High School Teacher Makes His Mark Among International Poets at Princeton Poetry Festival
… Be glad, or be sad if you want, but be, and be a part of all that marches past like a parade, and wade through it or swim in it or dive in it with your eyes open and your mind open to wind, rain, long days of sun and longer nights of city lights mixing on wet streets like paint. ~ from "First Year Teacher to His Students" by Gary J. Whitehead, from "Measuring Cubits While the Thunder Claps" (David Robert Brooks, 2008).
Poets, some of them trailing clouds of glory behind them, will be flocking to New Jersey from all over the world this weekend (March 15 and 16, 2013) to participate in the third biennial Princeton Poetry Festival, a presentation of readings and discussions by Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts.
Among the poets invited by the university’s own professor and poet Paul Muldoon are Gabeba Baderoon (South Africa), Bei Dao (China), Stephen Dunn (U.S., Pulitzer Prize), Jorie Graham (U.S., Pulitzer Prize), Bejan Matur (Turkey), Don Paterson (Scotland) and Gary J. Whitehead (U.S.), whose new collection of poems, “A Glossary of Chickens,” was just published by Princeton University Press.
Poets do many things to earn their daily bread. T.S. Eliot worked for a time in a bank (he was miserable there), while Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams throve in the insurance business and family medicine, respectively, and Robert Frost farmed the land. Many poets teach, but relatively few at the high school level.
Whitehead, who resides in the Hudson Valley, has taught English and creative writing at Tenafly High School in Bergen County for some 15 years. Considering the demands of secondary-school teaching, you have to wonder where he finds the time to write. Then you discover he paints, too, and writes crossword puzzles, some of which have appeared in The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“Crossword puzzles pay better than poems,” Whitehead jokes. The Rhode Island native is easy to talk to, an outcome—one would think—of countless interchanges with all manner of students, parents and colleagues. But don’t let the easy persona fool you. A poet needs a lot more than charm to get into The New Yorker (where Muldoon, by the way, is poetry editor)and the Beloit Poetry Journal,and have his work chosen for “The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor”on NPR. Whitehead’s poems explore big issues in people’s lives, as a rule, and his tone has heft and sobriety. His is a clear voice and a clear-seeing eye. Most poets relish word games, of course, but it appears that this poet mostly leaves that sort of thing to his crossword puzzles.
The youngest of four children, Whitehead says he found his way to poetry in his early 20s, “when a girlfriend gave me ‘The Collected Poems of Robert Frost,’” but that he had “always liked to write,” and was encouraged to do so by a high school teacher.
“As the youngest kid in the family, I’d often felt a need to be recognized, to prove that I was somebody who had something to say,” he says. “(Writing) was a natural extension of liking to read, and it grows out of a personal desire to document your own experience. Frost was an early influence, and nature was a big source, as it was to him. Another big influence was Galway Kinnell, who is also from Pawtucket. He grew up in the same area I did, played in the same woods, hung around in the same neighborhoods. I enjoyed Kinnell’s work and connected to it; it inspired me to explore writing in open form.”
As it turns out, both Kinnell and W.S. Merwin, whom Whitehead also mentioned, are Princeton University, Class of 1948. In addition to Muldoon, noted poets Michael Dickman, James Richardson, Laurie Sheck, Tracy K. Smith, Susan Wheeler and C.K. Williams teach at the university.
Whitehead fully appreciates what he calls “the prestige of the Princeton stamp of approval. I’ve been fortunate in my other publishers, but Princeton University Press is a milestone. It has such a distinguished list. To find myself on the same list as Robert Pinsky and Jorie Graham is a big deal.”
As a teacher, Whitehead says he has done everything he can to help grow the creative writing program at Tenafly High School. “It has grown. Student interest in poetry has greatly increased over the years, and a few faculty colleagues enjoy teaching it. We have a great literary journal, Omega, and we’ve tried to get the kids involved by bringing in visiting writers through the Dodge Poets Visit program and participating in Poetry Out Loud. Kids really enjoy slam poetry, the performance aspect of it, and they love ‘Def Jam Poetry’ on HBO.”
And speaking of Poetry Out Loud—a nationwide program for high school students sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation in partnership with the states’ arts agencies—the Princeton Poetry Festival will open Friday with the 2013 New Jersey Finals. These will determine who will represent New Jersey in the National Finals in Washington, D.C., in April. The state finals are the culmination of a statewide performance program that started in the fall, with more than 20,000 students in participation.
Competing will be Hanna Anderson (Mainland Regional High School, Linwood); Callie Mae Bowen (Woodstown High School, Woodstown); Christelle Marie Chua (Mother Seton Regional High School, Clark); Cameron Clarke (Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School, Jersey City); Kavita Oza (The Peddie School, Hightstown); Emily Schider (Morris County School of Technology, Denville); Jessica Sela (Kearny High School, Kearny); and Julia Shapiro (Holmdel High School, Holmdel).
Whitehead acknowledges the importance of performance in the world of poetry, but adds that that for him, poetry often begins “in moments of solitude, driving home from work. Or sometimes I’ll just sit down and start writing to see what I’m thinking. I give thought to how my poems will look on the page and how they will sound. As I write, I read every line out loud, many times, seeking the right rhythm, the right sound. I go for a certain formal resonance. Poetry that makes statements is the kind of poetry I enjoy reading.”
One cannot let Whitehead go without asking about the crossword puzzles--
“At Tenafly High School, one of my colleagues, Stan Flood, would always sit down at lunch and do the New York Times puzzle. I started to help solve them with him. It became a thing with us. One day I said to myself, ‘How hard can it be to make one of these?’ I went home, drew a grid, and got started. I made all the mistakes a beginner could make. Will Shortz at the Times was generous and supportive and sent me the paper’s guidelines. I kept at it until I got good at it. One of the most amazing experiences I’ve had was walking into a Starbucks in the city one day and seeing some guy working on my puzzle. I couldn’t resist telling him, ‘That’s my puzzle.’ He looked up at me and said, ‘You’re Will Shortz?’”
For the Princeton Poetry Festival’s complete schedule and ticket information, visit princeton.edu/arts/poetryfestival. All proceedings will take place in English. For more about Gary Whitehead, visit garyjwhitehead.com.
Editors note: For more about Poetry Out Loud in New Jersey, and to watch the live broadcast of the finals, check out our Poetry Out Loud page at JerseyArts.com/POL. The finals will take place Friday, March 15, 2013 from 10:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.