Saturday, January 12, 2013


Wally Kennedy

Wally Kennedy, one of my early poetry teachers, died this past Thursday morning January 10, at the age of 84. Wally lived a long and robust and creative life, and he touched the lives of many people, myself among them.

I was in a poetry writing class that Wally and two other people taught, during my last year of high school, 1971-72. At the time I entered the class, I'd been writing poems for about three years. The class was one of the great formative times in my life as a poet and in my life overall. I'll talk here a little about the class and about Wally.

The full name of the class was Poetry and Songwriting. It was part of the Urban Arts program, a federally funded program (of the sort that right-wing politicians and corporate tyrants are trying to eliminate these days), where high school and junior high students in Minneapolis met for part of the day with working artists away from conventional schools, and learned and worked on their own art. In addition to the Poetry and Songwriting class, the program included classes in theatre, dance, filmmaking, photography, art, music, and other creative work. During high school I knew a lot of people, from my own school and others, who were taking Urban Arts classes. Wally Kennedy was the director of the overall program, and also one of the teachers of the Poetry and Songwriting class.

In addition to Wally, the other teachers of Poetry and Songwriting were poet Gary Isensee and musician Ted Unseth (later a founding member of the local band the Wolverines).

The class met the first two hours each morning (on school days) at Crosby House, a large old brick house in south Minneapolis near the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The house had once belonged to one of the families that founded, in the early 20th century, the Washburn-Crosby Company, which later became General Mills.

In the fall of 1971, there were about two dozen of us in the class. We showed up at 8:30 in the morning. We would start each morning with a yoga exercise known as the Sun Salutation, made of lots of bending and breathing, reaching toward the floor and working our way back up to standing. This had the effect of somewhat calming our minds before class. Then we gathered in a small room upstairs, sitting on the floor in a circle, and Gary or Wally would give us a writing exercise to do. Then we would scatter to the various corners and back hallways of the house, and write for a while, and then we would come back to the small room, and we would take turns reading out loud whatever we had written that morning. (During this time, the students among us who were musicians or becoming musicians also sometimes met with Ted Unseth, who lived in the attic apartment in the house and was a kind of part-time janitor there.)

The first day of class, Wally sat with us and talked for few minutes, and he had us go and walk around outside the house for a little bit, and told us to find something that had once had life in it, and to write about it -- try to find, he said, something of the life the thing had once had, write however you respond to that. People came back with all manner of things -- a small broken-off tree branch, some moist tree bark with spots of pale fungus, I can't remember what else. I found a couple of small red berries that had dropped from a bush. (I sat looking at them for a few minutes, and I found them transforned to two men rolling around in a small rowboat on rough water at night. That's where I started when I started writing.) Wally and Gary would always do the writing exercises along with us. For this one, Wally himself wrote about a horse skull that sat on a shelf mounted on one of the walls upstairs -- one of the few items on mostly bare walls.

Some of the other writing exercises I remember from that year: one morning Wally brought in a bag of his family's kitchen garbage, spreadnewspaper on the floor, and emptied the bag on the newspaper, and told us to write about it -- write about the notion of garbage, of waste, of the waste in the world, of waste (if we felt it) in our own lives. Another time, Gary Isensee brought in a sealed mason jar half full of muddy murky water and weeds and grass, with a dyed blue Easter egg sitting in the water, set the jar in the middle of the room, and told us to write about it.

Other exercise were a little more conventional: write a poem in three parts -- first the dream, then the myth, then the reality underlying them. Write a poem that ends suddenly. Write a sympathetic poem about someone or something you strongly dislike. One on occasion Wally read out loud Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem "Pied Beauty," talked about how the poem developed building image upon image, and asked us to try to write a poem like that.

Once of the exercises I liked best was when Gary one day brought into class many paintings -- the pages of small art books, taken apart from the bindings. He told us to take three of the pictures from the pile, and write a poem that found some type of connection between the three images. The three I picked were all paintings by Francisco Goya, the first time I'd seen work of his. Goya has since become one of my favorite painters.

