Students sitting at a table together

Poetic partnership Chapman University MFA students help local high school teens develop a love for poetry and writing

Michelle Ramirez, a senior at Orange High School, stepped to the front of an Argyros Forum lecture hall on a Monday after school.

“What a fool I am to have thought I was the only flower in your garden,” she began, reading a poem she wrote about how quickly high school love can fade, and comparing her rivals to thorny roses. “And here I am, a hopeless daisy, drying out waiting to be no more but a memory.”

Ramirez is one of 24 OHS students in a semester-long workshop guided by six MFA students and assistant professor of English Jan Osborn, Ph.D., as part of the Chapman University/Orange High School Literacies Partnership in collaboration with the
John Fowles Center for Creative Writing.  The high school students will share their poetry and short fiction in a community reading Monday, April 25, at 7 p.m. in Beckman Hall 404 as part of National Poetry Month.

Class of students

When the poets gather, they fill the better part of a classroom. From left, standing, are Robert Matt Taylor (MFA ’16), Kimberly Kotel (MA ’16, MFA ’17), Michelle Ramirez, Daniel Espiritu, Samuel Wilson, Chloe Petrucci, Nathan Reyes, Matt Lodin, Tylur Walker, Eric Martinez, Mark Hausmann (MA ’16, MFA ’17), and Innesa Ranchpar (MA ’16). Seated, center, are Alondra Cabrera, Janine Hernandez, Jessenia Hernandez, Carissa Parker, Lisa Ko (MA ’17, MFA ’18), and An Ngo. Front Row, seated, Cody Mauro (MFA ’16), Christine Nguyen, Nery Martinez, Kayla Walker, Bianca Villegas ’19, and Devin Boliinger.

The reading is one of the highlights of a spring workshop now in its fifth year that this month included a session with Pico Iyer, the author and essayist who spends each April at Chapman as a Presidential Fellow.

“He just opens up something in them about identities,” Osborn said after watching OHS junior Himmat “Matt” Lodin approach Iyer after hearing him speak about his multiple identities as Indian, English and Californian. “My parents are from Afghanistan,” Lodin told Iyer.

Spiral bound notebook and pen

Student work from each semester is published in a small poetry collection, or chap book, titled “Down the Street.”

For the second year, the OHS students also will produce a chapbook, or small published collection of their work, that they titled aptly: Down the Street.

One of the remarkable aspects of the workshop is that it is a voluntary endeavor, not only for the high school students but also for the group of MFA instructors and one undergraduate all led by coordinator Kimberly Kotel (MA ’16, MFA ’17), the only one of the six graduate students who is paid.

Lodin, partial to wearing a backwards New England Patriots cap, signed up for the weekly sessions after learning about the workshop from his AP English Language and Composition teacher, Laurie Wielenga.

“I wanted to start learning how to write better because writing-wise, I’m not too sharp, a little above basic,” Lodin said. “We did this activity in the first meeting and it was pretty fun – they gave us a certain amount of letters and we had to make a story using the first letter.”

Later, he brought friends.

“We all think it’s going to help us with writing and it’s going to look good on college applications when you tell them, ‘Hey, I was in a creative writing workshop.’  They’ll be like wow, how professional.” (Two seniors in the workshop, Daniel Espiritu and Devin Bolinger, already have been admitted to Chapman.)

For the instructors, the seminar is a chance to add another type of teaching experience to their academic resumes.

“This is a little different from teaching freshman comp,” said instructor Robert Matt Taylor (MFA ’16). “This is closer to what most of us MFAs do and want to do.

Student speaking in class

Orange High School sophomore Samuel Wilson discusses his and fellow students’ writing in the poetry workshop.

“There’s a freshness of perspective. Most of these kids are completely uninitiated to this. The first couple of weeks they have that methodical approach. Then they realize they can begin to improvise.

“We really want that sort of response. We want them to have a real relationship with what they turn in and really care about it. It’s not an assignment. It’s extracurricular.”

The element of fun and writing about deeply personal subjects is part of the appeal, the students say. Plus, their newfound creative writing skills carry over to their regular schoolwork.

“I usually get writer’s block, and with this program they’ve taught us strategies,” Lodin said.

Ramirez said the instructors have taught her how “to bring something as simple as a piece of paper to life.”

“And that helps me do essays,” she said. “They don’t have to be poetry. They can just be essays. How can you get the readers’ attention? How can you captivate them and make them remember you?”

Kotel, the MFA student who leads the lessons and guides the group discussions of the young writers’ work, said the seminar helps her remember something else

“They inspire me all the time, just with what they write,” she said. “The passion for it, I guess, reminds you of why you like to write. It just reminds you why you love it.”

Display image at top: From left, Bianca Villegas Innesa Ranchpar, work with Orange High School students Michelle Ramirez and Christine Nguyen.

Photos by Lia Hanson ’18

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