Tobey Kaplan

Tobey Kaplan

Amidst budget cuts and teacher layoffs, Tobey Kaplan, a poet-teacher and mentor for California Poets in the Schools—the largest writers-in-schools program in the nation—helps create dreams. Like the other practicing professional poets who volunteer with the program, Kaplan, 58, regularly introduces children to their own creative power. Every year, 25,000 California students (ranging from kindergartners to 12th-graders) write over 100,000 poems in the program’s in-class workshops. Kaplan’s day job is working for Alameda County’s branch of Native Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, run by the Washoe tribe; she has also taught creative writing at Bay Area community colleges for almost 30 years.

What’s your job description?
I’m a poet in the community. I’m a teacher, a mentor, a traffic manager, an information resource, a developer—I help people develop their own resources. I’m also a student. The blessing about being a teacher and a writer is that I’m always learning. That’s kind of the heart of a poet in a way. I’m always open to learning new things, and I’m curious about everything. I want to encourage that.

What is a poet, and how do you become one?
I think that when I was a child, poetry enlarged the depth of my experience by understanding how language works, and by understanding that language has sensory dimensions.
In my formative years, my father had a book of paintings by Vincent van Gogh, and I saw “The Starry Night.” I made up in my head, “The sky a swirl of stars.” I didn’t use the word “is.” The poem works, “the sky a swirl of stars.” And in grade school, at Kingsbury School P.S. 188 in Queens, my teacher was doing the same thing. We looked at Modigliani’s “Girl with Braids,” and maybe it was also at that point where I saw “The Starry Night” again. And I thought, “I know that!”
I look at language as very visual. It’s physical; it’s constructive. You put words together and make something. What I try to tell people is that you can shape your experience with language. It’s not what people tell you, it’s what you decide to create with the words that you have.
But you need to have time to practice. It’s like anything else.

How does poetry differ from other kind of writing?
I write in free verse. But there’s an attention to the rhythm of the line, and there’s also attention to the compression of language; every word has some kind of function or dimension or is involved in the shaping of the piece in some way.
I encourage young people to write poetry because you can abandon grammar. You can do interesting things with language that rely on the juxtaposition or arrangement of images, and how details kiss each other on the page.

When did you first find your voice as a poet?
I think I have several kinds of voices that I use in different circumstances. There’s a conversational tone I use that is very straight-forward; then there’s a language-poet voice, then a reporter voice, and there’s the empathetic voice that gets into someone else’s story. But [developing these voices] takes time.

When did you decide that you wanted to teach?
The energy of being a poet and an artist is that of a waterfall. It’s a spilling. It’s not just in you. It comes through you. Being an artist in the world, you’re a resource and you’re a vehicle for peoples and cultures from all places and times.
Denise Levertov wrote a selection of essays called Poet in the World that inspired me a lot. People who are artists in the world are performers, and they get credibility and are recognized for their creative processes. But they also teach other people to be engaged with those processes.
I’ve also learned that the more opportunities people have to be creative, the happier they are. There’s less insanity, less war, and less rape in this climate. I know it sounds idealistic, but I think it’s true. When I first came out here [to the Bay Area, in 1975], I did a program called “Poetry as Growth Experience” through the California Arts Council, where I conducted workshops in the community mental health centers in Berkeley and Concord. That’s when I started teaching adults, helping them to find their voice they could put on paper, rather than walking around screaming at themselves.

Photo courtesy Tobey Kaplan.

Tell me about California Poets in the Schools. How did you first become involved?
The community mental health program pointed me in the direction of the poetry center at San Francisco State, where the California Poets in the Schools was housed. A gal named Ruth Whitney had left her estate to the poetry center to send poets into local schools, mostly in San Francisco, and with the auspices of a writer named Carol Lee Sanchez, we took it all over the state. We’re struggling quite a bit right now. But Carol Lee’s vision, which I helped her champion, was: “A chicken in every pot, a poet in every school.” The children who don’t write regular essays, who don’t like to read or write, will write poetry.

So poetry is a viable way to get struggling students involved in writing?
Exactly. You’re describing your own perceptions. You’re embracing and engaging with words and you’re honoring your own experience.
People are animals except for their language. When you get scared you either want to run away or fight. But, you can also say something!

How has technology changed the opportunities and practice of writing and creative expression?
I think that now there’s a proliferation of opportunities for reading material as well as getting published—from learning about contests, publications, blogs—but then again, not everything is quality.

