Leah Sutton-Smith works on her book at The Poetry Studio.
Courtesy photo/The Poetry Studio
Leah Sutton-Smith works on her book at The Poetry Studio.

Oasis for slow time

At The Poetry Studio in Marlboro, young people slow down and learn the unique language of poetry and visual art — and how the two art forms can bring to life ideas, beauty, and hope in a hostile world

MARLBORO — The lead on one recent Reuters story was stark, announcing that dozens of states are suing Meta Platforms and its subsidiary, Instagram, "accusing them of fueling a youth mental health crisis by making their social media platforms addictive."

Yet despite the reported negative effects of social media on our youth, there is "hope in the midst of these troubling times," says Ann Gengarelly, director and founder of The Poetry Studio at 242 Piney Brook Way.

There are "no computers, no iPhones in The Poetry Studio," which since 1995 has offered after-school programs and summer workshops where students in kindergarten through grade 8 can engage with poetry, visual art, and bookmaking with a focus on the natural world.

"We hear stories regarding how social media has become harmful to young people," Gengarelly says. "We keep hearing about young people who are anxious and depressed, who feel isolated."

She calls loneliness "one of the most virulent diseases of our times."

"In our culture where technology has the possibility of connecting people, it can also become a substitute for real communication, leaving many to feel isolated," she continues.

"Students who come to The Poetry Studio feel heard - something we all hunger for," Gengarelly adds.

Teaching for decades

Ann Gengarelly and her husband, Tony, have worked throughout the U.S., including several years in the Navajo nation. They have one daughter, Laura, and two grandchildren who live in Durham, New Hampshire.

They moved to the area in the 1970s, lived on a farm in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, for 25 years and then moved to Marlboro and have lived there since 1995.

For more than 20 years, Ann Gengarelly has taught creative writing classes for adults. She taught poetry in the Marlboro and Dover public schools for decades, and she says she enjoys working with any age and that the adult groups (ages 30 to 75) are very special.

"To have so many different age groups coming together is inspirational," she says.

Gengarelly holds a master's degree from Goddard College in creativity and education with an emphasis on poetry in the schools. She received an honorary doctorate for teaching excellence from Marlboro College in 1988.

She has published in numerous poetry and professional journals, including The Apple Tree Review and Literary Cavalcade (Scholastic Magazines), The Elementary School Journal (University of Chicago Press), and others.

Tony Gengarelly is a professor emeritus at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He has taught American civilization, Western art history, literature, political science, modern and decorative art, and museum studies. Since 1999, he has taught art and bookmaking for The Poetry Studio's summer workshops.

In 2021, the Gengarellys published a book, Another World: Poetry and Art by Young People from The Poetry Studio (Luminare Press) - a book that offers the rare privilege to witness voices that amaze, that embody wisdom, that remind us of the beauty in the world.

It begins with reverence

Ann Gengarelly begins her workshops purposefully so that the students can slow down.

"In this fast-paced world, The Poetry Studio is an oasis for slow time," she wrote in Teachers & Writers Magazine. "Students are encouraged to pause, to daydream - to sense the energy of the necessary empty space for words and images that might give birth to a poem.

"Often during our first class I ask the students to consider the word reverence and what that word means to them; for some an easier translation is the word respect."

She explains that a rich dialogue often takes place and a list is created about reverence and respect. The list includes: reverence for who we are, for our authentic voices, and for those of our peers; reverence for the natural environment; reverence for The Poetry Studio and the gardens that surround it.

"By establishing the critical nature of reverence, it helps to create a safe environment where students of all ages can write about whatever is begging for a voice," she says.

"We also discover a depth of grief: grief from feeling isolated; grief about the absence of attention to the environment; grief about the loss of innocence, which ultimately becomes a lament - an urgent plea for adults to listen," she adds.

Gengarelly said she'd love to "throw the doors of The Poetry Studio open and welcome people of all ages to connect through poetry and art."

"The reason we do this work is that we want to make a contribution to the world, to give people some hope, ourselves included," Tony Gengarelly elaborates. "As Ann often says, we're trying to reach people, help them go inward, and allow them to express what they need to write."

