Poetry Project

Learning curves

Recently I have been peripherally involved in two initiatives around early childhood learning. This has got me thinking again about the huge influence teachers have on their students – for better or for worse.

Write a poem about a teacher or a situation at school which shaped your life or someone else’s one way or another. Send your poems to slip.stellenbosch@gmail.com before or on 24 November 2014.

Mrs. Krikorian
by Sharon Olds

She saved me. When I arrived in 6th grade,
a known criminal, the new teacher
asked me to stay after school the first day, she said
I've heard about you. She was a tall woman,
with a deep crevice between her breasts,
and a large, calm nose. She said,
This is a special library pass.
As soon as you finish your hour's work

that hour's work that took ten minutes
and then the devil glanced into the room
and found me empty, a house standing open—
you can go to the library. Every hour
I'd zip through the work in a dash and slip out of my
seat as if out of God's side and sail
down to the library, solo through the empty
powerful halls, flash my pass
and stroll over to the dictionary
to look up the most interesting word
I knew, spank, dipping two fingers
into the jar of library paste to
suck that tart mucilage as I
came to the page with the cocker spaniel's
silks curling up like the fine steam of the body.
After spank, and breast, I'd move on
to Abe Lincoln and Helen Keller,
safe in their goodness till the bell, thanks
to Mrs. Krikorian, amiable giantess
with the kind eyes. When she asked me to write
a play, and direct it, and it was a flop, and I
hid in the coat-closet, she brought me a candy-cane
as you lay a peppermint on the tongue, and the worm
will come up out of the bowel to get it.
And so I was emptied of Lucifer
and filled with school glue and eros and
Amelia Earhart, saved by Mrs. Krikorian.
And who had saved Mrs. Krikorian?
When the Turks came across Armenia, who
slid her into the belly of a quilt, who
locked her in a chest, who mailed her to America?
And that one, who saved her, and that one—
who saved her, to save the one
who saved Mrs. Krikorian, who was
standing there on the sill of 6th grade, a
wide-hipped angel, smokey hair
standing up weightless all around her head?
I end up owing my soul to so many,
to the Armenian nation, one more soul someone
jammed behind a stove, drove
deep into a crack in a wall,
shoved under a bed. I would wake
up, in the morning, under my bed—not
knowing how I had got there—and lie
in the dusk, the dustballs beside my face
round and ashen, shining slightly
with the eerie comfort of what is neither good nor evil.

The Plum Tree
by Bertolt Brecht

The plum tree in the yard's so small
It's hardly like a tree at all.
Yet there it is, railed round
To keep it safe and sound. The poor thing can't grow any more
Though if it could it would for sure.
There's nothing to be done
It gets too little sun.

The Lesson
by Edward Lucie-Smith

“Your father’s gone,” my bald headmaster said.
His shiny dome and brown tobacco jar
Splintered at once in tears. It wasn’t grief.
I cried for knowledge which was bitterer
Than any grief. For there and then I knew
That grief has uses — that a father dead
Could bind the bully’s fist a week or two;
And then I cried for shame, then for relief.
I was a month past ten when I learnt this:
I still remember how the noise was stilled
In school-assembly when my grief came in.
Some goldfish in a bowl quietly sculled
Around their shining prison on its shelf.
They were indifferent. All the other eyes
Were turned towards me. Somewhere in myself
Pride, like a goldfish, flashed a sudden fin.

Submitted Poems


I was ten
and she was playing Snow White
in the school play,
singing solo
someday my prince will come;
when she walked through
the school corridors
she left me unable to breathe,
craving a different element
to stay alive: her attention, her smile.
In each performance I sang
only for her.
If there was an audience,
I don’t remember.
Only her dark hair,
only her blue eyes,
her voice,
waiting for a prince.

- Jeannie Wallace McKeown

Rivonia Primary School 1983

The roneo machine
had its own room
a little one
next door to the staffroom
There was always someone
cranking its handle
around and around
or adding ink
to its wells
or carefully layering
a new stencil on its barrel
Maths worksheets for Standard 3
English handouts for Standard 5
Copies easily smudged
even when dry
found their way
to our desks
in time for lessons
the sheets of paper
carrying with them
whiffs of
methylated spirits and ink
purplish-black splodges
on our fingers
and on the teacher
whose turn it had been
that morning to crank
the handle.

