Spread the Word

Suppose you hopped into a shiny new Volkswagen Beetle one day and set off for a month-long road trip through the heartland of America. Say that the Beetle was covered with words. And maybe the words were actually magnetic poetry tiles, stuck right there on the side of the Bug, waiting for some kid's capricious muse to arrange them in creative order, again and again and again, whenever the Beetle parked in motel parking lots or school gymnasiums or in front of public libraries or bookstores throughout the Midwest.

It's a bit of a stretch, but for Matt Fanale and Brad Knight, it's also a reality: The duo, comedy-improv artists turned "Emergency Metaphor Technicians," officially hit the road in Boulder March 30 to celebrate National Poetry Month in the most direct way they know how--by taking the poetry right to the people. As part of a Catch the Poetry Bug program dreamed up by the folks who bring you the Magnetic Poetry series of refrigerator decorations, Fanale and Knight will arrive in Denver on April 1, and by the end of the month, they'll have driven all the way to Minneapolis.

Dave Kapell, the songwriter who invented Magnetic Poetry by chance while in the throes of a severe writer's block, says the main objective is to get kids excited about words in a lasting way. "What I've been evangelizing about, even before Magnetic Poetry, is the fact that kids learn by play. You learn by messing around and making mistakes and not being chastised," he says. "That's really back to basics: play." While Kapell doesn't want to come down too hard on standard teaching techniques, he inadvertently does. "Schools tend to beat the love of language out of kids and cause them to dislike words and wordplay," he says. "Talk to any three-year-old and you'll see--the longer the word, the better. They know the names of every dinosaur, they know the names of all these different kinds of trucks or trains. But as soon as they get into school, they become intimidated.

"How do they get reinfected with a love of wordplay?" he asks. That's where Fanale and Knight come in. They'll travel to thirty cities with a scrolling electronic sign inside the Bug announcing their purpose 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Beyond their official stops at schools, libraries, bookstores and the like, Kapell notes that "even at every gas station, they're going to be literally spreading the word."

The mission also involves handing out temporary tattoos that look like magnetic poetry tiles to kids in places like Kansas City, Milwaukee and Des Moines. "They can stick them all over their bodies, so it'll look like they broke out in poetry," Kapell says. In an act of sheer whimsy, Fanale and Knight will play the poetry bug metaphor for all it's worth. "One thing we'll be trying to do is infect kids with the good virus of creative wordplay," Fanale says, adding that they'll arrive armed with a carload of mind-stimulating games and exercises designed to teach so painlessly the kids won't know what hit them. Nor will they forget.

If it sounds silly, that's the whole point. Kapell thinks it's going to work just fine, especially after witnessing the results during a test run at a school in Mag Po's hometown of Minneapolis. "The kids didn't think it was cheesy at all," he says.

Sally Steenland, a writer who helped Kapell edit two collections of Mag Po wisdom (one for adults and one for children), doesn't think so, either. Steenland, who will be giving a presentation at the Tattered Cover this Saturday to coincide with a visit by Fanale and Knight, first caught the bug when she received a Mag Po kit as a gift. "For me, it was more than a game," she recalls. "I took it seriously--it was a real creative unblocker for me. I'd go down to the fridge, make a cup of tea, play around with the words, and I'd get unstuck.

"I'm a writer with a pretty strong critical editor's voice in my head, and it stifles my own creavity--the editor's voice keeps crowding out the creative stuff," she says, noting that she "became more tuned to the sound and positioning and placement of words" as she played around in the kitchen. "I had never written poetry before, but after a while, some of it got really good, and it stayed on my fridge."

While touring bookstores last fall touting the Kid's Magnetic Poetry Book and Kit, a product she says encourages literate spontaneity influenced by all the senses, Steenland also visited schools to test the poetic waters with her book. "I found out blackboards are magnetic surfaces," she says. "It was amazing to learn how much kids really like words when they're not presented to them as a lesson.

"Poetry is a hard thing to teach to kids; it's both natural and not natural," she says. "They have this innate poetic capacity. Kids have such a fresh way of looking at words, but at the same time--as any serious poet knows--the first thing you think of, you don't necessarily slap down on the page. I wanted to train kids--like in basketball, where you shoot hoops and you practice. It's that sense of accomplishment, that sense of wordplay and word fun that we wanted to communicate."

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