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How young Pittsfield writers find their inner 'Fireside' poet

Conte students gather for a photo

Conte Community School students taking part in the Fireside writing project in the fall of 2022 where, from left, Amanda Laporte, Toby Wyman, Beverly Sam, Aine Xicotencatl, Hon'ee Johnson, Akua Acquah, Samyia Johnson, Antoine Koffi, Ashley Cesar, and Haileigh Sheline. Their teachers and writing mentors, in second row at left, are Sarah Trudgeon and Don'Jea Smith.

PITTSFIELD — The poems are there, inside these young Pittsfield authors. They just need coaxing.

That’s a given for leaders of the Fireside program, which since 2017 has helped elementary students blossom as writers, with support from The Mastheads, the humanities program based at Arrowhead, former home of writer Herman Melville.

“Inherently, kids are poets,” says Sarah Trudgeon, a poet and writing teacher. “They’re creative and each voice is unique.”

The program takes its name from the Fireside Poets, a group of 19th century New England writers, many of whom had connections to the Berkshires.

While those writers faded from public attention in the 20th century, Trudgeon and her project partner, Don’Jea Smith, use their works to inspire student writers. They are all writing, then and now, about the same place. “We like to think about things that are Pittsfield-based that can recreate the identity of the city today, that everyone can share in,” Trudgeon says.

In their latest anthology, young Fireside writers skip the old poetic forms of Longfellow and Whittier. But their work, in their own way, captures New England scenes, if a little less precious, and a lot more now: The sidewalk where the bike crashed and the knee was skinned. Dunkin Donuts. Pupusas on the dinner table. The forest by grandma's in Becket.

Last fall, Fireside worked in the Conte Community School and the Crosby Educational Academy, with support from teachers Shawn Thayer, Nathan Reed and Michelle Church and administrators Ryann Kennedy, Kerry Light and Nicola Mason.

On regular visits over three months, Trudgeon and Smith visited with students in grades 2 to 5. They kept existing curriculum goals in mind, while urging students to use poetry’s freedom to explore. Write about something you remember, they’d say. Where are you from? What is that place like?

They shared passages from Longfellow’s “The Old Clock on the Stairs,” then asked students to write about sounds in their lives. Here is the poem’s second stanza:

"Half-way up the stairs it stands,

And points and beckons with its hands

From its case of massive oak,

Like a monk, who, under his cloak,

Crosses himself, and sighs, alas!

With sorrowful voice to all who pass, —

"Forever — never!

Never — forever!"

“We just let their imaginations run with it,” Trudgeon says.

Layla Irvis opened a poem with this: “In my house it is loud I hear water dripping and the / bump of my music. My fridge makes a beep bop / sound. Making my house shake. I found / a zing. I hear a ding dong all the time.”

“The sound of lightning sounds like / a thousand asteroids hitting earth,” wrote Logan Rebello. Other writers captured doors slamming, birds chirping and a great variety of house noises.

When young people talk about poems, they break with the ordinary. “They are so much different than daily conversations,” Trudgeon says. “You get to skip right into who someone is and what they want – and what they imagine.”

“They just get writing, and we don’t filter them and don’t give too much instruction,” she says. “Actually, poetry just comes from your own brain – and whatever is in there is great. Whatever they have to say is interesting and special.”

"When I am angry I feel like a bucket of mud," Samiya Johnson wrote.

For years now, artists with the Fireside project have been telling young writers in Pittsfield about the literary lions of yesteryear — people like Longfellow and Thoreau. They share tales of those far-off writing lives, here in the Berkshires. They read old works aloud with elementary students. They puzzle out what the poems mean to people today. And they wait to see what happens. This is what happens. 

The program has worked with Morningside Community School and next plans a collaboration with teachers and students at the Stearns Elementary School in Pittsfield. Fireside is backed by the Feigenbaum and Blackwing foundations, Housatonic Heritage and Marita Glodt.

As each session winds down, the solitude of writing opens. Smith and Trudgeon ask: Who wants to share? That’s part of the Fireside philosophy, inspired by the days of Oliver Wendell Holmes and the original Fireside Poets. “The program shares in the spirit of poetry as something to gather around, and to draw together families, communities, and schoolrooms,” it notes in the latest anthology.

“There are always volunteers who stand up and read their poems to the class,” Trudgeon says. “They get a chance to be the center of it all. All eyes on them.”

Their fellow writers listen. With “deep respect,” Trudgeon says. “It's really amazing. You can hear a pin drop. It’s really beautiful to see.”

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

Managing editor for innovation

Larry Parnass joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, CommonWealth Magazine and with the Reuters news service.

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