My first poetry teacher was Ms. Slaughter, whose name delighted our fourth-grade class. Without her, I wouldn’t have believed a classroom could be captivated by poetry, as opposed to being held hostage by it, which was to happen in high school.
Though I was unaware of this in 1981, Ms. Slaughter was a visiting poet in the New York State Poets in the Schools program. I also came to realize that the writing prompts and exercises she gave us were from Kenneth Koch’s groundbreaking Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry.
Our finished poems were copied with a Ditto machine and stapled together into a little anthology. It gave everyone a high — from its purple ink if not its contents. Of my own poems, I only remember the results of a wishing exercise:
Once I wished the school
into a rotten tomato
but I was still in it.
one of the seeds.
Years later as an MFA student, I would be introduced to Kenneth Koch by one of my professors at an event celebrating Koch’s lifetime of work. Though Drama is not my genre, I have the small skills needed to present the ensuing scene:
Professor: “I’d like you to meet a student of mine from the Creative Writing department.”
Me: “It’s a pleasure to — ”
Exit Kenneth Koch!
For a long time I blamed myself for not thinking of a more clever line than the formal one I had been in the middle of formulating. Though Koch, who taught in the graduate English department, had begun packing his bags at the words “Creative Writing”.
Now I’m further from graduate school than I was in fourth grade. I still don’t know what poetry is, other than a feeling of failure with satisfying symmetry. But I wouldn’t wish otherwise.
Tom Fugalli’s poetry has appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Forklift Ohio, Opium Magazine, Voicemail Poems, The Western Humanities Review, and other publications. He translated poetry included in The Roads of the Roma: A PEN Anthology of Gypsy Writers. A 2013 Press 53 Open Awards Finalist, Tom holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. He lives in New Rochelle, New York.