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April is National Poetry Month, and high school students in Monterey County are currently verses-deep into their understanding, appreciating and writing of poetry thanks to poet, nonfiction writer and longtime teacher Patrice Vecchione

She shares, “These kids are incredible. The kids who are into writing are really into writing; they’re really engaged.”

Vecchione is one of two poets participating in the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts’ 2022 Thinking Out Loud Poets-in-Schools Program, established in 1994. Each year, the CCC, located in Carmel, hires local poets to lead workshops in Monterey County high schools. Vecchione and fellow Poets-in-Schools instructor Kathryn Petruccelli teach and offer guidance related to their beloved writing form in this free-of-cost program, held in the spring semester, with workshops starting in February and ending in May. 

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The Poets-in-Schools Program corresponds with the Carl Cherry Center’s annual Thinking Out Loud high school student art exhibition and the Robert Campbell Monterey County High School Poetry Awards. For the latter, Monterey County high school students submit their poems for consideration, and the winners read their work aloud at the awards ceremony, scheduled this year for May 7. Vecchione will be one of the judges.

Says longtime poet and teacher Patrice Vecchione, “There’s such an important aspect of surprise to writing a poem. When you start out, you have an inkling of what you’re going to write, but you get into it and all of the sudden these thoughts are tumbling onto the paper that you had no idea you were thinking.” (Photo courtesy Jana Marcus)

Vecchione, who recently published “My Shouting, Shattered, Whispering Voice: A Guide to Writing Poetry & Speaking Your Truth” and has written and edited several poetry collections, is attuned to the importance of poetry — for young people in particular.

She says, “It enables them to tell the deepest truths about their lives. Truths they may not tell their best friend; truths they probably don’t tell their parents. It’s a way to articulate, to clarify, to witness the world and witness ourselves, to ask questions, to hold ourselves accountable, to express fear that we can’t express in any other venue — and to also be humorous and playful.”

On a weekly basis, Vecchione visits Pacific Grove High School in Pacific Grove, Carmel High School in Carmel and the Rancho Cielo Youth Campus in Salinas to meet with students. Her only stipulation is that the poetry workshops outside are held outside.

She says, “It’s so beautiful outdoors, and on the days that have been cold, a couple of teachers have said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to go inside?’ I’ve said, ‘No, I’m sure I don’t want to go inside,’ and so we just keep our jackets on and work outside. It’s been great.”

Two Pacific Grove High School students work on their own poems. Patrice Vecchione, one of the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts’ 2022 Poets-in-Schools, meets weekly with Monterey County high school students for poetry workshops. Of high school, she notes, “It’s such a wild time of life emotionally and in every way.” (Photo courtesy Patrice Vecchione)

A typical workshop involves Vecchione’s introduction to the subject, theme or poetic device “of the day,” a reading of two to three poems that elucidate the particular focus, a class discussion about those poems and the students’ crafting of their own poetry. 

Vecchione talks to the students about the inner critic that can hamper one’s writing experience and lead to self-sabotage. As she explains, “Many of us have that part of us. We start to do something important — for example, writing a poem — and then we hear a voice that says, ‘Oh God, that’s crap.’”

In her workshops, she steers students away from that inner voice: “I say to them, ‘Tell that part of you to just go take a walk for a little while so you can get some space from the part of you that wants to tell you whether you’re any good or not, because that’s going to stop you from writing your best writing. If you listen to the part of yourself that’s criticizing, you’re not going to be able to do your best work.’”

Students sit outside of Pacific Grove High School and work on their own poems in one of Patrice Vecchione’s poetry workshops, sponsored by the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts. About poetry, Vechionne notes, “It’s very malleable, and it’s a shape-shifting form more than prose is. You can use a whole sentence, or you can use a series of phrases. You can break the line for effect; you can have rhyme and rhythm.” (Photo courtesy Patrice Vecchione)

Vecchione also has certain rules for writing poetry that she conveys to students: Don’t worry about not making sense, let yourself be surprised by your own ideas, know that it’s fine to change your mind and don’t focus on spelling or neatness.

“Trust your imagination, and just go for it and see what happens,” she advises.

And her students are doing just that — applying her suggestions and going for it. In doing so, they are recognizing the significance of writing — and of poetry specifically — in their lives.

Wildflowers grow near the entrance of the Rancho Cielo Youth Campus in Salinas. Vecchione’s poetry workshops at Rancho Cielo are with Silver Star Youth Program students, ages 15½ to 18, who are on probation and seeking to further their education. (Photo courtesy Patrice Vecchione)

She shares, “On my first day, when I was leaving [the Rancho Cielo campus], I heard one of the boys turn to another boy and say, ‘This class makes me think there’s power in my pencil.’ And I turned back, and I said, ‘There is.’ I’ve taught since I was really young … and I have never heard a kid come out and say something so boldly and beautifully.”

The Carl Cherry Center for the Arts, at Fourth Avenue and Guadalupe Street in Carmel, is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays and noon-4 p.m. Saturdays. For more information, visit https://carlcherrycenter.org/.

The 2022 Robert Campbell Monterey County High School Poetry Awards will be held 2-4 p.m. May 7 at the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel. For more information, visit https://carlcherrycenter.org/event/2022-robert-campbell-monterey-county-high-school-poetry-awards/.