- Jeannie Wallace McKeown

Learning Curves

a nameless face, a phantom face
stood in our grade one classroom door
obscured, save for the halo around your head
. . . must’ve been the sunlight

playing with the curves of your curls,
you said I wrote sentences
that would make your grade threes weep
and I was someone I didn’t know existed before
someone who could write more than straight lines and curved lines;
someone who played with words at break
when the others ate protein-packed sandwiches

between chalkboard dust-clouds and sweeping up pencil shavings,
I stayed in for athletics,
looked through the classroom window,
searching the oak tree outside for the painted elf
who ran the circular classroom weatherboard

see, I couldn’t run with only one healthy kidney
when I just came out of hospital
where doctors cleaned their instruments in kidney-shaped dishes,
my friend, June, still slept in the next hospital bed –
I hoped she wouldn’t die like Maria did –
while I read “Jack and the Beanstalk”

Mrs Louw asked how I learnt to read English;
I couldn’t tell her – it was something that just happened
the same way I discovered that I despised steak and kidney pies –
so I shrugged and kept quiet

- Christine Ueri

Isibongo for Tatamkhulu

Spirits and people hear!
Listen to the things
that Tatamkhulu has done!
Standing tall in his tall hat
brushing the ceiling as he danced.
Raising his shoba
he called the spirits.
Raising our spirits he led us
to the spirit world.
Guiding the ritual
and shedding the goat's blood
he led us through our trainings.
Anointing us
praying for us
loving us
serving us.
He was a giant amongst men!

He was my grandfather.
He housed me
fed me
protected me
taught me
until finally my time came.

Now he has passed on
to the spirit world.
Truly he is an ancestor now
a great one amongst great ones
and I can call him, "Great Spirit."

Great Spirit
how I miss you in this world!

- Linda Zinzi Sealy

Glossary: Isibongo – praise poem
Shoba – A sangoma’s staff of office made from the sacrificial cow’s tail

as yo mae has dedeuced
(smokin' Moses pritch
as he put he han on
my showdah an squint
at da parkin sine)
I din maid it too shul
pass grade won
but let I tel yo dat
da graterest tea char
I incounter on I travails
wuz dis dude wit a rainbow
round he haid an a toon
eminatin fro he lips
twas a rainy day
like dis butt he uphere an
wisper troots,
deep troots
too da hart
witout witch I be nowear today
(he spit on da pavemint tautfully)
in fack I be a ded duck
has I not listed instaintly
too he massage
(yeah smokin' Moses
got away wit wurds
'da pullpit or da stage'
Ant Myra wonce profit sided
she nude he as a prickotious chile
funny how destiny
cum around no mater
how yo play it).

- Ross Fleming

funny, really
the way we are
opposed poles
strange attraction
cordon bleu talker versus anorexic clam
bloody intellectual verses earthsalt
classic retentive meets freedom
from laxation
talking foreign
we stutter thro our days
oddly normal
The Teacher you embody
gets me up every
giving Reason
dance moves
the skottel deksel idiom
mutters darkly that the
Good Lord
might well own a fine and
sense of humor?

- Ross Fleming

Dear Professor,

You believed that every woman lived for
Those words: the kind of phrase you'd never allow
Your young men, crows preening
Their glossy feathers and jostling closer,
You hiding me under your wing.

I can write this, now: you're dead;
And I still feel ungrateful, even rude;
But how I longed to shrug off that weight of love,
To be one of them:
The poets, your other chosen few.

- Emily Buchanan


a glass eye that looks past me.
His balled fist
my harder head
in syllable time:
No . woo l . ly . thing . king.
in . my . maths . class
I feel his pent anger,
something out of whack.
He prefers ‘bad boys’, the jock. I
don’t supply.

Years pass, maths mysteries
Post-matric he says goodbye,
smiles his moon-skulled smile.
So, almost a distinction…
in maths. Must’ve been
all that - his fist mimes - boom-boom.

No fear now,
a sense of the bizarre,
and waste:
he should have taught tertiary
that place on the hill.
Blackboard show-off,
keen whacker –
schoolboys were all he could handle.

- Keith Edwards

What if …? When Acolyte met the Master

Don’t believe what they tell about Dylan Thomas,
that he died in ’53.
Oh no, he lived on in New York another ten years,
snuffing it the same day as the great JFK
in late 1963.

Bob Dylan came to one of his rare public readings
in early ’62.
Sat in back of the hall and said nothing at all
to word-rapt Mr T’s verbal breedings.

And when it was over, Dylan said to Bob,
I’m all worded out, I can hardly think,
you ‘n me, brother poets, let’s go for a drink?

So off they went to an East Village dive,
where Dylan asked Bob,
there’s some lines of yours I’d like to use live:
The geometry of innocence,
flesh on the bone…
That’s a great metaphor, how ‘bout the loan?

Replied Bob, now listen, please, Mr T,
you’ve really gone and disappointed me.
Ya gotta wise up, ya gotta get real,
good poets don’t beg, borrow, they just STEAL!

- Keith Edwards


Jeannie Wallace McKeown’s first submission, Waiting, is an endearing tribute to prepubescent adoration. The fairy story that was put on stage sets the lead actress up to wait for Prince Charming which the poem sweetly subverts by positioning a girl admirer in the background.

