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July 11, 2010 / johnoliversimon

How I Got My Start in Poet-Teaching

I dropped out of graduate school at Berkeley in 1966, a year after the Free Speech Movement, and after convincing the induction shrink that I was too hostile and unstable to fight in Vietnam. A highly elite education at the Putney School (1958-60, along with two art dealers, Kate Ganz and Alex (Pundy) Matter, separately mentioned in this week’s New Yorker article on provenance), and Swarthmore College (1960-64, along with the love of my life, Becky Parfitt, but we didn’t know it then, and Mike Meeropol, eldest son of the Rosenbergs and a wonderful folk guitarrist), was foundering in the welter of the sixties (drugs, sex and rock & roll for starters) and left me with a fiercely anti-academic attitude which has not always served me well.

I snuck back in through the back door of the educational enterprise when my step-daughter Lorelei was in second grade at People’s Community School, aparent-run co-op in Berkeley. A humble green belt in Goju-Ryu, I taught first a class in Karate — Dove Scherr, daughter of Max (editor of the Berkeley Barb) and Jane, went on to get her brown-belt and win medals — and Exploring and Food-Gathering. We ate miner’s lettuce and chickweed, rappelled down cliffs — Daleth Foster, Judy Foster’s red-headed daughter, fell twenty feet once but bounced away unharmed — and found our way in darkness through the mile-long tunnel where Strawberry Creek snakes under the city, which I had also had traversed escaping from a cop surround during People’s Park.

The next year I tried teaching Booklearning. I had some bright fourth through sixth graders, including Josh Palmer, son of Helen Palmer of the Enneagram and Robert Hunter, lyricist of the Grateful Dead. The class read Jaime de Angulo’s Indian Tales, I gave writing assignments and they wrote dutiful pap, until one day I was sat in on a California Poets In The Schools ( open conference, the first of its kind, at Stern Grove, in February 1971.

Floyd Salas pronounced “Craft is bullshit,” prompting Jack Gilbert to walk out, but the most valuable moment of the afternoon was when Stan Rice, late husband of the vampire novelist, shared his exercise of Word Cards. My kids caught fire with Word Cards five to a sentence, and I knew I had a key to the witring place. I have used that exercise for going on forty years now, for a long time with CPITS, then full-time teaching in Oakland punctuated by travel, and the last ten years, adding the amazing translation piece, with Poetry Inside Out, a project of the Center for the Art of Translation (

Here are two short word-card PIO poems from this year, 2010:


Every fluffy star

in the sky

speaks peace as

its first language.

—Andrea C., 5th grade, Sutro Elementary, San Francisco

Spring wet showers

wake up flowers

and take the king

to his throne.

—Amani T., 3rd grade, Sobrante Park Elementary, Oakland

Stiil, well into the 70’s, the bulk of my so-called income came from selling books on the street, just as Julia Vinograd, bless her laureate heart, still does after all these years.

Julia Vinograd, the Bubble Lady, Poet-Laureate of Telegraph Avenue

I became one of perhaps thousand of independent discoverers of Nova Cygni 1975 walking home late one night from selling books on the street. But my shift in day-job was made apparent in an unusual fashion.

There was a character on the Ave known as Sister Mary (NOT ex-nun Mary Norbert Körte, the tutelary poet of Mendocino) who went around in full nun drag and bright red lipstick and blonde hair under the wimple. I ran into her one Saturday night at Shattuck Avenue Spats and she asked “Hoya dooin John?”

“Not so great,” I confessed I was tired of the psychic grind of trying to sell my book to strangers. One time a guy in the Heidelberg told me he would never buy poetry from somebody with three names, and I fired back William Butler Yeats and William Carlos Williams but still lost the sale. Sister Mary put her hands on my head. “OH LORD, “she intoned, “find this young man a right livelihood so he can support himself and his family, IN JESUS’ NAME we ask it, Amen.”

I was like, whatever, until Monday morning when I got a call from Floyd Salas at CPITS offering a gig at Martin Luther King, Jr., Junior High School in Berkeley. That turned into not only more CPITS work but a three-year teen-age workshop with such luminaries as Lisa Felix (Derr), Edith Hodgiknson (Bruce), Sarah Kennedy, Claire Siegel, Debby Segal and Patrick Nersesian. So poet-teaching became my day-job after all.

Here’s a little bit of Edie. Fourteen, anorexic, 1973. I dunno how to get these poems out of double-space, or indeed to indent (the original constellates far from the left margin):

making mistakes

tearing paper

wondering where to go talking me into

sunshine Saturday tears

mommy said I  couldn’t go with her

daddy slams my chair down says baby baby

pointing carrots and turnips

and shouting bang bang you’re dead

I pound on the keys harder

thinking to myself, all poets must have red thumbs

red thumbs

red thumbs.



Leave a Comment
  1. Pam Hazel / Jul 11 2010 4:45 pm

    How did I miss Sister Mary?

    • johnoliversimon / Jul 11 2010 5:31 pm

      The black and white habit with the blonde hair and lipstick gave her a noir aspect, a gun moll disguised as a nun moll.

  2. Frances Phillips / Jul 12 2010 12:16 pm

    What a story, John! And now you’re one of the defining figures of poet-teaching.

  3. Edie Bruce / Jul 18 2010 9:29 pm

    Thanks, John, for bringing back the memories of the most intense and
    colorful time in my life.

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