On May 13, I attended one of the most anticipated readings in Houston to date. From every corner of the city, people assembled in the lobby of the Menil Collection for the Watchful Eye reading of poetry and prose by select Writers In The Schools (WITS) students.
Families with young scholars, K-12, in public schools, private schools, and some alternative programs, such as one-on-one hospital visits, joined together to witness diverse talents and celebrate the joint powers of visual and literary arts. Many students were already familiar with the building and its collections, having visited as part of a WITS-organized school trip. These little ones were able to act as tour guides.
The evening began at 7 pm. Several students were still wearing their school uniforms. Some were outfitted in suits. Ribbons and patent leather shoes shone, and guardians tried vainly to comb over stubborn cowlicks before the short readings.
Long Chu, associate director and veteran employee of WITS for the past 18 years, introduced the program of around 50 students. He also gave a little history of the collaborative partnership between WITS and the Menil, which was established in 1989. He cited the Menil as “a true gift to the city of Houston,” and explained the organizations’ mutual objectives to instill “a passion for creative learning.” Karl Kilian, director of public programs at the Menil, also said a few words of encouragement, then introduced Dinorah Pérez-Rementería as the evening’s emcee.
With over 10 years of experience as a WIT writer under her belt, the bilingual Pérez-Rementería was a perfect fit. She welcomed the crowd, promising “an evening of wonders” and briefly spoke about her time as a resident writer, describing it as a “a true opportunity for personal growth.” She cited Cy Twombly’s canvases as particular sources of inspiration. Finally, she encouraged the audience to “let the night fill you with fresh and spontaneous inspiration.”
With a luminous Sol Lewitt installation acting as background ambiance, and the conscientious efforts of WITS program director Jack McBride in helping to adjust the microphone, students began what was indeed an evening of wonders. Each carried a folder in which their submission had been neatly typed and which featured the words “I am a writer” prominently in the front.
The fourth reader recited versions of her poem both in English and Spanish, one of five students to do so. Her poem was redolent of jasmine under the moonlight, the sound of guitars, and, saving the best for last, carne asada.
The fourth reader recited versions of her poem both in English and Spanish, one of five students to do so.
Another student explained how to be a mermaid. There were stories set inside surrealist paintings, some that described the challenges of the schoolyard, many on the theme of transformation, and several odes, including one to the night and one to a walrus.
Occasionally, a very tickled sister or brother made an appearance in student stories and poems. We enjoyed a self-portrait as a monster and some Joe Brainard-esque reveries of memories. To truly illustrate a story about duck hunting, one student donned an all-camouflage outfit and approached the stage with a duck whistle.
Some pieces were funny, some were lyrical, all were quite affecting. I asked Katie Condon, who’s worked as a resident writer for WITS for nearly three years about her time with the organization. One of the perks, she said, is “the opportunity to remind kids that writing can be just as fun as playing video games or soccer.” She also spoke of “the intense pleasure and joy” she’s witnessed during Watchful Eye readings over the years.
One of the perks, she said, is “the opportunity to remind kids that writing can be just as fun as playing video games or soccer.”
Condon recalls a few kids who got up on stage and couldn’t stop giggling as they read their work: “I’m sure they were giggling because they were excited,” she said, but also “their unrestrained laughter was a result of taking pleasure in their imagination. These children are the best reminder that poems and stories don’t have to be solemn or heady in order to be valued—we are allowed to take pleasure in writing, whether we are listening or creating it.”
These children are the best reminder that poems and stories don’t have to be solemn or heady in order to be valued—we are allowed to take pleasure in writing, whether we are listening or creating it.
At the end of the evening, students were successfully wrangled into a group portrait, commemorating the night that strangers came together and were inducted as performers of their own creative writing, in one of the most sophisticated venues in the city. What a pleasure, indeed.