Teacher Sophia Dahlin on Greer and Maya
Maya and Greer and I meet once a week after school, in the basement auditorium of a beautiful Carnegie library in Oakland. We are sometimes joined by other students, but M & G are always there, every week, even on school holidays.
We start class by checking in about how we are feeling, then we usually read a poem, discuss it, and write.
Maya and Greer identify themselves, with some irony, as confessional poets. But writing as a 14 year old means writing outside out any school or movement, and I would not "type" either of their styles exactly thus. Rather than working within a style, they are experimenting with a voice.
Greer, in her poems, speaks with riveting gravity and dizzying fluency. Her work is remarkable for its insight into the human (and superhuman) mind, and her poems often feature characters who think and move with uncanny realness. She writes, "the sun doesn't like it when you personify her."
Maya's work takes the coordinates of space, inner and outer. She maps her block, calculates the view from each window on the street, and then does the same for a feeling, saying, "My room has widened/Taken space into its lungs." There is a sense of vastness in even her shortest works.
Greer delights in the potency of the unsaid. Maya marvels at the proximity of the unknown. Their poems are personal, but they are also outward-looking, taking up racism, misogyny, and ecological disaster.
They keep notebooks, which they fill.
Gertrude Stein rolled out that wonderful phrase about writing "for myself and strangers." And yes. And also, the luckiest of writers have an intermediary readership among their peers. Greer and Maya write for self, stranger, and one another. They read one another's work with generous attention, and share their work with one another in between classes.
Too, at this age, they write for teachers—I am the third poet from California Poets in the Schools to teach Greer, and the second to teach Maya. I asked Maya what she gets from class, and she said atmosphere, focus, the opportunity to experiment, and the opportunity to choose to write. They both choose it, every week, and in fact without Greer's choosing our class wouldn't exist at all: the previous teacher, John Oliver Simon, who passed away earlier this year, organized it at her request.
John was my teaching mentor, and I learned from him the importance of encouraging gifted students to take their talents seriously. He showed me how meaningful early affirmation can be to young writers, and how it is the beginning of many lifelong writing practices. Publication, too, is affirming, which is why, when the girls showed me their nearly-full notebooks and asked me what they should do next, YALDA was the answer. And here we are.
Sophia Dahlin writes and is in Oakland. She runs a poetry workshop in collaboration with E.M.Wolfman bookstore, and teaches young poets with California Poets in the Schools. Her work is forthcoming in Fence and STILL, and has recently appeared in Elderly, LAMBDA Literary, and the Recluse.