There were other times when we visited the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Walker Art Center (both of which were fairly close by), and a couple of times we visited churches in the neighborhood and wrote our responses to the architecture and the religious symbols and the general feeling of the places. Sometimes Wally or Gary would have us just go to the park a block from Crosby House, and write about the life going on in the park or the buildings surrounding it in the neighborhood.

One of the things that I came to like the most about the class was the general mood of quiet most of the time. When we would gather after writing, and read out poems out loud, we did it almost ritually -- Wally commented once that the class sometimes reminded hiim of a religious service. People spoke, mostly, only when strongly moved to. People spoke politely. When we read our poems, there was very little talk before and after -- maybe a brief word introducing a poem now and then, maybe a short comment of appreciation after someone read a poem. No active critiquing, most of the time. No agression, no competitiveness. Such things would have seemed a violation of the creative circle.

Over the course of the year we came to feel a high level of trust in each other, during the class sessions as such, and in the conversation that went on in and around the class. After all these years I'm still lightly, loosely in touch with a few of the people from the class.

All of the above deeply affected me, my intentions with writing poems, my thinking about what poetry is. To this day I often feel that I have little to say about poetry, of any theoretical nature, that could be in any way useful. Not entirely, but much of the time. When I talk about poems, or write book reviews, I find it easiest to refer to specific poems or quoted passages from poems, and talk about them as examples.

To get a real sense of just how crucial the Poetry and Songwriting class was for many of us, it might be worth remembering that during those years, poetry tended to be at least as much on the fringe of the mainstream culture as it is now. All of us in the class were in one way or another outcasts or loners or the shy quiet ones sitting over in the corner, the ones who went home after school and sat in our rooms and read books. I don't know if we'll ever know how many of our lives were saved by the opportunity to be in that class and to write and to share our writing with others who were doing the same thing.

Sheryl Noethe, Mary Stoyke, Mark Ostrander, Michael Shannon, Ernie Batson, Sally Brenner, Robbie Kacheroski, Jack Pearson, Holly Enkel, Lolly Kuusisto, Bruce Bailey, Michele Jackman, Mary Evans, Janice Thurs... I've named here some of the other people who were students in the class during the first half of that year. Mid-year, about twenty more people joined the class, and my memory grows hazy trying to think of names. The Poetry and Songwriting class took place through three years, and I was in it the middle year of the three. Not necessarily everyone in the class has continued writing poetry, and of those who have, not everyone is doing anything public with it. But it shaped our lives hugely at a time when we deeply needed it.

Now and then Wally Kennedy would arrange for us, whoever was interested, to go with him to visit other schools in the area, for a day or part of a day, and read our poems, and do writing exercises together with the other students. I enjoyed that a great deal. He also now and then arranged for us to go to large events of one kind or another and read our poems to audiences -- I remember specifically a symposium of family practice doctors, a conference of teachers, and a meeting of the St. Paul Junior League. Members of other Urban Arts classes (especially the theatre and dance classes) often came to such events and performed as well. Also, on two occasions that year, the entire poetry class did a mass reading at the Walker Art Center, which was a great and joyful experience.

Over the years since then I had just occasional contact with Wally. We continued to remain friendly whenever we did happen to talk. He came to listen when I did a poetry reading at a local coffeehouse sometime back in the 1990's. In more recent years, he sent me a copy of a memoir of his childhood, Who Do You Think You Are?, full of lively stories of his early years in North Dakota and elsewhere as his family moved around. And, just this past fall, he sent me a copy of Urban Arts: How Students Thrived in Their Arts Community, a memoir/history he'd written about the Urban Arts program. I found great wellsprings of memory bubbling up as a read through the book, especially the section on the poetry class. (I don't find a website for the publisher; the book gives the publisher as Ytterli Press, 2211 Buford Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55108.)

I had the opportunity to be part of a living and growing and thriving community of artists, my own age and older, from very early, almost from the very time I started writing poems when I was 14. The Urban Arts program was not the only such program in Minneapolis at the time, there were a couple of others that also afforded creative opportunities to people my age. The Poetry and Songwriting class was, in any case, an essential piece of my life. I can't imagine who I would be today without it.

Thank you, Wally.

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