Rosanna Stevens On Sex in a Shed in an Orchard, and what you can learn by doing it in a classroom
There’s this book of poetry I take with me to every single poetry workshop I run. It’s Steven Herrick’s young adult poetry novella, A PLACE LIKE THIS. My mum used to buy me books sometimes – she’d give them to me after school in the car. This was one of those books. A PLACE LIKE THIS was published in 1999 by Queensland University Press. It’s the companion volume to Herrick’s other YA verse novel, LOVE, GHOSTS, AND NOSE HAIR, but you don’t need to know that to enjoy its story. The cover is so reminiscent of the 90’s I almost expect The Ferals were occupying the space beneath that sepia corrugated iron backdrop.
As a high school student, there where times when felt like I couldn’t write poetry because I limited myself to thinking poetry was only the rhyme and rhythm available to read and dissect in the classroom. In senior years were asked to pull apart poetry until it didn’t mean what you thought it meant anymore – until it was only techniques and metaphors you argued in essays. By year 12 I could differentiate between the poetry I was asked to practice my thinking on in the classroom, and the poetry of my home-life. Home-life poetry was the stuff I could imagine to, relate to, and marvel at the music of, because there weren’t guidelines or rubrics instructing me otherwise. Two things made this happen for me: growing up, my mum used to play Pablo Neruda’s poetry, read by celebrities including, but not limited to, Julia Roberts, Glenn Close and Madonna, on a CD on repeat in the car everywhere, all the time. It only competed with Vonda Shepherd in her basement bar with its brooding lawyers on the Ally McBeal soundtrack, and Eva Cassidy’s Songbird. By year 12, when I didn’t understand a poem, the Neruda CD taught me to read work aloud and listen to my own words. I learnt to love Margaret Atwood’s JOURNEY TO THE INTERIOR– an old HSC ‘journeys’ text, that way. Also, my Mum bought me A PLACE LIKE THIS, and the book switched something on for me.
Now I use it to teach students to read poetry. I work in student equity. My job is to run workshops in public high schools around New South Wales. There’s Will, who offers poetry slamming, and there’s me. The schools we visit are largely under-resourced, and relatively isolated compared to most of the educational institutes in cities. A month before I pull up in front of a school in the kind of work car I could never afford, my offices offer to English teachers at the school a list of workshops I’m able to run. There are two workshops that find themselves in the highest demand, no matter the school I visit. The first is a fiction writing workshop for year 12 students shitting themselves because, for the first time in their entire educations, its assumed they’ve been writing short stories in forty minute bursts their whole high-school career, and now it’s time to perform that skill in an exam. The other most-requested workshop is about reading poetry. I put it together when I discovered how hesitant teachers were to run poetry writing workshops with large groups, because they felt their students would disengage. I think I’m not the only student to ever struggle through the prescribed deconstruction of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
A PLACE LIKE THIS is about two teenagers, Jack and Annabel, deciding to take a year off after high school. On their drive to anywhere, their car breaks down and the young couple find themselves picking apples in a farmer’s – George’s – orchard. It’s when we meet George’s family: his children Emma, Beck and Craig, and we learn of their runaway mother – that Herrick begins to craft a beautiful and intense story. He invents and threads six unique voices together to create a complex poetic narrative.
Giving a group of students a poem and asking them not to think about it beyond its words and initial impressions elicits a varied reaction. Sometimes, though, pencils and highlighters drop, and there’s a groan. The groan means ‘Reading a fucking poem sounds like a terrible idea because I don’t know how to do this, and poetry sucks, and I don’t want to read more of it.’ I tell them to take their time with the poem: read it twice. Read it once at the pace they usually read, and then go back and take the writing in slowly. Sometimes I read it aloud. Sometimes, after they’ve read it silently, one of them will read it aloud.
I photocopy specific pages – confronting pages – for the students to read. The first time I read Jack and Annabel having loud sex on hay bales in a shed, it made me squirm in an awesome way. You can do this in poetry – you can make teenage shed sex sweaty and prickly and drunk and loud in a bunch of lines. This is awesome. And it is. Sometimes I don’t give students a poem about sex, though. I print a poem about Emma, a now-pregnant 16 year-old, remembering the moments after she roused from being passed out in a bed at a house party, naked, hung over, unsure and suspicious. On other occasions I’ll print a poem where she aspires to return to school after she’s had her baby. On the other side of the paper I print a monologue from Emma’s little brother, Craig, who speaks about the night his mother left the family after she had prepared dinner and Craig’s other sister, Beck, vomited all over it. I print the poems about escape, humiliation, struggle and tender underbellies – in A PLACE LIKE THIS, it’s not hard to find these poems. They bind the story of Jack and Annabel together. They make Jack and Annabel’s own euphoric hopefulness for their lives and relationship a little less real for the reader, but we also cling to it more fiercely.
Snakes are slayed, plans take detours, dads and children and strangers tell you secrets and stories and sensations, apples are picked, people get drunk. Still, despite the fleetingness of these poems, there’s this reflectiveness and intimacy the reader experiences each time a different voice emerges and lingers for a page or two. Herrick makes you forget you’re reading poetry. His short narratives – all linked by broader activity and scenario on the apple orchard – almost distract the reader from even possibly feeling uncomfortable about reading poetry. The readability and authenticity of voice in A PLACE LIKE THIS means young eyes find the rawness of those stories that make up the whole more uncomfortable. The poetry becomes a code that guides the pace and imagined voices for the reader: it becomes necessary. I like A PLACE LIKE THIS because it shows young readers what poetry can be: it can be relatable, and readable, and powerful, and seemingly simple. Poetry can speak to some quiet part of us, in some quiet way, and the fact that poetry is Herrick’s medium becomes both imaginatively peripheral and aesthetically vital.
Students sometimes initially react with, ‘I didn’t know you could do this in poetry. Is this poetry?’ Sometimes they say, ‘Ohmigod, that’s disgusting.’ Sometimes they say, ‘Why don’t we learn this in school?’ I have never had a student say, ‘This is boring’ or ‘I don’t understand.’ Watching and listening to students’ respond after reading Herrick always makes me wonder why the New South Wales English syllabus is used to help people learn to think, but not necessarily help people learn to love writing or reading or inspire people to seek out more writing by Australian authors, or authors more broadly. Herrick and his engagement with contemporary voices is an excellent example of how people can become captivated by, and learn from, relevant and engaging writing. Sex in a shed in an orchard is possibly the best sex those students will ever read, because it’s teaching each tired or shy eye to engage with poetry – to level with it, imagine it and hear it. A PLACE LIKE THIS isn’t just exceptional because of the sex, or the drinking, or the teen pregnancy. It’s exceptional because of how Herrick wrote it, and what that writing does for those who were yet to discover what poetry could be. Also, I’ve gotta say, sex in a shed in an orchard is great for classroom productivity.