Tell me about your current work with Native Americans in California through Native TANF, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
I help adults go back to school to get their GED or go to college, and I help the parents make sure their kids go to school in K-12. If kids in elementary and middle and high school see their parents back in school, it makes a big difference [for them].
The connection can be made that the reason why the economy is in such bad shape is because education has been decimated around the country in public school. At one point, it didn’t matter who your parents were or where you lived. I mean, there were certain challenges for rural children. But my parents went to public school. And my grandparents were immigrants and did not speak English. They could not help my father become an aeronautical engineer, but he did just that.
The more educated you are, the more you can ask questions about your circumstance. If you’re not educated, you don’t think about the soup you’re swimming in. You just swim in it.

Why do you live and work here in the East Bay?
The East Bay has always been a mecca for writers, and for the Beats. I feel connected to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. They’re my fathers and mentors. And I have dear friendships with people that are associated with them, like Diane di Prima for example.
The poetry community is small. Everybody knows everybody. Facebook has made it even smaller!
But the diversity and youthful energy has always appealed to me here. I’m a teacher because I can still be a kid. Being a kid is still being curious and being open. And there’s an openness to the Bay Area, open culturally, open socially, open queerly—[a sense] that gender and sexual orientation are fluid—that’s all good for me.

How much does getting published matter? For young kids, it seems important because otherwise there’s the idea that no one will ever see their work.
Everybody wants to be published. Everyone wants their voice to be recognized. There’s something, I think, about Western society that has promoted a hierarchy in this.
When I was younger, I did have more ambition to be published, but I put my creative energy towards becoming a poet in the world. People [in poetry] who get published are very ambitious. It’s 24-7. And I’m sure it’s true for other arts. You have to spend a lot of time meeting people, and it’s not in my personality to be quite that pushy. If I’m going to push something, I’m going to push the California Poets in the Schools program.
Something poetry teaches us is that it’s not the content. It’s the process. Sometimes that’s as interesting as the poetry itself. The process and the ability to formulate questions.

Do you have a favorite spot in the East Bay that particularly inspires you, or that stands out in your mind that you love?
I’m blessed to be a dog person, so I have to take my dogs for walks. I’ve been a runner for 30-odd years. I go to the East Bay hills as often as possible. I go down to the water, I go down to the beach. I like going up to the hill to see San Francisco and the Bay. I like that openness, and being on the edge of the world.

How do you feel about this recent migration to the East Bay, especially by young people?
I know that there are issues about gentrification. But I also think that entrepreneurs and yuppies and creative people and businesspeople moving into a neighborhood is going to benefit the poor folks. Now, they’ve got to figure out a way to get some skills to participate.
But I love it. I like the vibe I see. I wish I had more time and that I was younger to do it all. But my house is a mess.

Do you like to travel?
Yes. You really can see and appreciate being an American when you go out of the country. People don’t appreciate it. As much as we complain about poverty in this country, and it is terrible in many places, it ain’t nothing like poverty in some countries.
I try to have friends in different places so I can go travel, but also so I can hole up and write. I take my drafts, I do some crafting, I do some revising, and I take my journals. I work as well as try to do some sight-seeing. So, I travel also just to get out of my day-to-day. I’m always on, because I’m responsible for all of these people, and the only way I can make some separation is to go somewhere else.

To contact Kaplan:; for California Poets in the Schools:

a warm day down the hill in the sunlight teens smoking
like that Jones Beach summer I was stealing smokes
always some play boxing boys talking tough
we gathered by the deli for some kindness not enough
hanging out some kind of sky
gauzy trails of jets in the blue
these kids say they’re not cowards with knives and guns
a tough girl cousin can beat anyone she fights
I saw her strong arms stroking the water
in the café I tell Martha Jimenez washing dishes
stop and look at the sunset sky
El Niño made the Pacific Ocean warm enough for swimming
I’m paddling around the freeway lake
green shadows no waves new houses on the terraced
hillsides in the ashes of the fire zone
as clouds whirl above the universe in blue silence
a distant fluttering drift over the cities
frogs and the beginning of time
a mile away ghettos and broken fields the slender shade of trees
dry creekbed rock shivers and branches shake into wind
the intrusions of pitbulls and ancestors
an open world in flames and memory
buzzing of childhood in calligraphy
that costume and stars the wings and planets
the girl’s voice could be exquisite in a rainstorm
in the nostalgia alley footprints of dust
the kids on my street spinning forever whiffle balls
so light in the wind teetering
as the quiet past breathes
Martha Jimenez is an artist that girl will fly an airplane
the strong bones of Native people sing in this lake
butterfly moments on flower petals
a cigarette rolls off the table
this place can go up like a giant mango
a map left on the chair
rattling out of necessity clouds burst into rain
—by Tobey Kaplan

Faces of the East Bay