With chapter and verse, writer-in-residence helps students find their poetic voice

A photo of an unidentified musician enthusiastically playing the drums — his head thrown back and eyes squeezed shut — was all the inspiration Garrett Krakat needed.

Laura Shovan, an Ellicott City poet and teacher, was visiting River Hill High School last week as the 24th writer-in-residence for the Howard County Poetry & Literature Society and had handed out one-of-a-kind portrait postcards to two English classes.


Displaying a sample postcard depicting a jowly man with a frighteningly intense gaze, Shovan first urged each of the 10th- and 12-grade students to explore senses other than sight to concoct a fictional back story as the basis for a poem.

"Is this man a professor?" she asked, to get imaginations whirring. "Can you hear him grinding his teeth? Is he a smoker, and can you smell his tobacco?"

After listening to Shovan's sample scenarios, Krakat went to work and soon came to the front of the media center to read aloud his first-person verse about the performer on his postcard.

"The song is caught in the clouds of smoke. No one hears the notes but only my mind and soul," he recited, swiftly conjuring up the image — and aroma — of a cigarette smoke-filled nightclub filled with unappreciative, distracted guests.

"Way to represent," English teacher Diane Curry said to the 10th-grader.

Shovan, who has taught for the Maryland State Arts Council since 2002 and has a novel-in-verse scheduled for April publication, said later she was impressed by the insight and talent demonstrated by River Hill students during her hourlong workshop.

"It's hard to ask people to write on the spot like that, yet doing that gets them out of the feeling of needing to wait for inspiration," she said, noting that most students are hesitant to try their hand at poetry, much less share it with others. "It's responding to the right-now and seeing what that means."

Using vintage postcards as prompts is proving to be a hit, but Shovan said she has also used paint chips and sound clips as points of entry into writing.

"It's important to look at writing like any other skill and to put the focus on practice instead of polish," she said of writing regularly to improve technique and build confidence. "It's about creating a new habit that stretches you."

HoCoPoLitSo, as the 41-year-old nonprofit is known, has been arranging writer-in-residence visits since 1980, with the aim of exposing students to professional writers of all kinds. Writers also visit Howard Community College and the Homewood Center, site of the county's alternative-learning high school.

Participating authors have run the gamut from fiction writers and poets to journalists and memoir writers, said Susan Thornton Hobby, a HoCoPoLitSo consultant.

"What all of these writers have in common is a love of words, and the capability to spark and fan the flame of conversation about literature in English classes and poetry clubs," she said.

All but three of the county's 13 high schools have set dates for Shovan to visit, and those three are expected to come on board soon, said Nancy Czarnecki, coordinator of secondary language arts for the public school system.

"I've been on the receiving end of writer-in-residence visits, and I've seen firsthand the authors' enthusiasm and passion for what they do," said the former English teacher, who most recently taught at Marriotts Ridge High School.


Visiting poets "teach the kids to play with language and show them that writing doesn't have to be so serious and heavy-handed," she said. "I've seen kids who weren't at all interested in poetry get really excited about it, and that's an amazing thing."

After applause subsided for the poems shared by Krakat and senior Brianna Mentle, English teacher Kristin Mitchell announced she would award extra credit to her 12th-grade students who finish writing their postcard poems and turn them in — and that grabbed students' attention.

"To many of them, poetry seems so esoteric, but Laura's poetry is very accessible," Mitchell said later. "This workshop presents a time when students are not worrying about learning for learning's sake, and they can just enjoy the experience."

Shovan said after the workshop that she hopes to start a public reading series in Howard County during her one-year residency with HoCoPoLitSo, something hinted at in her introduction to the students by the nonprofit's high school liaison, Kathleen Hurwitz.

"It's important to write and share poetry together," Hurwitz, a retired English teacher, told the students. "When you share together, you value the thoughts and ideas of your peers, and you value your own voice."

Shovan said Howard County is the only jurisdiction among Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Montgomery counties that doesn't have a regular reading series — which she defined as an informal open-microphone night where everyone who signs in gets to read.

"We really need [a series] because right now there's a big hole here," said Shovan, who hopes to get a series underway by March after locating a venue and applying for grant money. She said she plans to dedicate some nights to student-authors.

"The first couple times reading aloud can really be anxiety-inducing," she said, even in the casual setting she envisions. "But when you go back and do it month after month, that all begins to change."

As Shovan's River Hill visit drew to a close, sophomore Lena Jackson said her main take-away was that "poetry isn't just expression; it's painting a picture. The depth of the writing can even make you taste and hear beyond what it makes you feel."

Asha Kunchakarra, also a 10th-grader, said she believes the observation techniques Shovan taught them were not only interesting ways to approach writing, but "will help me out later in life."

Shovan said the intent of the writing workshops is to prove to students that others want to hear what they have to say, and that's powerful knowledge to have as they prepare to face new academic and life challenges.

"We're all afraid of exposing our true selves by writing a poem," Shovan said. "But something special happens when you take the parameters off."