Interview by Catharine Bramkamp
Judy Bebeelar is a fairly new member of WNBA-SF, an excellent poet, and a sponsor of events for teens, part of UC Berkeley’s Bay Area Writing Project. She also just received an honorable mention for her poem “Gliding” from the WNBA writing contest.
“The Bay Area Writing Project is the founding site of the National Writing Project, which now has more than 200 university-based sites across the nation, serving 1.4 million kindergarten through college age students in over 3,000 school districts.
“Jim Gray began the program at UC Berkeley with two basic tenets that inform all our writing projects: that teachers should share their best lessons, and that writing teachers must write themselves, as an ongoing practice involving response and revision.
“Each of the sites develops its own programs based on those ideas and provides professional development in a variety of forms: targeted workshops at the university and workshop series at school sites.
“Here in Berkeley, in addition to various workshops both during the year and over the summer, BAWP offers an open program for teachers as well as the more intensive invitational program. Writing camps for kids are offered over the summer as well.
“Our Teachers as Writers program features an on-line magazine for BAWP teachers, Digital Paper. Marty Williams developed the Teachers as Writers reading series that she and I co-host in Berkeley, at Expressions Gallery, 2035 Ashby Ave, Berkeley, 3-4:30 pm on second Sundays. We pair a BAWP writer with another writer from the larger writing community, and usually have an open mic.
As an example, our August 14 reading featured BAWP writer Jane Juska, whose first book, A Round-Heeled Woman, became a best seller, followed by Unaccompanied Women: Late-Life Adventures in Love, Sex and Real Estate. Mrs. Bennet Has Her Say, a novel in which the mother of Jane Austen’s famous family speaks in letters to her sister, is the most recently published. Jane read with Gerard Sarnat, poet (Melting the Ice King) and Stanford Medical School professor.
“The series has been successful in bringing BAWP writers together with writers from the very active Bay Area writing community and beyond, giving all a chance to present their work.
“I believe that prose, poetry and spoken word are all equally popular with our audience. What makes a difference, more than the genre, is the way a writer connects with an audience, and of course, the writing itself.
“I consider myself a poet, but since my book And Then They Were Gone will be published in the fall, it seems I am about to become an author. My poetry chapbook, Walking Across the Pacific, was my first publication, and since retiring from teaching, I’ve published poems in many anthologies.
“As to why I have chosen poetry as a genre: I discovered Walt Whitman and was hooked. In college I changed my major from math (I was supposed to become an engineer) to English, in order to study what I really cared about. I began to learn more about what makes a good poem when I began teaching my students to write poetry. I chose to work with students who were not doing well in school, and my first job was at a Continuation School.
“The one in San Francisco was called Samuel Gompers. It took in all the high school age students whose English was not considered proficient enough for them to attend one of the larger high schools, as well as those suspended for more than 10 days. It was the late sixties and more and more young people were attending irregularly and choosing not to do homework. For many of those students, home contact was difficult, as phone service had been cut off.
“If I found a poem that would speak to them (like Gwendolyn Brooks’ ‘Seven at the Golden Shovel’, or Langston Hughes’ ‘Mother to Son’) or inspire them to imagine wildly (like Pablo Neruda’s ‘Ode to a Watermelon’), the poet’s voice would pull students in. Then I could work in the idea of theme or thesis, or something about organization, or even grammar (the mere mention of which in another context might cause their eyes to glaze over), or the value of detail and example.
“Working with a single poem, examined by the class, and used as a model for their own writing could be fit into a classroom hour. So even if they weren’t there the next day, they would have learned something. And they just might want to come back.
“Publishing their work made them care about ‘getting it right,’ about editing and revising. All of them had important stories to tell: life in Cambodia under Pol Pot, coming to this country on rickety boats, life in their neighborhoods, the grandmother they loved or the brother who died.
“From the beginning, I was committed to helping students learn to love books and writing, as much as I did, especially those who had decided school had nothing to offer them. It wasn’t as easy as I’d imagined, to say the least! But bringing poets into the classroom proved to be a magic formula. Kids always liked the writers (many from California Poets in the Schools, though I started inviting writers into my classes—beginning with Sonia Sanchez, a friend of a friend—before that wonderful program began).
“They began to look at writing in a new way: ‘Hey! Literature can include me!’ And I know the poets helped them realize it was important to find a passion, and work at it. I published their writing, first in poetry anthologies, then in a multicultural literary/art calendar that made a big hit, getting in the San Francisco papers and winning national prizes. I remember one day when a student came to me saying: ‘Ms. B! These ladies on the bus in the seats ahead of me were talking about a calendar. And it was ours!’
“To encourage poetry, I made sure the classroom was a safe place to share—easy with kids, who understand the importance of trust. We would all discover together what worked best: honesty, sharing feelings that are difficult to share—even to put into words, showing rather than telling, using sound and rhythm as well as metaphor, simile, and T.S. Eliot’s, idea of the objective correlative. We read Richard Wright’s powerful poem ‘Between the World and Me’ to see how he used personification so masterfully. We looked at other poets and of course the students’ own poems to identify other effective tools. Then we tried to use them, see what happened.
“I think poetry does save people. I’ve seen writing poems change my students’ lives, even when they don’t go on to become writers. And the great poems of the world exist because they continue to save lives. Take a look at former poet laureate Robert Pinsky’s book, Favorite Poems, and you’ll get an idea of how poems happen, with great consequence, to people of all walks of life.”
Judy Bebelaar’s poetry has been published in more than fifty literary journals and appears in two anthologies: Turning a Train of Thought Upside Down (ed. Andrena Zawinsky, Scarlet Tanager Books, 2012), and The Widows’ Handbook (ed. Lise Menn and Jacqueline Lapidus, Kent State University Press, 2014). Finishing Line Press published a chapbook of her work: Walking Across the Pacific (2014). Judy currently serves as co-host of a reading series sponsored by the Bay Area Writing Project at UC Berkeley. Her website is www.judybebelaar.com