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Brenda Nasio: An Inspiring Poetry Teacher
By Kathryn Guta
Eleven-year-old Ariel doesn't think she can write a poem. "All my ideas are really dumb," she says, wrinkling her forehead and drawing imaginary circles in the air above her blank piece of paper.
"Tell me a tale about the collage you made," prompts Brenda Nasio, 47, pointing toward a fanciful, multicolored creature with large eyes staring directly at them.
Nasio is a Noe Valley resident and one of 25 poet-teachers serving 9,000 children a year in the San Francisco Unified School District. She's in the classroom about 15 hours a week, at James Lick Middle School on Noe Street and Buena Vista in the Mission. (She'll soon be teaching at Marina Middle School as well.)
On Nov. 6, Cover to Cover Booksellers will feature Nasio and other poet-teachers reading from their work at a celebration of California Poets in the Schools.
"I love the students who feel they can't write a word and who later come up with the best poems. What you see in their faces is indescribable," Nasio says. Two of her James Lick students have gone on to publish poems in the 1999 statewide anthology, A Flame of Words.
Building self-esteem is the key to making kids' poetic juices flow, says Nasio. And the more her students write, the more confident they feel. But the benefits of poetry extend beyond self-expression. "Children also learn how to listen to the work of others in a respectful way," Nasio says. She adds with a smile, "We don't allow snickering."
As Nasio moves about the classroom quietly encouraging students, a dark-haired girl with butterfly hair clips reaches for a special pencil from her purple pencil box. Instead of an eraser at the end of this pencil, there is a joyous purple pom-pom. Her large eyes dart back and forth, and then the pom-pom bobs as she is seized with inspiration.
Nasio also sees poetry in the schools as an antidote to teen violence, a way to channel potentially dangerous impulses. "Can you imagine what would happen if students learned to write a poem about their anger rather than expressing it in violence?" she asks.
Nasio, who has been a poet for 30 years, remembers the Vermont Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 1975 as a watershed moment in the development of her own creative voice. It was there she heard John Irving read The World According to Garp as a work-in-progress. At Bread Loaf, she was also inspired by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Maxine Kumin, who encouraged her to use her own experience as the basis for her work.
Three years later, Nasio was published in the prestigious Paris Review. Nasio also worked on the editorial staff of Mademoiselle magazine, and for CBS News, writing "bios and obits."
Born and raised in New Jersey, she was drawn by the lure of California from an early age. "Ever since the seventh grade, when I discovered the Beach Boys, I wanted to move out here."
In 1983, Nasio married and settled on the outskirts of Noe Valley, first on Harper Street, then on Fair Oaks. As three children arrived over the next five years, she concentrated her energies on family life.
Four years ago, writing returned to the forefront. Finding herself in the midst of a divorce, Nasio applied to be a chaperone for her son Zachary, who as a fifth-grader at Buena Vista was taking an educational field trip to Mexico. She offered to teach the children poetry as part of their enrichment experience.
Buena Vista was not only delighted to accept Nasio's offer, but encouraged her to teach at the school on an ongoing basis. While teaching at Buena Vista, Nasio compiled an anthology of the children's poetry. She also put together an exhibit of their poetry and photography that was displayed at the New Main Library.
As her own children grew and moved on from Buena Vista to James Lick, Nasio found herself moving on as well. Although her second child, Max, is in the James Lick Spanish Immersion Program and she does not teach poetry in Spanish, her eldest child Zachary will receive her guidance in poetry at James Lick this year.
Daughter Samantha continues to have her mother as her poetry teacher at Buena Vista. "When Zachary starts high school, I'll probably follow him wherever he goes," she laughs, adding that "being a mom makes me a better poet because my children enrich my life. The sensitivity I have as a mother helps me recognize the challenges, needs, and concerns of the students in the classroom that I teach."
Back in the classroom, David has finished his poem but is too shy to read it. "You read it," he whispers, pushing his paper before Nasio. Nasio reads from a long list of "the causes and reactions of making the right decisions." "Fighting is the wrong decision," she reads. "Graduating is the right decision."
The children listen with rapt attention. After Nasio is finished, applause fills the room, and the poem's author cannot help but smile. "Some of the poems are very personal. We create a safe environment," Nasio says. "This tells the students that what they have to say is of value. There are no limits on what they can write."
She points out, however, that in order to be a poet in the schools, a teacher must be a published writer. To her surprise, Nasio finds that her students also reserve judgment until they have checked out her credentials. Luckily, she has an impressive list of credits.
In addition to the Paris Review, her poems have appeared in Open Places, Negative Capability, and Amelia, among other literary journals. Nasio's manuscript under a pale winter sun (now retitled unpacking books after one move or another) was a finalist in the National Poetry Series competition (1985) and a runner-up for the Brittingham Prize (1984). The manuscript is still awaiting a publisher. In 1988, William Stafford selected her as a Letter of Merit recipient in the Villa Montalvo poetry awards program.
For Nasio, poetry is about listening -- listening to the creative voice within, listening to the words of others.
On Nov. 6, there will be an opportunity to listen to her read from her work at Cover to Cover (3812 24th St.). She'll join a dozen other poets at the 35th anniversary celebration of California Poets in the Schools, starting at 7 p.m.
The event is supported by Poets & Writers, Inc., through a grant from the James Irvine Foundation. Copies of the James Lick poetry anthology Beginning with Me will also be on sale.