Last week, Christine Hemp—award-winning author, poet and writing coach—spent four days at Gill St. Bernard’s working with students and faculty. The visit, generously funded by the Gill St. Bernard’s Parents’ Association, was organized by English Department Chair Andrew Lutz, who had attended one of Hemp’s workshops last fall and was struck by her approachability, enthusiasm and creativity. In addition, Lutz had seen firsthand the impact of having a writer on campus for a full week when he brought poet Thomas Sayers Ellis to Gill five years earlier. "I heard from numerous students that the week we hosted Ellis was the best program they were able to be a part of at Gill St. Bernard’s," he said. "Giving students an opportunity to work with a living, breathing writer communicates to them the importance and value of writing and communication in our culture. It also gives students opportunities to be creative and explore talents they may not have known they possessed."
During her stay on campus, Hemp held workshops for creative writing students at Home Winds each day. She also worked with Middle School and Upper School students by grade level and hosted a full-day writing workshop for a dozen faculty members. A demanding schedule, but Hemp lost none of her energy and engagement as the week unfolded. Connecting with writers of all ages, she gave generously of her attention, encouraging each individual talent and drawing out each unique voice.
With the fifth-graders, the youngest group the author worked with, Hemp shared Christina Rossetti’s eight-line poem Who Has Seen the Wind? and then had students write a poem of their own that modeled Rossetti’s structure. Fifth-grade language arts teacher Zoe Tuohy offered, "Christine had a wonderful way of engaging each student, and she tapped into their very real emotions by having them describe a concrete image that portrayed that emotion. Her passion for poetry was obvious, and she used the weather as a metaphor for a variety of feelings in poetry." One student, aptly named Summer, said Hemp taught her that weather could be used as a metaphor to express feelings and moods.
With Upper School English classes, Hemp also highlighted the correlation between weather and mood, a metaphor that resonated with advanced students just as clearly as it had with younger writers. Lara Drzik, a senior in Advanced Creative Writing Seminar said, "I would say that the most important thing Christine taught me was that it is important to find the strong 'weather,' to use her word, in your life and to find a way to make it into a powerful piece of art."
In one weather prompt, Hemp had groups of Upper School students choose a single word to describe their internal weather at that moment. Then she had them compose acrostic poems, starting each line with a letter from the word they had chosen and incorporating five colors they could see outside the window and other information, all generated in rapid-fire succession. Everything happened fast—identifying the initial word, generating lists of colors, dashing off the poems. All of the writers noticed that something special happened when they were forced to work quickly, heeding Hemp’s advice, "first thought, best thought." The writers were able to get at something below the surface, tapping into fresh ideas and emotions. "Putting words down without the worry that it should be perfect opened me up to a level of emotional honesty that I didn't know I had," said senior Charlotte Walsh. Senior Sammy Bittman echoed that sentiment, saying "Christine shook up our way of thinking and put it down in a new place. I'm really grateful for the time we got to spend with her last week."
Reflecting on Hemp’s visit, Lutz said "I think it's crucial for creative writers who are a part of any school to have direct experiences with people who through hard work, determination, and talent have found a way to make their way in the world through what they write. Students are told all the time by their teachers that writing matters and writing can make a difference; it doesn't hurt for them to see proof of that or to be told that by someone whose writing has had a profound influence."
Although Hemp returned to her home in Port Townsend, Washington, late last week, the conversations she introduced about writing and poetry will weather the changing seasons and stay with students for years to come.