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Forty Years of Imagination

Why do so many California kids love poetry? Perhaps it's CPITS, the nation's largest poets-in-the-schools program.

The last twelve months have marked major anniversaries in the Bay Area's poetry community. City Lights Bookstore turned 50 last year, and San Francisco State University's Poetry Center reached that milestone just recently. Nearly as old but less internationally celebrated is California Poets in the Schools, a 40-year-old program that arguably has done more than City Lights and the Poetry Center combined to bring poetry to the people, namely to an estimated half a million California schoolkids.

The idea behind the program, known in shorthand as CPITS, is as straightforward as its name. Place dedicated poets into public and private schools, afterschool programs and juvenile halls across the state and unlock our children's creativity, imagination and self-expression.

With more than 100 poets in more than 300 schools across 29 counties, CPITS reached an estimated 35,000 children in the 2002-2003 academic year. That's a small percentage of the California school population, but over four decades the program has reached as much as half a million kids. Whether they become poets or not, the experience has the potential to transform lives.

Jalila Bell, 28, who recently moved from San Francisco to New York to be a lawyer and performance artist, remembers her CPITS teacher well. It was 1993 and Bell was in San Francisco's School of the Arts magnet high school. The poet-in-residence was Devorah Major, who went on to become San Francisco's poet laureate.

"It was the first time I remember working in a classroom with a professional artist of color," Bell says. "She expected me to present my writing in front of the class and to be vocal. I appreciated that because usually for students of color, if you're not making a fuss, you're being ignored."

"She brought out another aspect of personal expression for me," says Bell, who incorporates dance and spoken word into her theater work. A graduate of Golden Gate University law school, she's also studying for New York state bar exam. "It's one thing to dance or to be in someone's play, it's another to do your own thing and respect your own originality."

Bell's poem "The Other Side of the Window" became the title piece of that year's CPITS anthology and, later, part of her law school application essay.

CPITS began in 1964 as the Pegasus Project, an SFSU Poetry Center offshoot that sent poets into classrooms to read to children. Poets being what they are, they soon began teaching the kids to write poetry, and from the Bay Area the program over the next decade spread across California.

Berkeley poet John Simon Oliver was executive director of the program from 1978 to 1981. He started as a CPITS teacher in 1971 with no formal process to prepare for the rigors and surprises of the classroom. "CPITS now requires each poet to observe ten sessions to guarantee the person going into classroom is professional and prepared. That's very different from the 1970s when we were figuring this out. People went into classrooms and flaked out. They didn't show up, they showed up late, they read four letter words to the kids. That was a sorting out process, and the survivors were the ones who could not only work in the classroom but talk to principals and sell the program to the school."

Anticipating the late-20th century emphasis on entrepreneurial hustle, the program in the 1970s started to ask its poet teachers to be more self-sufficient. Now, a part of their job is to convince schools to come up with the funds for a poet in residence. Funds can also come from local businesses, parent-teacher associations and government grants. If necessary, CPITS pitches in with matching contributions or with seed money to help the poet start the fundraising process.

"Many of our poet teachers don't have a good business head, but they're willing to put themselves out there," says Mary Vradelis, the program's executive director since 1998.

"It's low paying and a lot of work," says Blake More, CPITS coordinator for Mendocino County and a teacher in Point Arena who has decorated her two cars with gaudy paint and poems (pictured above, with students). "You definitely have to have your heart in it."

More's budget was cut in half this year, but her hours weren't. Several poets she knows worked without getting paid the entire first semester.

The current fiscal crunch has forced CPITS to look beyond the gutted California Arts Council to private donors to piece together a $311,000 budget. A fundraiser last weekend in Mill Valley brought in $8,000. The May 11 City Arts and Lectures program, with Pulitzer Prize winning poet and former CPITS teacher Gary Snyder in conversation with Garrison Keillor, is a CPITS benefit. And to top it off, a 40th anniversary bash in October will bring Snyder back as part of a CPITS "hall of fame," as teachers from four decades gather to celebrate.

They'll be happy to hear that a new generation of kids are just as passionate. After a recent poetry slam in Mendocino, More's students gathered giddily atop an old school bus and sang to anyone within earshot, "There ain't no party like a poetry party 'cause a poetry party don't stop!"

That should be "doesn't stop," of course, but we'll grant them poetic license.

For more information on how to support CPITS or how to apply to become a poet-teacher, visit <a href="http://www.cpits.org">www.cpits.org</a>;.