Jeannie’s second poem, Rivonia Primary School 1983, is descriptive, reminding us how far technology has come. It is well observed, but I think the poem would be strengthened by an edit, e.g. replace ‘had been / that morning’ by ‘was’. Also, I wondered what the poem is really about (a question for all our writing, and one that is sometimes hard to answer). Is this poem intended solely to describe an outdated machine, or is there a subtext that points to the human condition? Is it an extended metaphor – were the children at the school also cranked out? If this is an intention, it is very subtle. Better very subtle than over-writing, but perhaps explore this a little more.

Christine Ueri’s lovely poem Learning Curves describes a teacher who helped a child with a serious illness to see and value herself and her abilities ‘I was someone I didn’t know existed before’. I like the way the kidney theme threads its way through the poem as it does through her life, even in the ‘protein-packed sandwiches’ and the reference to Jack and the Beanstalk. I have only three quibbles: I didn’t understand the reference to the painted elf; either help the reader to know what’s going on if it’s central to the poem, or else scrap that image. Then there is that thing about beginnings and endings – as writers often we take a couple of lines or chapters to get warmed up and to find our true subject matter, and sometimes we go on a tad too long at the end. The opening lines in Christine’s poem I assume to be the first time the child recalls seeing the teacher, and it is lovely, but I don’t think has anything to do with the rest of the poem, other than the halo. I suggest retaining the image of the back-lit halo hair, but dropping the ‘nameless’ and ‘phantom’ aspects. I would drop the last line – ending on despising steak and kidney pies is so much stronger.

Isibongo for Tatamkhulu by Linda Zinzi Sealy is a moving praise poem to the man who taught her and then made the transition to the spirit world. It can stand as it is, but I would prefer more details. It is better to describe something that Tatamkhulu has done than to inform us he has done something; also to give an instance as to how he protects his initiates than to tell us he did so. Write deeper, write on. Praise poems can be very long.

In destiny, Ross Fleming approaches an interesting scenario: a man called smokin’ Moses who didn’t make it past grade one, but who claims the greatest teacher was a ‘dude wit a rainbow / round he haid an a toon / eminatin fro he lips’. It’s great to experiment with style, character and language. Some questions and observations: There are two characters – the man who is narrating (on whose shoulder smokin’ Moses rests his hand), and smokin’ Moses himself, yet both have the same voice. This smokin’ voice, however, breaks down a few times: ‘twas a rainy day’ and ‘funny how destiny’. I’m unclear as to how destiny has come round again – it seems ironic. Is the narrator laughing at smokin’ Moses? Or does he have some empathy? Finally, I’d like to hear some of those ‘deep troots’, or is the lack of deep truths part of the irony? An uncomfortable poem that is worth some more work.

Ross’s next poem, skottel, is a wonderful play on difference in relationship, and how that can force us to negotiate ways of being in the world outside our comfort zones. It works well, just a few suggestions: I’m not sure the title works – it could be used more effectively to set the poem up. I would cut ‘opposed poles / strange attraction’ as it is unnecessary. I love the second stanza, but the phrase ‘freedom from laxation’ as an opposite to ‘classic retentive’ (ha ha!) sent me scrambling for my dictionary: Laxation means

1. Lacking in rigor, strictness, or firmness

2. Not taut, firm, or compact; slack.

3. Loose and not easily retained or controlled. Used of bowel movements.

So freedom from laxation sounds retentive, which contradicts intended meaning.

Skottel / deksel situates the poem in SA, yet humor is spelt the American way.

Emily Buchanan’s subtle poem Dear Professor, looks at classroom sexual politics, power and privilege in a revealing way. The metaphor works well – the preening crows of manhood jostling both for academic recognition and position, which often confers sexual appeal and access, as opposed to the women in the class who are offered a hiding place under a ‘wing’ of ‘love’, and who are thereby done an immense disservice as they then also cannot take themselves seriously as poets. The only suggestion I have is one of clarity: I had to read the poem a number of times to get that ‘those words’ and ‘that kind of phrase’ referred to ‘Dear Professor’.

Keith Edwards’ poem Boom-boom is a wonderful character piece. I can see that teacher: billiard ball skull infers mathematical precision while the glass eye looks past the child. I would cut ‘maths mysteries dissolve’ as it is confusing – I first thought the boy had given up maths – and it is unnecessary. I would also drop the whole of the last stanza. Ending on the dreadful ‘boom-boom’ makes the ending much more powerful. We get it, don’t worry.

In Keith’s other submission: What if …? When Acolyte met the Master he hilariously imagines a meeting between Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan, raising the question of plagiarism. It needs a light edit, e.g. scrap ‘in late 1963’, and I suggest dropping What if … ? in the title.

Dawn Garisch

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