One person who appreciates The Poetry Studio and its approaches is poet Chard deNiord, the Westminster West poet who served as the state's poet laureate from 2015 to 2019.

"Chard visited The Poetry Studio, saw the students' poetry and art displayed on the walls, and exclaimed: 'I have never seen a place like this!'" Gengarelly says.

Writing workshop at BMAC

This Sunday, Nov. 5, the Gengarellys invite young people between the ages of 9 and 14 to bring their creativity to a poetry-writing and art-making workshop at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center in Brattleboro.

"It's always an honor to collaborate with Ann and Tony," said the museum's executive director, Danny Lichtenfeld.

"They are a perfect example of why this area is such a great place for kids with creative inclinations to grow up," he said, calling them "consummate artists, selflessly devoted to nurturing the joys of writing and artmaking among young people."

In 2016, the Museum offered an exhibition of the students' work, "Windows to Creative Expression."

That exhibit introduced the Gengarellys to deNiord, who was invited to write the introductory statement for the show. "He later wrote the forward to our book," Gengarelly says.

More recently, BMAC helped the Gengarellys celebrate publication of Another World with student readings and has become a primary supporter of The Poetry Studio.

Ann Gengarelly will offer participants a theme to write about and will encourage them to explore the Museum's exhibitions as a way to discover their own inspiration for writing.

Tony Gengarelly will facilitate illustration and bookmaking activities to further enhance the poetry created by each participant. All materials will be provided.

The Gengarellys hope to offer more workshops at the Museum so that those who can't get to Marlboro might "discover these profound bonds that the arts invite."

The 'unique language of poetry'

"Ann often reads poems aloud written by young people from The Poetry Studio, which is empowering for [the current students] to know that this was written by an 8-year-old," her husband says.

Ann Gengarelly observes that "the unique language of poetry allows emotions and insights to find a voice often denied by ordinary speech. As one student proclaimed, 'I can write what I cannot speak.' That sentiment is echoed by many young and old."

That unique language also allows contemplative focus in an era when the attention spans of children and adults alike have shortened considerably.

"Often people who write about pedagogy claim that children can only focus for one hour," Gengarelly observes. "This fall in my after-school program I have five 8-year-olds; they focus for over two hours, moving seamlessly between poetry and art."

Working word with image

Tony Gengarelly works with the children to come up with illustrations and artwork to accompany their poetry.

"Visual language can be an important starting point for young people," he says. "They will often begin with a drawing that captures their emotions and then take it with them into the creation of a poem."

When asked how he feels art informs the writing of poems, he says, "Many times their illustrations will reveal something that the poem has not expressed. Thus, word and image can complement each other to create a more complete expression for the poet/artist."

All students love to draw, Gengarelly says. "They work word and image back and forth with the poem."

When students make books in their summer workshops, they use collage applications to create borders and colorful backgrounds for their poetry, he notes.

"We undertake a decorative project that is shared by all," Gengarelly says. "The book thereby adds an important dimension to the students' work and becomes itself a work of art."

Are students at all self-conscious about drawing or writing?

"I have not found one student who will not draw, who is totally self-conscious and inhibited," he says. "There is something about The Poetry Studio - perhaps the psychological safety that is created there - which releases this natural ability."

For Ann Gengarelly, those qualities in the studio and its sense of place offer profound hopefulness.

"As we struggle to understand the current world in which we find ourselves, to develop a moral compass and to deepen compassion, we might discover a 'wellspring' very close to home,' in the authentic spirit life of young people," she says.

"Spending intimate time with poets of all ages, we can lean into hope," she says - as well as "believing that a more just world is possible. that being 'awake' to the self and to the world can be a transformative, healing experience."

* * *

The Poetry Studio's youth workshop takes place at Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, 10 Vernon St., Brattleboro, from 2 to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 5.

Admission is $10 (free for BMAC members). Space is limited, so registration is required at the museum's website or by calling 802-257-0124, ext. 101.

For more information on The Poetry Studio and the Gengarellys, visit thepoetrystudiovt.com.

This The Arts item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates