Poet Jay Ritchie: teaching poetry the way he wishes it were taught to him

Poet Jay Ritchie, at ARHS.Photo: Sara Barber-Just

From September 19-22, 2019, local poet Jay Ritchie ran poetry workshops in many sophomore English classes at ARHS, in conjunction with the Emily Dickinson Museum, which coordinated the event. 

For the past six years, the museum has invited contemporary poets to apply for grants that bring them into the schools as part of their annual Poetry Festival. 

Brooke Steinhauser, the program director at the Emily Dickinson Museum reached out to the English department a few years ago to ask if they’d be interested in hosting a poet for a day.  

English Department Head Sara Barber-Just said she always says yes. “It’s an awesome offer, to bring us a visiting poet for a day,” she said, noting that her job after that is easy. “I just look up my tenth grade teachers’ schedules, and I divide the visitor among them.” 

All ARHS students read, study, and write poetry in a big poetry unit in tenth grade, so it makes sense to center the visitor there.

Barber-Just corresponds with the poet in advance and makes sure she has the poet’s slides or materials ready in advance. “On the day of their visit, I walk them from class to class, and buy them a nice lunch and some coffee. Our students get hours of poetry in return,” she said. 

This year’s poet, Ritchie, who is pursuing an MFA in poetry at UMass Amherst, is the author of a 2017 poetry collection called Cheer Up, Jay Ritchie, from Coach House Books. He said he enjoys visiting schools and feels like it’s his “opportunity to teach poetry the way I wish it were taught when I was in high school.”

“I want everyone to know that they already possess the tools they need to read and appreciate poetry,” he said. “They’re doing it right, even and especially if they don’t know what they’re doing. Poetry anticipates that uncertainty.” 

The first thing Ritchie did in his workshop was to show students images, everything from a drawing of a box of crackers to a scene on a ferry, and ask them to respond to what they saw in them. 

“Poetry can be daunting, and [starting with interpretation of visuals] allowed people to have an opinion,” said English teacher Elizabeth Bull. 

The classes also appreciated his demeanor. He was calm and consistent with the students, said English teacher Kate Kuhn.  

Students also liked learning and reading Ocean Vuong’s work and loved the ability to write some poetry of their own. “I loved when [Jay] said, ‘Surrender to the piece [they were reading] and let it speak to you,’” said Kuhn.

Ritchie thought the workshops went well, too. 

“What I enjoyed most was hearing the students’ perspectives on the pieces I shared with them. They found things and pointed out elements I had never noticed before, which allowed me to appreciate the works from new angles,” said Ritchie. “That’s the best possible result of the workshop, where I’m shown the limits of my own knowledge.” 

Steinhauser is excited the museum can do this work in the schools. “Our museum is kind of a ‘locust’ for cool activities in the community,” she said. 

And Ritchie hopes that students gained confidence in their instincts when reading and writing, because “that’s where the real pleasure in poetry is.”