Carmel’s poetry culture, opportunities in full form

In a spectacular showdown of spoken creativity, Carmel sophomores annually participate in something unique in high schools: a grade-level poetry slam.

Started in 2011 by Dale DePalatis to help his Honors II English students find their voice through verse, the poetry slam is the culmination of an in-depth poetry unit and a series of class slams.

But beyond campus, this peninsula offers many opportunities for students to become poetically involved, both in experiencing others’ work and getting one’s own recognized.

On March 21, for instance, there was a poetry reading in poet Robinson Jeffers’ hand-built Tor House in Carmel. The poet was Rob Carney, winner of the Tor House Foundation’s annual Award for Poetry contest, and his recitation—all by memory—was absolutely inspiring.

And perhaps just as inspiring in the local poetry scene are the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts’ annual Monterey County High School poetry awards, in which winners receive cash prizes and read their poems at the Monterey Public Library.

Junior Natascha Togan read there last year, and she warmly remembers hearing the other participants—often from drastically different backgrounds—confidently present their poems in what was all around a truly enriching experience.

“I think poetry kind of connects people,” Togan says. “You realize that you have a lot more in common with people than you would think.

Because words have such an intimate role in preserving culture, students can submit poems in English and Spanish, and one year the competition even accepted one in Tagalog, the Filipino language.

Local poet and teacher Elliot Ruchowitz-Roberts, who has been organizing the contest, judging its submissions and visiting classrooms throughout Monterey County for over 15 years, has seen how poetry helps students—especially those given up on by teachers—grow by discovering their individual voice.

“You’re continually changing in life, and every day you’re a different person,” Ruchowitz-Roberts says of the importance of finding one’s distinct and dynamic voice, adding that poetry allows students to use their intuitive intelligence rather than be limited to the rational logic emphasized in school.

This tug-of-war between “intuitive” and “practical” manifests itself in student preferences, and English teacher Barbara Steinberg has seen a recent shift towards the expository over the poetic.

“With the heavy emphasis on college-going culture,” Steinberg, who taught a senior poetry class for 18 years, notes that students increasingly seek primarily text analysis and writing skills.

But with her poetry class currently in its second year of hibernation, is it not time to write an elegy for this “lost” art? Has poetry finally lost relevance? Quite the contrary.

“Words have power, and they have meaning, and just reading non-fiction all the time does not necessarily hit the soul of a culture,” says French teacher Suzanne Marden, a repeat judge for the sophomore class slams.

In Marden’s words, “Poetry is alive and well. And we can’t negate that as a society.”

The Cherry Center’s awards reading is May 2, and CHS’ slam finals will begin the week of May 18.
-Michael Montgomery