Community Poetry Night at Combs HS

A group of S[R] interns and poets were invited back to Combs High School in April to be the featured readers at the school’s community poetry night.

I accompanied our readers as a supportive but silent audience member, and truly, pulling up to the school, we didn’t know what to expect. I’ve been to a few poetry slams and an equal number of solo, scheduled readings in bookstores, but I’d never attended an event like this at my own, or any other, high school. As we approached the gymnasium doors, before we even had time to introduce ourselves, a student was greeting us, pulling us into the building and thanking us for being their special guests.

The room was decorated with shawls and paper flower in a bohemian style; some students wore shawls around their waists or macrame vests in keeping with the decor. Students and guests could grab a plate of fruit, chocolate and cheese and crackers or visit the tarot reading “tent” staged in the corner before finding a seat. We found a table set with a vase and a flower hand cut from newsprint. Every detail was lovingly done by the students in Ms. Burnquist’s senior creative writing class. Along the walls and windows were printed photos of each of these students’ faces, and right above where we were sitting, sipping our lemonade, was a photo of the S[R] group during our last visit to Combs.

The evening began with an open mic portion during which Combs students not in the creative writing class read their poems or performed music. Some were quiet and hurried, but they were followed with the loud encouragements of their classmates. Ms. Burnquist emceed the rest of the evening and took the stage to read one of her own poems, “Reflections of a Teacher.”

Eleven of her students followed her. They read work about heartbreak and aging and moving on. One student read a poem for her classmate, who couldn’t face the crowd, and each poet stepped off the stage to great applause and the occasionally shouted inside joke. Our readers – former poetry editor Abner Porzio and current poetry editors Skyler LaLone and Elizabeth Hansen – concluded the event, representing the world of poetry that exists beyond high school.

It seemed the evening was the students’ own sort of graduation from the creative writing program at Combs, a celebration of all they’ve discovered about themselves and about poetry in the last three years. As Ms. Burnquist said in her opening poem, “This classroom isn’t a step before you begin, you’ve already begun.” We’re so grateful to have been a part of this event and the past two years.

Combs High School Collaboration

On March 21, a group of S[R] interns visited the students in Mrs. Burnquist’s senior creative writing class at Combs High School to lead a workshop with some of San Tan Valley’s most accomplished and ambitious 18-year-olds. This was the fourth in a series of collaborations with Combs that began in the fall of 2012.

The students prepared 100-word stories prior to our visit, inspired by this website 100 Word Story. They had copies of their stories in hand. As I went over the workshop plans in the days before, I built up a small arsenal of tools and techniques to get the discussion going. I expected to be pulling comments out of a reticent group, but they seemed more comfortable with the workshop structure than I was.

After initial instructions to my small group of six students, I confessed that I was a bit of a fraud and had never even been in a writing workshop myself. One of the students turned to me and said, “Well, you’re doing just fine.” From that moment on, I was able to abandon all anxieties and simply enjoy the freshness they brought to our workshop. I was impressed with the level of engagement with their 100-word assignment. Each of the six students I worked with brought a deeply original story to the classroom and offered kind words and gentle criticism to their classmates.

Our discussion ranged from story conflict to that weekend’s prom to our career paths. Although no one in my group planned to major in creative writing in college, they each possessed an enthusiasm for writing that I sometimes find missing in my collegiate English classes. “What do you like to read?” they asked me, spiraling into a discussion of their favorite books. “What do you like to write most – fiction or poetry?” “What’s your writing routine?” We had a spare twenty minutes at the end of the class period to answer some of these questions as a group, though I think some of them still left with new questions.

These students, when they aren’t reading or crafting their own stories and poems, create the school’s online literary magazine, IMPRINT. You can view their latest contrast-themed issue here. During our visit to the school last semester, we discussed the importance of social media in developing an online presence. Since then, the students launched a website and have been developing a whole social media presence with Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram pages.

Before we left the classroom, Jess Burnquist pulled us aside and told us that her single creative writing class is expanding into two next year because of the growing interest in the class material and the production of IMPRINT. This is truly an inspiring development, one that demonstrates the power of passionate teachers and ambitious, creative students.

Our partnership with Combs High School is also expanding this semester as S[R] will be participating in their Community Poetry Night on April 26. We’re looking forward to celebrating the voices of Combs that night, and we’ll be watching for the brilliant work they produce individually and at IMPRINT for years to come.