Stacy Zehm, a senior at Lakeside High School, was a bit jittery about reading her poem Saturday at her school’s young writers conference.
After all, among the dozen people listening was nationally acclaimed writer Sherman Alexie.
“I was really interested in what he had to say because he writes poems, too,” Stacy said later. “But I was nervous.”
Stacy swiftly read “Just Once,” a poem of teenage fantasies, and awaited the critiques.
“I thought it sounded like classic rebellious teenage girl’s dreams,” said fellow senior Lee Hammons.
“I liked it ‘cause it rhymed,” chimed in sixth-grader Bobbie Winters, who said the same thing about every poem.
“‘Cry on purpose to see how you’ll react,’ I like that line,” said Alexie thoughtfully when it was his turn.
The group was small enough that every student got to read a piece of his or her work. Other workshop participants were grouped with Northwest authors Pete Fromm and Chris Crutcher.
Teacher and workshop organizer Sandra White said she was disappointed that only 21 students came to the weekend event, the first writers conference the high school on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation has hosted.
But she admitted that the students who did show up were rewarded with an intimate exchange of ideas with the accomplished writers.
Fromm, a fiction writer from Great Falls, said he was impressed with the turnout “for a Saturday.” He spied at least three or four gifted writers in the group, he said.
“They’re doing something right here in teaching,” Fromm said as he stood in line for Alexie’s autograph. “And having writers here, I mean Sherman Alexie. He’s really hot.”
Alexie, who is half Coeur d’Alene and nearly half Spokane Indian, makes a point of visiting students on Indian reservations, though he’s in high demand in literary circles.
He’s scheduled for a 30-city tour in May to promote his yet-to-bereleased novel Reservation Blues.
But students “are the most important people in the world,” he said passionately after the workshop. “Adults are screwed up and worthless. There’s a shortage of role models and people who know their lives.
“I can have an intimacy and a contact with them that other people can’t.”
Though Stacy was nervous about reading for Alexie, her classmate Lindsay Paulson was more relaxed.
“He makes us feel really comfortable,” she said. “He’s real easy to relate to.”
A master storyteller with a comic flair, Alexie closed the workshop with an entertaining monologue and story. He poked fun at folks who take themselves too seriously, and those who “assign all this deep meaning” to his poetry.
When he wrote a love poem to fried baloney and submitted it to a journal, the editors gushed over its statement on the “socio-economic plight of Native Americans.”
“I wrote back, ‘No, it’s about fried baloney’,” he said.
You can write about anything that happens to you, no matter how mundane, he told the students.
“You all have stories to tell,” he said. “I’m always glad to come to these things, because I get to hear your stories. So keep writing them.”
MEMO: IDAHO HEADLINE: Young writers given reason to rhyme; Three authors visit Lakeside High for weekend workshop