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Literature as a conversation, not a club
Including kids in the literary conversation
When I was an English Major at Stanford in the earliest of aughts, there was a great deal of buzz over the canon. The canon of English Literature, that is. It was viewed as this giant boat of a thing, slow to turn as a cruise ship.
Merriam-Webster defines the word “canon” as “a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related work.” There is an implied authority there, sanctioning and accepting. Whoever this authority was, they captained the whole enterprise. We might revise it slightly, putting a woman or two on board, maybe a few people of color, but on it would sail, filled with its dead white men.
We didn’t know how not to perpetuate it, passing on the poems we had learned in their narrow brilliance to our own students. It felt regrettable but inevitable. We’d just have to do our best to sprinkle in a little diversity here and there, as it seemed to be in line somehow with the boat’s trajectory, and take excursions into all the other literatures — Native American Literature, Women’s Literature etc. — on the side.
I don’t think about it like this anymore, and I don’t know of anyone who does.
A conversation, not a monolith
This summer, in a lecture (or, as he put it, a time spent marveling together) at Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop, poet Ilya Kaminsky talked about the idea of a lineage of models. He asked us which poets were our models and who were their models. Who are we in conversation with in our writing?
I love this idea, because it respects the lineages of literature and the need to know influential writers from the past, AND it knocks down that top-down old boys club vision of the canon. A conversation is a back-and-forth. A conversation can be many voices. A conversation can include voices it used to exclude. A conversation is one conversation among many conversations, and a conversation between conversations.
Then he went on to ask, How can we change the conversation? This question feels so important and liberating. It allows us to engage with writing that feels powerful to us without agreeing with everything that it’s doing. We may love a writer’s words, but find their vision of the world outdated or off or infuriatingly narrow. Knowing what we write is in conversation with what has been written, but that we can change the conversation, is so electrifying.
OK, Becca, but what about the kids?
So yes, I’m excited about this idea as a writer, but also as a teacher, because including kids in the conversation feels so vital. If kids see literature as something they are part of, it becomes urgent and exciting in a way a canon dictated from some dusty tower never could be.
So how do we include kids in the conversation?
Have them respond creatively to things they read. This could mean writing fan fiction for their favorite books, or using published poems as prompts for their own writing.
Have them share their work, especially with other kids. This could happen out loud, on the internet, or in print. They could even self-publish on Amazon. Let them experience writing as communication.
Have them read work by other young people. Seeing that poetry and other writing is something kids do helps kids understand that they can do it too. Older kids might enjoy attending poetry slams. Wishes, Dreams and Lies and Poetry Everywhere are both great books with lots of kids’ poems sprinkled throughout. And the Frog Hollow anthologies are great that way too.
Speaking of which, have you bought the Frog Hollow anthology?
Which brings me to an utterly shameless plug for The Stars Below Us Still Shine, the second Frog Hollow anthology. (Raindrops from the Sun, our first, is pretty great too.) This book is only writing by kids, for kids and anyone else who wants to be in the conversation of the future. Which is pretty awesome and very real. Plus, you get to read about Bob.
But seriously. It’s important to include kids in the conversation/s that make up literature. If we don’t, how can we expect them to love reading and writing? And even more importantly, how will we know what they have to say?