Bridging the Generation Gap: Grub Street Teens Visit Ploughshares

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Teens examining the Ploughshares book collection

This past summer, during Grub Street’s Young Adult Writers Teen Fellowship (http://www.grubstreet.org/index.php?id=22), one of my students wrote a ghazal that left me speechless with awe and envy. She is fifteen. Most days during the three-week program, she wore flannel shirts, jean shorts, and black Gladiator sandals. Her shoulder-length brown hair had a streak of pink in it—and one week, a blue strip—that often covered part of her face, including her dark-rimmed glasses, while she scribbled away in her spiral notebook. The prompt I gave the class was inspired by Reginald Dwayne Betts’ Ghazal in the Winter 2008-2009 Ploughshares issue, guest-edited by Jean Valentine (http://www.pshares.org/read/issue-detail.cfm?intIssueID=128). I have taught Dwayne’s phenomenal poem more times than I can count.

In my ten years of teaching—elementary, middle, high school and college level—my YAWP student’s ghazal, “In the Kitchen,” is one of the best student poems I have ever read.

Did I mention she is fifteen?

I have written about my love for Grub Street YAWP students before (http://grubdaily.org/?p=899). Each year the students continue to impress me with their writing. I love their images (the skin that collects on milk left out all morning), their ideas (ode to the number two), and their characters (if Lori asks if she looks fat in her daughter’s jeans, always tell her she looks beautiful or you’ll be there for hours). Word is spreading. Some students regularly take the train in from places as far as the South Shore, and this summer one teen stayed with relatives nearby so he didn’t have to make the commute from Providence.

Grub Street’s Summer Teen Fellowship immerses high school students in the writers’ life of creative craft and publishing. The teens work with published authors on original prose and poetry, meet with literary agents and editors, and take field trips. In the spirit of writers’ residencies for adults, all teens receive a stipend for their commitment to the program and their time spent as working writers.

In addition to the three-week fellowship program, Grub Street also offers one-week intensive Teen Camps. Writing? During the summer? Setting an alarm on days when it’s hot enough to ask for a Styrofoam cup to protect your slippery, sweating Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee in a plastic cup? Yes, yes, and yes. These teens crave time to write and a community of readers; they are hungry for feedback on their poems and stories.

What I’ve noticed recently, in addition to their enthusiasm and commitment: their interest in publishing.

Terrance Hayes sticker tattoo on the arm of a student

In the past we have held author visits, publishing panels, and coordinated field trips to publishing houses and bookstores in Boston and Cambridge. The students liked asking ‘a real author’ questions about her writing process, hearing what an editor what he looks for in submissions, and most recently during a visit to the Harvard Bookstore, learning how a book becomes a book. This past June, and later in August, they were lucky enough to have Akshay Ahuja, Production Manager at Ploughshares, visit with us and discuss aspects of the magazine. Students took notes while he talked about the guest-editing process and explained the definition of a “slush pile.” They raised their hands. Akshay edited the cover letters students had written on the white board. He passed out sample back issues as well as sticker tattoos. Sentences, like museums, hold everything the imagination can holdTerrance Hayes. Again and again, they raised their hands.

Then, at one point, Akshay asked us if we wanted to go visit the office. Hands stopped mid-air. Really? We can go right now?

Luckily, Emerson College is right around the corner from Grub Street. So off we went. Some students tumbled into the elevator while others waited for the next one, admiring their new sticker tattoos.

Once we made it down Boylston Street, past the cigarette-puffing and spike-haired Emerson students, into the brick-covered alley and finally, into the Transportation Building where the Ploughshares offices are located, we were greeted by smells of egg rolls and pepperoni pizza. The Ploughshares offices are also located beside a food court. Akshay held the door open for all twelve teenagers while I told them to use ‘library voices’ (you can’t take a teacher anywhere). Then he graciously handed out more sample issues and review copies of books. One boy clutched a copy of the recent Nick Flynn issue. Another held close the Martín Espada issue. Later, Akshay showed us the actual slush piles (students were amazed at the volume of submissions—and these were just print ones). We tried not to disrupt the hard-working interns or the Managing Editor, Andrea Martucci.

Soon, more hands. More questions.

How many submissions do you get every month? Do you get any on Christmas?

Who are your upcoming guest-editors?

Can I have this book?

Who is the youngest person to have ever been published in Ploughshares?

In response to that last question, my mind wandered to one particular pink-haired young poet.