Elise Paschen: poetry for teens caters to the rebel in each of us
Elise Paschen has a knack for getting poetry into the hands of people who might not know they need it. Nearly 10 years ago, while still the executive director of the Poetry Society of America, she paired with Naperville-based Sourcebooks to create “Poetry Speaks,” an anthology including recordings of notable poets reading their works so that readers could listen to the words as well as read them. In 2005, Paschen launched “Poetry Speaks to Children,” aimed at attracting young readers to poems. It, too, was a success. This month Paschen sets out to expose poetry to another hard-to-get audience: teenagers.
“Poetry Speaks Who I Am: Poems of Discovery, Inspiration, Independence and Everything Else …” is evidence of Paschen's mission to put poetry “at the crossroads of American life.” The latest installment is also a gathering of language for people who need it — impassioned, stumbling, sometimes anxious young adults, a group undergoing the often baffling coming-of-age process.
“Tweens can be kind of angsty, and so can poets,” laughs Paschen, noting that poems help kids find language for unfamiliar feelings. “Your first crush, your first kiss. I hope that these poems help people feel that they are not alone.”
Paschen, who has written three well-received books of poetry, wants poets and readers of poetry — whatever their ages — to know they're in good company. By the time she created the first “Poetry Speaks” anthology in 2001, she had worked with the Poetry Society of America to sponsor poetry on subways and public buses. She was looking for different vehicles to transport verse to new readers.
The first “Poetry Speaks” made its mark by linking the page with the ear: It paired offerings from poets including Walt Whitman and George Eliot, William Butler Yeats and Robert Frost with essays and recordings of the poets reading their own work. Frost booms out “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”; Yeats intones “Lake Isle of Innisfree” and then explains the philosophy behind his sonorous style. Paschen decided to expand.
“Poetry Speaks to Children” arrived in 2005, illustrated with dinosaurs, kangaroos and the occasional pirate. The poems, rich in whimsy and wordplay, were kid-friendly, but the collection wasn't dumbed down. Joy Harjo and Seamus Heaney, Langston Hughes and Kay Ryan, C.K. Williams and William Shakespeare were often laugh-out-loud funny. The book was a hit with the wider public and with Paschen's two kids, who were just learning their way around alphabets.
Paschen's children are now reaching their tweens, and Paschen is reaching out again. In tailoring an anthology for adolescents, Paschen is irreverent, bypassing the scholarly to reach out to readers who want real, raw fun, without any of those tests on spondees or iambics. The book is packaged in a way that makes you want to doodle on your Converse All Stars. No memorization required here. Inside the book, a poem about vampires lies near one by Edgar Allen Poe about loneliness. There's verse about bra shopping, and in these pages, Shakespeare's sonnet “My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun” sounds like punk rock. In short, this poetry caters to the rebel in each of us. So what if that poetry happens to be written by some fancy-sounding name such as Percy Shelley or Paul Muldoon? So much the better.
That is what Paschen hopes, anyway.
“This book feels like a roller-coaster ride,” she says. Then again, so does being a teenager. As you read, however old you are, you may also want to scrawl a bit of verse in a journal you've stashed. And why not? Rock on, poets, rock on.
Tess Taylor is the Amy Clampitt Poetry Fellow. Her collection of poems is called “The Misremembered World,” and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Agni, The Believer, the Hudson Review, Oxford American and other publications.