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Pablo Students Make Poetry From 'Regular, Ordinary Stuff'

Victor Charlo, Salish poet
Sue Reynolds
Sue Reynolds Photography

Good writing often tells a story about a place, and how the people in a place live and come to understand the land around them. That’s what Victor Charlo, a Bitterroot Salish Elder, taught when he visited a 4th grade writing class at Pablo Elementary School last Thursday. MTPR Flathead Reporter Corin Cates-Carney has the story of young writers being taught to find the right words to describe their home.

Victor Charlo sits in front of the class, with the small bodies making a half circle around him, he begins by reading a poem written by his grandson:

(Charlo reading) “And he calls it advice from a lizard. By Keaton. Scale down things that bug you, take a chance. Don’t worry if you lose your tail. Take your time in life, don't hide your feelings….”

Charlo was invited to Pablo Elementary through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Since the Fall, the 4th grade class receives weekly creative writing instruction, that usually comes from Alex Alviar, a resident poet from the Missoula Writing Collaborative. But Alviar wanted the students to hear how a voice from their own community tells stories.

"We want to be drawing on local poets and writers and bringing them into the classroom so the kids have exposure," Alviar said. "And Vic Charlo is a perfect, perfect example of the kind of poet we want to have coming in and really giving a perspective on poetry and writing and literature that is so unique and so perfect for this place and area."

Charlo’s writing focus is on stories about this place and this land. And he encourages the students to write about what they know.

(Charlo reading) "Generations find focus in my little boy’s face. When thoughts of old times and old folk, And old folk creep into that need to delve deep into who we are. He is the little chief without saying. I read worry of Moiese, who states that we have too much schooling and now we think more than we should…”

Through Charlo’s work there is a line that tends toward simplicity and expressing that what students already know may be very valuable. As Charlo stands before the class, this black hair turning white as it runs into his beard, he stirs imagination and asks students to tell  their stories as clearly as they can.

"What you’re doing is you’re honing down. You’re trying to get the right word. And sometimes that is really difficult to get the right word. And you work at it, and you work at it and finally you get something you kind of like," Charlo says.

And when you find something you like, that’s good enough. And the name of Charlo’s book of poetry that he brought to class is "Good Enough", which was translated into Salish by his daughter April, so the title now reads, "Put Sey".

"And that’s what we want," says The Missoula Writing Collaborative's Alex Alviar. "We really want people who can reflect the place in the literature and the writing so the kids feel that they can write about this place, that their lives, the regular, ordinary stuff in their lives in Pablo, Montana is worthy of being written about."

And that encouragement of just putting thoughts on paper, without perfection, is something 4th grade teacher Carolyn Pardini says removes the fear of writing from her students.

"I’ve really seen them grow in wanting to share. At first they were kind of reticent about standing up and sharing their poems, and now they really want to share with their friends what they’ve written down. What they’ve been able to capture on their paper."

After Charlo reads his poems, the kids pull out paper and began writing. It’s quiet, with only a few questions on spelling or meaning. 

And when time is up, the kids ask for more time. When their writing is finally called to an end, the 4th graders pile their work in front of Charlo, and thank him, trying to quickly share what they have written

Before it’s time to go, Charlo dips into one last poem and song.

Charlo says, “With children, I try to read things that might engage them, so that they can see it, and they can feel it. That’s what I’m really trying to do."

The National Endowment for the Arts grant, which brought Victor Charlo to Pablo Elementary School, ends with the school year. The Missoula Writing Collaborative is in the process of applying for other grants, in hopes of continuing programs like this the future.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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