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by Hedgebrook Guest

I caught the red-ass over a post-it note. I even took a photo of it with my phone.  It was blue, and stuck on my thirteen-year-old son’s poem he wrote for English class. The one clear sentence in his teacher’s handwriting said, “vague poetry is just not good poetry.” Heat bubbled in my belly, built up until I began to pace the house, front door to back. I watched from the kitchen as my son picked up the altered book in which his poem was written. He read the post-it note and then closed the book leaving it on the kitchen table. Half hour later, I watched him do it again. 

Would that  sentence fragment lodge itself in his brain? In his writing hand? Would he close himself up, roly-poly style? Would he eventually forget the original insult only to believe himself simply untalented? What if I wrote that sentence on a poem written by a kid in the Detention Center where I teach workshops? The power of words can be frightening. I wanted to snatch his teacher bald, but knew I was overreacting a tad.

A memory of a long ago party popped onto my inner screen and began to roll. There we were, acting like fools, listening to music, singing and dancing. After a particularly loud yet heartfelt rendition of Journey’s “Faithfully” I took a bow. A beloved friend lifted her drink and said, “Do the city a favor Kelly, and never sing again! My eardrums are shredded.” Everybody laughed, including me. I thought she must be right, so I did NYC a solid and kept my mouth shut. For years I did not sing aloud even to myself when I was surely alone.

In 2013 I attended VONA, Voices of our Nation’s Artists, a residency/workshop for writers of color. After spending a week with generous, sharp witted writers, I returned home wrapped in a blanket of their support, and well wishes. Many of us found one another on Facebook or Twitter. There we congratulate and commiserate often.

Last year I spent a month at Hedgebrook. There is no way to count the blessings of that stay. I even spent a night singing with my sister writers. That’s right, singing badly and loudly without reserve.  Once again, I returned home with names and faces stamped on my heart. I knew exactly where to turn for advice about a blue post-it note on a poem.

I didn’t go to high school or college, and spent many years teaching myself how to write in solitude. So, a real community is a blessing I don’t take for granted. They are a group of women (and some men) who are fiercely committed to their craft, and to lifting each other up any way they can. Surely they would tell me if I was making a big deal over nothing. I took it to the internet, wailed my story,  and posted my son’s poem along with his teacher’s words.

They flooded my inbox. I could see my son’s smile from the back of his head as he read comments from all over the country. Women writers supported his work without condescension. They made sure I knew that “vague poetry is just not good poetry” is not good critique. My writing community helped me craft a response to the teacher that dealt only with the sentence she wrote, and not her as a person. They held me up after I spoke with her over the phone. Congratulated me after we hashed it out with mutual respect. The teacher invited me to do a workshop for her class. I did one on revision and critique. These women mothered my son for me, with me. Every day, they help me have the confidence to be the kind of writer and person I know I can be. They give me the courage to sing.


Below is Jackson’s poem. He said I could post it.

Where I’m From

I am from the winds

the molten iron that seeps

from arteries running

through the eyes of a madman

to the asphalt

reflecting the blood red sky

above it

I am from the waves that crash upon

black sand beach

the folds and crumples in a white duvet

I am from a stir-pot sizzling

with delicacies

I am from the ink sprayed across canvas

littering the walls

I am from a deep void born

by light and extinguished

by darkness

I am from the winds

I am from the fire

I am from the waters

I am from

the void


About the Author:

Kelly_ClaytonKelly Clayton is a poet, and fiction writer who teaches writing workshops in local schools,The Lafayette Juvenile Detention Center, and Summer Youth Shakespeare Ensemble. A Creole with branches and roots from Louisiana since 1765. Her work has been published by Future Cycle Press, Delacorte Press, China Grove Press, among others. Kelly is a VONA/Voices, and a Hedgebrook Alumnae.

(Author photo by Teresa Burns)







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  • Janet Youngdahl
    9:04 AM - 7 May, 2015

    Thank you for this important reminder about the impact our words have on others. Please send your son many thanks for letting us read his beautiful poem, his words are clear, open and meaningful. It is the end of the semester, and it is necessary to be reminded that educators need to mentor, guide, encourage and facilitate. If we resort to bitter criticism or harsh judgement we only reflect our own lack of inner resources. I sincerely hope both you and your son continue to send your voices out into the world so they can be heard by all of us. We need to hear you.

    • Kelly Clayton
      3:42 PM - 7 May, 2015

      Thank you, Janet, for your words. As I read your comment I am reminded that I can “resort to bitter criticism and harsh judgement” of my own self. You remind me to be kind to everyone, and that includes me. Bless you, and keep you.

  • Judy Silk
    9:06 AM - 7 May, 2015

    Huzzah! The power of community. I love this exposure of our vulnerability. I love the thread of where you went with this. And what a reasoned conclusion. P.S. I think the teacher was just jealous of this emerging, searching, thoughtful writing.

    • Kelly Clayton
      4:48 PM - 7 May, 2015

      Judy Silk…what a fabulous name. You are exactly right. This community is so precious to all of us.

  • Mona AlvaradoFrazier
    11:07 AM - 7 May, 2015

    Tears welled up in my eyes, bringing with it memories of being shut down, like you and your son. You turned this near fiasco into a powerful learning moment, not just for the teacher, but for me and thousands of other mothers, writers, and artists. You’re freakin’ mother of the year in my book. Thank you for sharing this experience.

    • Kelly Clayton
      4:12 PM - 7 May, 2015

      No one should be shut down like this. Especially for a writer, or artist. Thank you so much for your comment.

  • Bill Hopkins
    1:42 PM - 7 May, 2015

    Write another poem. Write another thousand poems, then a thousand more on top of them. Write until your eyes grow too dim to see. Then learn to write blind. Write until you can no longer feel the pen in your hand. Then learn to speak your poems for all to hear. Write and write and write, never stopping.

    • Kelly Clayton
      4:10 PM - 7 May, 2015

      Beautiful, Bill. Thank you.

  • Cassie Leigh
    8:46 PM - 7 May, 2015

    His poem is beautiful and perfect. I found it deeply moving. I also had a teacher discourage my writing in school. I abandoned my dream until I was 30 and decided to resume the work to reclaim it. I do it for myself and as an example to my children. What you did for your son to contradict this teacher’s damage is inspiring.

  • Susan Kacvinsky
    6:12 AM - 12 May, 2015

    From red-ass to mutual respect – not an easy transformation. I’m glad you didn’t throw the teacher away, write her off as bad, As a mother and an English teacher, I want to thank you for modeling how to hold everyone in the soft belly of compassion – to deal with the sentence rather than the person. This is a huge lesson, also, to your son. And see where it led? Now this teacher knows how to teach revision, how to hold space rather than become the final authority on what is good – which is a really sucky job…. Sometimes we just don’t know a better way. Our education system certainly is difficult for students, but it isn’t all that easy on teachers either. The mothering of community is so powerful.

  • Jerry Jaz
    12:18 PM - 12 May, 2015

    A one-two punch to my heart watching your son read the note, close the book, come back and read it, close the book on top of your singing into friendly fire. I recall my mother singing with me and the radio and her compliment to me for finding the harmony in the song. One of the many ways she encouraged me to move forward in our pushme pullyou relationship that shaped the man I am today. And the tears that well up in me are forged by your story yet fall for me. Good on you for finding your way to have meaningful dialog with his teacher. Thank you for sharing some of it with me.

  • Mary September
    6:38 PM - 3 August, 2015

    OMG!!!!!!! (How’s that for vague?!) I don’t know what has me crying more, your son’s poem, or your response to the vague teacher comment . . . !!!!!!

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