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Morristown Elementary School Students Find Their Inner Poet

BJ Ward talks about metaphors.
BJ Ward talks about metaphors.
Over three consecutive Mondays in November, poet BJ Ward worked with third and fourth grade students at The Red Oaks School in Morristown to reveal the wonders of language through poetry.

According to Red Oaks Communication Director Cora Meader Thomases Ward's approach was entertaining, inclusive, hands-on, and at turns reverential and boisterous. 

"Poetry Workshops with BJ Ward are more about channeling the poet within than struggling over high brow verse," Thomases said. "Metaphor, simile, imagery, symbolism, and their kin are all there, but first the award winning and much published Ward welcomes students to the inner sanctum of poets as fellow creators. Far from demystifying the process, he makes it seem utterly magical and yet achievable, inevitable, and desirable. He declares their observations, thoughts, and words powerful. He invites them to be different, unique, and extraordinary. They begin to think like poets because they start to see themselves as poets."

According to Thomases, said one of the ways in which Ward helps students revolutionize their perspectives and see the world anew is by freeing them from their accustomed identities.

"He accomplishes this in the most obvious and ingenious way possible. He changes their names. Each student gets his/her own funny, edgy, and often intriguing nickname that Ward uses exclusively during his classes," Thomases said. 

This year’s roster included The Deep Forest, Socrates, Tarzan, Big Feather, The Statue of Liberty, Coffee Boy, The Sweet Cupcake, Shazam, Bam Bam, Super Corrector, Captain Huggy Face, and the ubiquitous Marker Girl. In each session, a “Marker Girl” is chosen. She is responsible for retrieving Ward’s whiteboard markers every time he drops, flips, or flings them, which is often.

"When he thanks her with a flourish and a bow or a series of complicated gestures, she must respond by mimicking him. It is a respectful tomfoolery that feeds the sense of camaraderie in the classroom," Thomases said. "Throughout the series of workshops, Marker Girl is Ward’s aide-de-camp – a position replete with both honor and high jinks."

Thomases said Ward makes poets and poetry accessible.

"He talks about the people of poetry with respect but without formality, making them feel like familiar friends and the words they write extensions of their lives and experiences," Thomases said. 

During a rousing call and response, Ward chants a string of affirmations about the autonomy of the poet at great volume and with impressive dramatic delivery in the style of Jimmy Cagney. 

"I'm a poet… see? I do what I want...see? I will decide what words to use, because I'm a poet… see?  I can put one word on a line or ten, because I'm a poet… see? I may or may not choose to use capitals or periods or pay attention to margins, because I'm a poet… see?  I will decide if a donut is like a donkey, because I'm a poet… see? The session eventually dissolves into outrageousness and we all know that we will always remember it," Thomases said.

In the last hour of the last session, Ward gets serious as he tells the students the secret to great writing is revision. Ward asks them to pick out their favorite poem, the one you wouldn't mind other people seeing, and revise it. Can you put in new words? Yes. Can you take out words? Yes. Can you change the order, the position of the lines, rewrite it completely? Absolutely, you can do whatever it takes to make the poem say what you want it to.  The only rule is that the last word on each line be a strong one.

Afterwards, Ward quotes Samuel Coleridge as saying that “poetry is the best words in the best order.” And with that, the students set to work.

"Students also wrote 'Who am I?' poems," Thomases said. "Reveling in the opportunity for personal exploration with images and metaphors that danced at the furthest corners of the globe, on the outer reaches of the universe, and in the heights of their imaginations.

BJ Ward is an award-winning poet, co-director of the Creative Writing degree program at Warren County Community College. He is the author of four books of poetry, including Jackleg Opera: Collected Poems 1990-2013, Gravedigger’s Birthday (a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize), 17 Love Poems with No Despair, and Landing in New Jersey with Soft Hands.


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