When Kate Rushin is teaching third-graders how to write persona poems using the story of the Amistad captives, she's connecting them to a history that is personal to her.
Rushin is an in-demand teacher and storyteller in Connecticut. She's a published poet, a former writer-in-residence and director of the Center for African-American Studies at Wesleyan, and a panelist on Colin McEnroe's WNPR radio Friday culture roundup "The Nose."
"What is it about storytelling? Of course I'm telling stories in my poetry," she says. "A lot of my poems have to do with my personal family history … and I like to think about [how] my history is connected to larger American history. I have also been doing a number of poems inspired by art. And that's something I did when I worked with the Poetry Outreach program of Sunken Garden through the Hill-Stead Museum. Writing poems and teaching poems inspired by art. I still do that in my current writing group, which is Connecticut River Poets."
Rushin's personal history helps her relate to the Amistad story of African captives on their way to slavery who rebelled, took over the ship, were recaptured and tried, and eventually set free.
She grew up in Lawnside, N.J., a small town in Camden County, started in 1840 by Quaker abolitionists who purchased the land to house black families. Incorporated in 1926, it is believed to be the first self-governing African American town in the North. Rushin is the great-great-granddaughter of Davie Arthur, who with his two brothers and sister, escaped from bondage on the eastern shore of Maryland and fled to Haddonfield, N.J., through the Quaker run Underground Railroad.
Her memories are of a close-knit community. She was a shy kid. When her mother died in 1962, her aunts and grandparents paid her special attention and helped the 10-year-old find solace in poetry.
"That first Christmas after my mom passed her sisters asked me what I wanted. I told them nothing. But you must want something, they said. Books, I said. Poetry books."
They gave her "The Best Loved Poems of the American People," and "Poetry of the Negro," edited by Harlem Renaissance writers Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes. She added it to the six-volume set of world poetry that her grandmother gave her when she was 7.
"I didn't think I was going to be a poet," Rushin says. "I thought I would follow my mom and my aunt into some kind of social work."
In the sixth grade she decided to memorize and recite Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" at an assembly. The long-memory poem about a dead woman was a bold choice for a young girl.
"I think about that now and wonder if I was stiff. But later my cousins told me they were amazed I could memorize all that."
She attended Mt. Zion Methodist Church and remembers a lady in a flowered dress and big hat getting up to recite the poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was known as the Negro poet laureate.
"That had a big effect on me," she says.
There were four daily newspapers in her house and a big emphasis on reading. She graduated from local public schools and went to Oberlin, majoring in communications and theater. She joined an African American student-run theater group and took classes with Calvin C. Hernton, a social and literary critic best known for his book "Sex and Racism in America" She was familiar with Field, a poetry magazine created at Oberlin.
"But I didn't really know or understand the world of professional American poetry," she says. "I didn't know how all the little magazines were connected to the big universities."
She ended up teaching at South Boston High School, at colleges as an adjunct about black women writers and working at New Words, a feminist bookstore in Cambridge. Her first collection of poetry, "The Black Back-Ups," was published in 1993 by Firebrand Books, a feminist/lesbian publishing house.
In the 1990s she earned her MFA in creative writing at Brown University, which led to her posts at Wesleyan. She was invited to read at Sunken Garden in the summer of 1994 and read again 10 years later. This summer she attended the 20th anniversary of Cave Canem, organized to support black writers. She is a fellow there. After Wesleyan she taught at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts and was the dramaturge for the production of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin In The Sun." Her poem, "My Lord, What A Morning," about singer Marian Anderson, was commissioned by The New Haven International Festival of Arts and Ideas/Connecticut Freedom Trail Poetry Project.
She's been living the life of a for-hire poet and teacher for a long time.
She was invited to teach in the Amistad Pilot Program/Bringing the Connecticut Freedom Trail to Life, which is where she met the third-graders. They study the life of Sarah Margru Kinson, which is told in first person in "Africa is My Home." Kinson was known as Magulu in Mendeland (Sierra Leone) when at 9 she was captured by slave traders, taken to Cuba, then sold and put aboard the Amistad. After freedom and her return to West Africa, she came back to America and attended Oberlin College (just as Rushin did later).
"I performed a poem I wrote called 'The Rapper As Light' for them to get us started," Rushin says about her approach to the third graders. She is not a rapper and it's not her favorite music, but she says "it's fun and the kids like it and it's a place to start."
She starts reciting and the years of theater training and public speaking shine through in her performance.
"I am bad and tough enough, super cool and super jive. Just listen to my rap and don't tell me lies. My lips are all honey and my heart is pure gold. My clothes are all fine and my rap is bold."
"It's funny because I was commissioned to write this poem and years later I find it useful as a teaching tool for persona poems." (In persona poems the writer takes on another character and writes in the first person.) She starts the kids with poems such as "I'm a Little Teapot," then gets them to take on African animal personas so they write in the voice of a lion. "Then we switch to real people and I have them write their own poems.
"I'll try different things to engage them. They start relating to the little girl in the Amistad book, [who] is a real person. I get them to think about what life was like for her in Africa, then what is was [like] in captivity, then again as a free person."
She has the young poets read aloud to each other, then exchange poems and have another read it.
"There is value in hearing the poem out loud and then hearing how another interprets it."
Rushin sees an importance to the work of passing on the stories.
"I think it endures because people make a connection. What I have come to see over time for myself and through students and other people I work with is that engagement in the arts whether it's poetry or drawing or music or theater, allows us to bring our best selves forward."
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