By Rachel Tennenbaum
_Patrice Vecchione is a Santa Cruz poet who has been teaching the art of the written word to students and adults alike for the past 30 years. City on a Hill Press (CHP) sat down with her one afternoon to ask a few questions._
CHP: How did you discover poetry?
PV: My mother read me poetry as a child. I grew up with it as a second language, almost.
CHP: How did you begin writing poetry yourself?
PV: I began when I was in high school [at] Santa Cruz High. It saved my life emotionally. When I wrote nobody told me it wasn’t right. Writing was a way to make the world stand still.
CHP: What do you do for a living?
PV: I mostly teach poetry to children and adults. Right now I teach three workshops at elementary schools: Del Ray Oaks, Creekside, Robert Down. I also am teaching two workshops for adults. People told me to get a real job, but I love what I do. I get to interact with people in an intimate way, get to work with their hearts.
CHP: Do you have a format for your children’s and adult’s classes?
PV: I operate both classes in the same way. I begin by reading to the class, because there is something else operating here. I want them to enter a world where people may fly and dogs can sit at the table. Then we write in silence, and come together as a group as the end so those who want to share may do so. We’re just there to write.
CHP: When did you start teaching poetry to children?
PV: After I graduated high school I attended community college. I then volunteered at a school for one year, teaching poetry to children. At my first class I ever taught, in 1979, I had a girl say, “What if none of this is real? Or what if we’re all the product of something else’s imagination?” How could you not want to be involved with that for the rest of your life?
CHP: What do the children teach you?
PV: The kids remind me of the most essential thing about poetry: that it is a mysterious language, that life and poetry are not linear, that the imagination is unpredictable, and that as humans we live in metaphor.
CHP: What role do you think poetry plays in our lives?
PV: Poetry is not just for those who want to be writers. It’s a vehicle to articulate things we don’t understand. People who write are able to have more of life. Poet Anais Nin said, “We write to taste life twice.” And then you read you taste life a third time, and someone else reads and you taste life for a fourth time.
CHP: How do the children respond to writing poetry?
PV: The kids are really receptive â€“ they’re curious by nature. It’s different than the rest of school and its normally structured focus. I tell them that there are no mistakes, that spelling doesn’t matter. I show them my journal, which is a mess, and say, “this is what writing looks like.” The poetry makes them free, and they love it.
CHP: As a poet, is it ever difficult to separate your personal life from what you do?
PV: I find writing and teaching are compliments, except when I have an abundance of work and deadlines, then the creativity takes a backseat. But I love what I do. I haven’t had a job in thirty years! It is an honor, I’ve had such good fortune. I get to be with people in an intimate way, I am so lucky and blessed. I could know people by working with their cars, but I know them by working with their hearts.
I had always wanted to work with the community. From the first class I taught, I knew that this is what I wanted to do. The one problem about working with the public in such a small community is when I’m in a hurry and I see someone I know! I sort of have to hide and rush out or else I’ll run late!
CHP: Could you share one of the moments where your students gave you feedback?
PV: Once I had a student, a woman in her late seventies, who would drift in and out of my classes. She was always very stern, and I wondered often what she was doing. One day after class she came up to me and started crying, and said, “Thank you, you’ve changed my life.”
But it’s not me, it’s the poetry. All I do is find the door and hold it open for people.
_Learn more about Patrice Vecchione at her website, www.patricevecchione.com._