Poetic inspiration: local poet pursues service, mentorship

Whether composing a sonnet or sharing his knowledge with curious students, Elliot Ruchowitz-Roberts is wholly devoted to his versatile craft and to inoculating others with a passion for poetry.

Many students, particularly those in English II Honors, recognize the poet’s smile-creased face and graying ponytail. He frequents the Carmel High School campus with the Poetry in the Schools program, a one-day poetry workshop that introduces contagious concepts in versification at different high schools across Monterey County: King City, Gonzales, Salinas, North Salinas, Pacific Grove and Carmel.

The poet also spreads the stanza syndrome at Rancho Cielo and Silver Star, two local high schools run by the probation department serving kids at high risk.

Ruchowitz-Roberts has one main goal he wishes to impart to students during his brief visits: to find their own voice.

“I teach students that poetry is the way to find your voice,” Ruchowitz-Roberts affirms. “It is a way to find why you are here, and what your place in the world is, rather than just bouncing around.”

2016 Carmel High graduate Michael Montgomery began finding his poetic voice when he caught the poetry bug from Ruchowitz-Roberts during one of these poetry seminars. The current U.C. Davis freshman traces the jump-start of his interest in poetry from that day.

“He assigned us to write a poem about something we learned,” Montgomery remembers. “I wrote ‘How to Collect Bugs,’ and he thought that the idea was original. He encouraged me, and I went on to write more.”

Montgomery credits some of his writing successes—winning the 2014 CHS Poetry Slam and having several poems published—to the foundation established by the veteran poet. However, he gained more than writing skills and academic knowledge from his mentor. To him, poetry continues to be a tool for sorting out emotions and decisions, quoting the poet William Blake: “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric. Out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.”

CHS English II Honors teacher Dale DePalatis enthusiastically hosts Ruchowitz-Roberts in his classes annually, asserting that the poet not only encourages students to write better poetry, but better prose in general.

“He has a very original voice and he talks about that critical element when he visits my classes,” DePalatis analyzes. “I notice that students start searching for real things, inspired by the ideas and topics that he shares. He encourages them to bring out their voice—putting their personality into all of their writing.”

Ruchowitz-Roberts doesn’t keep his poetry confined to the classroom. He volunteers at the Carmel Tor House, built the in the early 20th century by the poet Robinson Jeffers. Ruchowitz-Roberts himself was influenced by the late Jeffers. For 15 years, he has guided visitors through the stone mansion, telling stories about Jeffers and infusing the tours with Jeffers’ poems.

When he isn’t leading poetry workshops or writing himself, Ruchowitz-Roberts somehow manages to volunteer with the American Civil Liberties Union, where he currently serves on the Board of Directors for Northern California.

Although he is going on 80 and plans to stick around the area, Ruchowitz-Roberts keeps the schedule growing and poetry flowing.

“Poetry is just what woos me,” he says. “Emotional is too narrow a word—it somehow touches me, it is worth reading and spreading.”

Ruchowitz-Robert’s foundations in poetry stretch back to his own high school years in New York. He attended Columbia College and Cornell where he earned a Master’s in Old Middle English. Finally, he transitioned to the West Coast in 1965 with his wife and three children. He achieved his teaching credential at Monterey Peninsula College before signing on as a teacher there. Throughout the ups and the downs of education and travel, poetry remained a constant for the nomadic man.

Although he officially retired 21 years ago after teaching 32 years at MPC, through his continued involvement in the community and county schools, Ruchowitz-Roberts’ career is far from finished.

-Connor Suess