Sunday Poem – Matthew Siegel

For Bryan, 13, who sleeps through Li-young Lee
By Matthew Siegel

Normally I would snap my fingers
behind your ear but it’s summer
and I understand why you are sick
of poems.  Normally, I would wake you
with my teacher voice and ask
is there a problem, Bryan?
But instead I watch you, head down
on the cool desk, your back rising,
falling with each breath, as if
you were my son on vacation,
tired of temples.   The classroom is dark
and warm like the inside of a flower.
The projector hums like your mother.
Love the questions themselves, I said
to you earlier, and you looked up at me
in that way children look up at adults.
I want to tell you I too know
what it means to eat lunch alone
at a big table watching girls laugh,
sip cold blue slush through thick straws,
what it means to watch soup steam rise,
to breathe it in, look for figures
in the noodles, how it feels to force-feed
the last few golden mango chunks at desert.
Bryan, I am not going to tell you
how lovely you are asleep on your desk,
how one day, maybe you might turn into a man
who looks at a boy sleeping in his classroom
and instead of chastising him
wants to touch his hair.

It’s the end of the half term holiday tonight – school goes back tomorrow.  Although officially Monday is one of my writing days, I’m anticipating spending some time printing out music for the various junior bands that I run.  It’s impossible to keep the two worlds of poetry and teaching seperate.  If I don’t want the children to miss out, I have to do some things on my days off.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Matthew Siegel, who I met very briefly at the Forward prize giving a couple of weeks ago.  The poem is from Blood Work which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.  I like this poem because it manages not only to bridge the gap between poetry and teaching because of its subject matter, it also documents that tenderness and compassion which teachers can show, which as teachers, we all hope to be able to show when it is needed.

I love the honesty of this poem with the recounting of ‘Normally I would snap my fingers/behind your ear’ and ‘Normally, I would wake you/with my teacher voice’.  I kind of cringe a little bit when I read that – the ‘teacher voice’ because I hear myself speaking with a ‘teacher voice’ – trotting out the lines my teachers said to me.  A teacher voice is necessary of course – you need it otherwise you would run out of energy before the morning was done, but I think it is also a shield between you and the children and that is a shame.

This week I spent a couple of days in London visiting my lovely friend Holly Hopkins who I haven’t seen for a while.  I also was a guest poet on Kathryn Maris’s Advanced Poetry Course, run by The Poetry School. As part of the session, some of the participants brought a poem to be critiqued, and Kathryn talked a bit about the movement of a poem, its energy, where it is going, and how poems that don’t work are sometimes static or lack movement.  (I’m paraphrasiing here – and I’m sure Kathryn can put it better – but you’ll have to sign up for one of her fantastic courses to hear it from the horse’s mouth, as it were). When I was reading Matthew’s poem again, it struck me that it has real movement and energy.  It moves from ‘Normally’ etc to ‘But instead’ to ‘I want to tell you’ and then ‘I am not going to tell you’.  If the poem was an animal, it would be shifting its weight gently around before strolling off into the distance.

It is easy as a teacher to be offended that somebody has fallen asleep in your class – is it because you are boring?  Maybe, but it can also be because it feels like a safe space, and they trust you.  This is the feeling I get here, even though the poem says very early on ‘I understand why you are sick/of poems’.  But later on we read ‘The classroom is dark/and warm like the inside of a flower./The projector hums like your mother’.  This tells me that the classroom is somewhere this child feels safe in.

Matthew’s first collection Blood Work is published by CB Editions and you can order it directly from his publisher here.  Matthew Siegel was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, California.  He teaches literature and creative writing at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  Thanks to Matthew for allowing me to publish his poem!

Some of you may have noticed that my blog posts have been getting a little shorter.  I’ve been trying really hard to keep them under 1000  (not including the poem) – before that they were sometimes twice or three times as long and a friend recently pointed out that meant I was writing the equivalent of a novel a year.  No wonder it was starting to feel like hard work!  But a 1000 feels manageable.

This week, apart from spending a few days in London, I’ve spent Friday and Saturday taking it quite easy.  I felt really tired and just not in the mood to do anything.  When ever I feel like this, I go back to reading and I’ve got through quite a few poetry collections in the last couple of days.  Today I ran the Lancaster Half Marathon and did it in a time of 1 hr 45 minutes and 47 seconds.  I was really chuffed with this because my time last year was 1 hour 52 minutes and 23 seconds, so I’ve knocked just over six minutes off my time.  Last year I’d only been running six months, and it was my first half marathon.  This year, I decided to try and run, on average, 5 minutes for every kilometre, which worked out well – it gave me something to focus on throughout the race.

Other news – I am the Podcast Poet on The Verb this week – you can download the podcast here for the next two weeks.  I’m ten minutes from the end.  When I first listened to this, I am not exaggerating when I say I started sweating horribly because I was so embarrassed at hearing my own voice, and imagining that it was terrible  I have since had some sense talked into me and I’m prepared to admit that I may have a slightly skewered sense of reality about it.

Issue 2 of The Compass is live as we speak.  I’m the Reviews Editor for The Compass, which means I have to find reviewers and then edit the reviews that they write.  The content of each issue of the magazine is released gradually over a two week period – so half of Issue 2 is already up there.  You can find reviews of David Morley and Jan Owen, written by Sarah Hymas and a review written by Maria Taylor of Jack Underwood, Andrew McMillan and Matthew Siegel.  There are two reviews still to be published – one by John Foggin and one by Roy Marshall and a lot more poetry.

When I write to you next week I will be in Aldeburgh –  on what is becoming an annual visit to Aldeburgh Poetry Festival – in fact I might have to write the blog post before I leave as I’m not sure if I will be able to get on the internet.  So there should be a blog post.  But there might not be.  You’ll have to wait and see…

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