Portland poet Myles Bullen, third from left, works with York High School students Katrina Kiklis, Mark Mantell and Aiden Keenan as part of a 12-week artist-in-residency program at the school. Credit: Rich Beauchesne | The York Weekly

YORK, Maine — Myles Bullen, a young, charismatically kinetic man with a streak of magenta in his dark hair, puts the students in Matt Rosenberg’s 10th-grade English class in a circle. He talks about alliteration, “strange sounds stringing together,” all beginning with the same letter.

Credit: Rich Beauchesne | The York Weekly

Quick, he tells them. Come up with a phrase for an animal that is experiencing a feeling and eating something.

One after the other, improv style, students think quickly. “The elegant elephant is eating eggplant,” says one. “The fumbling falcon ate foam,” said another. “The dopey dog was downing donuts.” “The fish felt funny and ate food.” “The sleeping swan was sucking on a snow cone.”

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What is this wonderful work? Slowly but surely, these students are learning how to craft words, string them together creatively and interestingly and create poetry. Bullen, a performance artist, musician and poet from Portland, is about mid-way through a 12-week residency with Rosenberg’s students.

He works with The Telling Room in Portland, a nonprofit organization that centers on creative writing, storytelling and poetry as ways to help Maine students express themselves. Rosenberg received a grant through the York Education Foundation to bring Bullen to York High. The end result will be a book of poems by the students, which will be published by The Telling Room in June.

For Bullen, a 2010 graduate of YHS, it’s a coming home of sorts. For Rosenberg, it’s a chance for his students to experience something different, someone different. It matters that Bullen is young, looks younger, and that he’s a man — showing his young male students that you can still be cool and write poetry.

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One student in particular stands out for Rosenberg — a quiet teenager who speaks little, often just a sentence or two. This program has drawn him out, said Rosenberg, and he’s creating a poem about a canoe trip that is one of the best Rosenberg’s read so far.

Bullen draws in the students easily. He smiles, he gestures, he encourages his young audience to join him in discussion. He puts them through another exercise, this one requiring them to quickly respond to preposition prompts like “from” and “out.” “From California to New York,” “out of my mind,” “from my perspective,” students said. When they were done, he asked, what was that exercise like?

“It was terrible,” said one student.

“It was too quick,” said another. “It was too stressful,” said someone else.

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“Why did I just torture you?” he asked them. “What do prepositions force you to do? It pushes your mind to be descriptive. It forces you to come up with a setting, a place. How can you add prepositions to your poems?”

By this point in the residency, the students have already written a number of one or two paragraph “short stories” about incidents or anecdotes or people in their lives. Now, they have been asked to take one of those pieces, the one that is most deeply felt, and craft a poem.

The bulk of the class is spent writing. Bullen, Rosenberg, even York High School Principal Karl Francis, go quietly around the room, speaking with individual students, asking about their work. Bullen approaches student Katrina Kiklis.

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Her short story is morphing into a poem about lost childhood, “wanting to grow up so bad you don’t realize what you had. Thinking back on it, it’s so much more than you thought it was. Climbing up that one tree feeling like you could to everything. Selling lemonade on the side of the street.”

Bullen encouraged her to not only look back but to look at “the dichotomy of what was and what it is now, and how it’s changed. I think that that would be really powerful.”

For more information on The Telling Room, visit www.tellingroom.org.

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