not be quite as substantial. Students could see me, but I only saw their names and whatever emoji they’d chosen to represent themselves onscreen. (Occasionally, a voice connected to a real face would appear for a few seconds, but that was rare.) Essentially, I was talking to a computer screen, hoping that I still had students’ attention.

I did have to alter the lessons to some degree. My usual “odes to gemstones” lesson in which students handled actual gemstones in class became “odes to fruits” on zoom since I assumed

students would have access to fruits at home to touch, sniff, and taste.

The lesson that seemed to be most successful via zoom was their writing poems related to artwork—ekphrastic poetry. Normally, I’d lug a huge box of art print postcards to class and students would choose to write a poem related to one of those art print postcards—creating their own story for the work or pretending they were the artist and describing what they were hoping to share with the viewer. This semester by zoom, I introduced students to work by artists who had a connection to the Bay Area or San Francisco specifically—Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Sargent Johnson, Chiura Obata--and to additional prominent artists, Georgia O’Keefe, Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, Chagall, and others. However, students could write about any piece of art of their own choosing. Possibly because writing about art seemed like a great escape and break from their own surroundings, or because in creating their own stories for the work of art they could dwell in their own imagination, their ekphrastic poetry was phenomenal,

For the last few years as a culminating project, I’ve asked high school students to create a visual project transcribed with some lines from their poem, or to perform their poem theatrically or to music or to create a video of their poem.

I thought that this year might be problematic for some students to create a visual project if they were “stuck” at home, but one of the high school teachers, Mr. Christian Villanueva, liked the idea of an inter-disciplinary poetry project. I showed the students on screen examples of students’ work from prior years that had been displayed at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

Their resulting projects were ingenious and varied. Some students created drawings or paintings; some created three-dimensional multi-media sculptures with a variety of materials—paper, popsicle sticks, carving books, twine, and clothing. Three students created very moving audio or video components highlighting their poetry.

All of the visual poetry projects featured in the photos were created by 9th graders in Mr. Christian Villanueva’s classes at Lowell H.S. in San Francisco. Students took photos of their visual projects and submitted them digitally. Sierra Sun created the shape of a butterfly by carving into pages of a book. Jamie Lau used twine to bind together drawings of two hands. Alexis Jenkins wrote lines for her poems on a T-shirt. Eunbi Ryu created a three-dimensional artwork with moving figures on either side of a mirror with the words of her poem scattered below like fragments from broken glass. Graham Witt built an arched bridge from popsicle sticks with lines of his poem affixed to the bridge. Eva Goldberg transcribed lines of her poem in geometrically designed seaweed. Haruto Pahminik wrote lines of his fruit ode to blueberries on a stunning drawing of blueberries. Sidney Wong did a stylized drawing of wolves. Katrina Lin wrote lines of her poem on folded paper flowers descending from folded and cut tissue paper. Lois McTrang created a video of lines of her poem affixed to 3-D walls, furniture, and curtains. Elian Carvajal Lomeli attached lines of his poem to his own abstract art. Nicole Lam painted an outdoor scene added to words of her poem. Violet Chan drew artwork to represent her poem, “Ode to Dragon Fruit.” Chloe Faison created an audio recording of her recitation of her ekphrastic poem accompanied by her playing her own cello composition inspired by her poem. Asa Mentzel recorded music created by him and his friends as a backdrop to the words of his poem.

Funding for the project was through the Lowell Alumni Association and the Lowell English Dept. through the SFUSD.

--Susan Terence,

San Francisco Area Coordinator,

Calif. Poets in the Schools

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