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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Giving Kids a Voice

Expanding Literacy: Professor Carmen Tafolla is taking poetry to students through her Planting Poet Trees project

By Michelle Mondo

Her time as Texas’ poet laureate may be winding down, but UTSA professor and internationally acclaimed writer Carmen Tafolla certainly is not. Since the legislature announced the honor, Tafolla has thrown herself into Poet Trees—a project she created and developed to help students at low-income schools get exposed to poetry. Through an application process, Tafolla chose 20 schools to visit statewide. She will take books for the libraries and help students write their own poetry that will then be published in an anthology. She talked to Sombrilla Magazine about the project, when she was first exposed to poetry, what she wants to accomplish, and how students can find their voice.

How did the idea for Poet Trees develop?
We’re lamenting how our kids aren’t reading and aren’t doing well in school. But we have to give them something that lets them make the connection between their world and what they read in school. I wanted to find school districts where some teacher, librarian, or principal is interested in creating writers. I wanted them to be from the schools that don’t get the extras.

Why do you think poetry is so important to young students?
Poetry will always be relevant. Poetry is based on feelings. Every human being has feelings—loneliness, insecurity, love, passion. There’s a great quote form E.E. Cummings: “Poetry is what you feel. Whenever you feel, you are nobody but yourself.” Poetry is putting that “nobody but yourself” on paper. I think kids turn a lot to poetry if they are exposed to it correctly. Some never see their own experience. When they hit a poem or a book that expresses something they’ve gone through, that kind of affirmation is critical to children relating to books

You became inspired by poetry at a young age too but not through school. When was your first exposure to poetry and why did it mean so much?
I was born and raised on San Antonio’s west side. In the late 1950s, when I was 6 years old, my mother ordered a Childcraft Encyclopedia set for me. She had to pay 50 cents a month on a payment plan, which was a lot then for us. The first volume we received was Poems of Early Childhood. I read it backward and forward.

There was also poetry I never saw written down. These were poems that I learned when put on an aunt’s lap and taught line by line to say words I didn’t understand the meaning of. I was learning our cultural traditions, family history. It’s an important part of our heritage. My relatives wanted me to learn my languages. I never considered myself to have one native language. I have two, sometimes three—Spanish and English and Tex Mex. They consciously knew they weren’t passing on education but an ability to use words effectively

When did your poetry become part of your voice?
My writing was something I did privately. When I went to school it was against state law to speak a foreign language on school grounds. Basically, all of the children spoke Spanish, and usually the teacher didn’t speak anything but English. We were punished for speaking Spanish. There were all kinds of punishments. By the time I got to college, the thing that fascinated me most was bilingual education, and that is what I studied. In my early 20s, after graduating, the Chicano movement was happening publicly. I got a job teaching Mexican American studies at a nearby college. That was when I really became immersed in the Chicano poetry.

What impact do you hope this project has?
Language and expression of emotion are a basic human right. When we silence children’s tongues or we silence entire groups of people—be it through exclusion in the educational system or convincing them they have nothing to say—we are stealing a voice, we are stealing a history and stealing belief in themselves. I would like to make sure that at least some of the children in this state who are unaware of their own voice have a chance to develop it and go on and influence other children.


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