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Find more Quick Tips: Books and Authors: Poetry and Social Justice
Poetry has always been a catalyst for social change, and joining that long tradition is a new anthology, more than a decade in the making, for young adults. Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice offers a unique invitation to young readers to consider issues of identity and community, prejudice and tolerance, contemplation and action—all through impactful, carefully chosen poems. Poet Naomi Shihab Nye has called Indivisible “a crucial, elegant, powerful book. It’s a wake-up call for readers of all ages. A spur for further discussion. We need it now as much as we ever needed it, if not more.” Gail Bush, an Illinois-based educator and poetry advocate, who has worked as both a high-school librarian and as an education professor, and Randy Meyer, who is currently a middle-school librarian in Massachusetts, are the book’s editors, and in the conversation below, they discussed their experiences of creating the anthology and sharing poems in the classroom. BKL: Why did you choose the theme of social justice? Did you have it in mind from the beginning of the project?
BUSH: From the outset, it was the quality of each poem that was key. We spent a good amount of time independently seeking poems that resonated with us and that we deemed to be accessible. The theme emerged as we shared our findings with each other. The poems we selected had something to say about how we see and connect with others, live our own lives, feel hope, and are moved to action—basically, who we are and who we are becoming. But we were more interested in stories of ordinary people in quiet moments, acting in small yet incremental and significant ways, not with grand gestures.
MEYER: It’s in those quiet moments that we can see our commonalities. The walls and categories that divide us become more transparent, and it’s easier to see how we’re connected.
BKL: The book is organized in such a thought-provoking way. Can you talk more about how that organization evolved?
MEYER: It became clear as soon as we started to select favorite poems that there was an enormous range of tone. It made sense to use that as our organizing principle. We wanted to show readers the kind of journey that we’re all on—as a nation, as neighbors, as individuals—from frustration at the inequities we see to the hope that we can erase them.
BUSH: The organization starts with notions of “the other” and moves to the connections that we make in communities to neighbors and families, as well as to ourselves, before moving into an inner sense of hope and, this was important, back out into action. But in actuality, it is the reader who creates the journey for him or herself. Our role was to make it as navigable and natural as possible, allowing the poems to do the heavy lifting.
BKL: This was a project many years in the making. Could you speak a bit about the process of selecting the poems?
MEYER: We focused on the voices and the stories they had to tell. Reading through volume after volume of poetry was like being at the most amazing cocktail party. We each moved through the crowded room, getting to know all sorts of new people and learning how the world looks to them and how it looks at them. The hard part was not the selecting, it was the eliminating. We both had to let some good friends go to create the collection we wanted.
BUSH: I love that image of the party! It is so true; the editing was downright painful, and certainly others in our position would have made different choices. We invite the discussion. We were fascinated by the American accent that also emerged. Voices that spoke about being part of our unique society that is composed of people from all places and that embodies all aspects of diversity provided those mirrors and windows to see ourselves and others. And the time line of the twentieth century became clear as we made our nineteenth-century bookend Lincoln and Whitman. There does seem to be a balance of well-known and lesser-known poets, and that, as it turns out, was another happy outcome of the selection process. That was not necessarily our intent. At some point, we looked at the balance of various representations of our society, of hope and despair, of pain and humor, but we were always focusing on the poem itself as our measure and not its author.BKL: You have both worked with adolescents for many years as school librarians. What were some of the most effective ways that you found to share poetry with your students?
MEYER: Poetry needs to be connected to other types of expression. When I was in school, a poem was a dead thing on a page to be dissected for “meaning.” I had no sense at all that it could be connected to the world around me. Students will be captivated by poems when they can relate them to something familiar: a novel they’ve read, a dinner-table conversation, a TV show, an exhibit of photographs from WWII. Poetry can be woven into any subject area; one of our roles as librarians is to demonstrate how.
BUSH: Poetry is expression. Personally, it enters my being in a way much more akin to visual and performing arts than to literature. Our anthology is a symphony to me. It was my great delight and challenge in the high-school library to mix poetry into a wide variety of subjects as students learned about everything from history to science to physical education to auto shop.
BKL: How do you hope Indivisible will be shared in the classroom—and out of it?
BUSH: We hope it won’t be force-fed but allowed to breathe. Many educators have had less than stellar experiences with poetry in school during their own adolescence. So, step one: educators need time to engage with the poems as people, not solely as professional educators. Step two: educators elicit their own creative juices to bring best practices to bear. We know that teachers constantly and strategically balance their content area, their curriculum, their standards, and most importantly, their students’ learning needs. The educators are the genuine arbiters of what might be the most meaningful ways to bring Indivisible into the classroom. And therefore, there’s step three: educators inspire students by creating an illuminating learning environment, in this case, with Indivisible as a guiding light. And with that, Randy and I will feel that we have contributed in our own small way, as people do every day in our society, using what we know how to do to move us all along toward social justice.
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