Great Fires in the Human Heart

On a Friday afternoon last April, I stood in the back of a classroom and watched John Rybicki, author of Lookout’s first poetry collection, When All the World Is Old, pace in front of a group of middle schoolers. John wore a short-sleeved blue shirt that showed off his wiry, muscled forearms, and he could barely stand still as he addressed the class. He would hold his arms above his head or spread them like wings; sometimes he’d step in close to talk to the kids, other times he’d lean way back to convey the scope of some grand bit of wisdom.

“On the page,” he told the kids, “where anything is possible, I’m a different kind of animal. And I want to cultivate in you, after your parents have been protecting you, trying to put a protective coat of their own skin around you, a sense of lawlessness and danger and emotional jeopardy. And when it happens on that canvas in front of you, you become godlike in your scope. A drop of God’s fire fell from the heavens and lodged in each of us.”

I remember being bored to tears by most of the special visitors I saw in middle school. But I also remember those visitors who just electrified me—the ones who approached us on our level, who talked to us like peers, who had more energy than you usually find in a classroom. Seeing those students sitting straight up at their desks, their eyes alight, I knew John was one of those visitors for them, one they’d remember for a long time.

“Ordinary words are rooted to the great fires in the human heart,” John said. “The same words we use every day—on the playground, at the bus stop, at the grocery store—when the poet takes hold of these tarnished, dirty words, they dunk them in the deep fires of the human heart and splash them on this canvas to bust open the chest of someone who’s listening.

I’ve been writing for just about as long as I can remember—I’ve had lots of teachers, read lots of books on the craft, and yet I’m not sure writing has ever seemed as vital and important as it did when I listened to John. He inspired me to remember that art is an essential part of our culture and our history, and that creating that art is a responsibility and a privilege.

Towards the end of the class, John asked the students to write “I Want” poems. They wrote about wanting “the walls between my parents to creep back under the ground,” and wanting “the clouds to rain all of my happy memories onto the dry mud.” John created a space for these kids to be vulnerable with each other at an age when seeming vulnerable takes a lot of courage. He showed them what writing is capable of, both for the reader and the writer. I wish someone like John had visited my class when I was in middle school, but I feel lucky to have gotten the chance to see him in action, no matter my age. In the end, John gave me the best gift that any really inspiring teacher can give a writer—I wanted to go home and write.

– Ethan Warren, Lookout Intern