How They Got There: A Conversation With Poetry Teacher Marty Skoble

by Noah Davis

Marty Skoble sits in his office surrounded by the words of his students. Recently, one of his charges slipped a note under his door that read simply, “Waves look like white horses.” That is not the most advanced of similes, but consider the context: The uncertainty of the pensmanship suggests that the anonymous writer was in his or her first decade.

Skoble started teaching poetry at Brooklyn’s Saint Ann’s in the 1980s. More than 30 years later, the balding, bearded gentleman who speaks with the thoughtful cadence of a lifelong educator is an institution, meeting with every lower school student once a week and 400 children in total. In his beautifully cluttered office, Skoble talked about a life filled with poetry, children, and the occasional modern dance while his 18-month-old English springer spaniel, Slim, snacked on a bone her owner brought for the occasion.

How did you get here?

It’s half my life. I’ve been here 35 or 40 years. I started out as a college teacher. I was 23 when I started teaching at Brooklyn College. I grew facial hair so I could be separated from the majority of my students who were probably at least as old as I was. After a couple of years I was hired full-time at Queensborough College where I worked for 25 years. During that time, I was writing a lot of poetry and publishing a bit. I had a family. At some point, my life changed. I was living on my own and seeing the kids part time. I started teaching poetry workshops for adults. When my youngest son was in first grade here at Saint Ann’s, I invited his teacher to come to a workshop. Her response was, “Come and do one in my class.” I said I don’t teach kids. But she persisted, so I tried one. And it was so much fun. I went back the following year and did one a week, and it was even more fun.

The following year, she was leaving but the head of the lower school said he would ask if any other teacher wanted me. Gabrielle Howard said, “I’ll have him.” She is now the head of the lower school. I worked in her class. She is an amazing teacher. I took a sabbatical to spend full time in her classroom. I went back to college, but my time at Saint Ann’s grew. As Howard’s kids went into second grade, I started doing some second-grade workshops and then third grade. I started doing middle-school workshops and following those kids, and then suddenly I was doing high-school workshops. The number of hours I was spending here increased. I forced myself to keep working at Queensborough, but I was liking it less and less. Simultaneously with that was what I have to describe as a serious decline in public education in New York in the ’70s and ’80s. I had more and more students in my English classes at the college — I was teaching writing and literature — who couldn’t read. I couldn’t help them because I didn’t have the skills to teach reading or really the desire to teach it. So I took early retirement from Queensborough.

When was that?

1991. Before that, I was teaching four-fifths time at Saint Ann’s, but I didn’t have medical insurance. When I took early retirement, I needed that because the benefits didn’t kick in for a while. I teach 400 of the 1,000 kids at Saint Ann’s. I teach every kid in the lower school once a week. I have four middle-school workshops, and I have one large high-school seminar that’s split into two halves because there is no classroom that accommodates 40 kids. We just have a lot of fun and do a lot of great stuff.

You only teach poetry?

I only teach poetry. It is the writing of poetry that is my focus. Kids ask me all the time, “Are you the only poetry teacher?” And my answer is, “No, everybody at Saint Ann’s is teaching poetry.” And it’s true. You get poetry in English classes. You get poetry in history classes. You get poetry in what we call “language arts” here. Kids are reading poetry in Latin classes. But I’m teaching composition; writing the poetry as a special focus. That’s a little different. In middle school and high school, I do introduce model poems, and we talk about them, but the focus is on the tools those men and women are using.

You must be one of the only full-time poetry teachers.

I suspect there are a couple more, but I’ve only heard of one other at Milton Academy in Massachusetts. Without any official information and on the basis of rumor, I’ve heard that if you do poetry at Milton Academy, you can’t do other specialties. You have to dedicate to it. Here, I’m competing. Kids are doing theater and poetry, puppetry and poetry, art and poetry. They are doing all these other things, and all the sports.

I would be sitting in my office reading, and the boss would come by and say, “You can’t do that.” I would say, “Why? I’ve done my work. It’s on your desk.”

When you were looking at where you life was going to go, did you see yourself as a teacher?

I always wanted to be a writer. I think I knew that from infancy. I have a very distinct memory of drawing squiggly lines on a piece of paper, folding it, putting it in an envelope, putting squiggly lines on the envelope, sealing it, and dropping it in the mailbox on the corner. I’m not sure to whom I was mailing it, but I was sending out work before I could write. That’s a very clear memory. I remember doing this. So I think the answer is yes, I always wanted to be a writer. And I’m a very good writer, but I’m not a great writer. I have published work, but not a huge volume of it. I discovered that I loved teaching, and it became something that I really relished and cherished. I find the success of my students really rewarding. I’ve always been interested in the way people teach.

It was not something I ever thought of myself as doing. When I graduated college, I thought I was going to be a writer. I went to Europe, and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. When I was done writing, it wasn’t so wonderful. It wasn’t anything I was going to be able to sell. So I went to work in insurance. Because I was an English major and a philosophy minor, I found a job drafting language for group annuity contracts for the Equitable Life Assurance Society. They wanted someone to figure out how to say things so no one could select adversely. The actuaries would figure out what the odds were — what they were willing to insure — and then we would have to write it out in language. The legal department would see if that would fly with the state insurance department. I was the liaison between actuaries and lawyers. It was really stupid work. I discovered I would do a week’s work in two days. So I started doing a week’s work in two days, and then taking the other three days and reading. I was going to go to graduate school, so I was also studying. I would be sitting in my office reading, and the boss would come by and say, “You can’t do that.” I would say, “Why? I’ve done my work. It’s on your desk.” He told me I had to look busy, and I told him he had to pay me more money to look busy because it was hard work. I may be the only person who got fired from an insurance company.

Saint Ann’s is a special place. There are no grades. It’s the type of school that could support a full-time poetry teacher. Is that a fair assessment?

Totally. Stanley Bosworth, who founded Saint Ann’s, adored poetry. He thought of it as a kind of bulwark of the civilization, one of the ways you transmit the culture. He was a very strong supporter of the arts, and he gave me carte blanche to go ahead and do this. Poetry is on the walls. It’s everywhere in the buildings. Everyone reads the poetry.

Our goal really isn’t to make everybody a poet — although Stanley once jokingly said he wanted to produce 20 percent of the American poets and he may have done it — but my goal is to create an environment where everybody is poetry literate. I taught poetry in college, but when I would introduce the poetry unit to my introductory English class, everybody would groan. Their response was, “I don’t get poetry.” We have kid’s parents here who say, “I don’t get poetry, but my kid does and I really appreciate that.” That’s what I’m about. I’m about creating an environment where you could write a poem if you wanted to, but you’re too busy doing organic chemistry. That’s fine.

I think that makes a lot of sense to expose kids to poetry.

Yes. And they write poems. I have a little pad on my door, and I find notes from kids. The other day a student left me a note that read, “Waves look like white horses.” Some kid came by, dropped off a simile, and left. [Laughs]

There is a poem of the day on Saint Ann’s website. I imagine that is your doing?

In the middle school and high school, all the poems are on the computer. I type the middle schoolers’ poems and bring them in so we can read them. In the high school, they send me their poems, and it creates a packet that we discuss each week. There’s this proliferation of poetry. I send them off to Mike Roam, who is the head of our computer sector. He set up a program where the computer loads them in and assigns them days. Each day, there is one poem of the day and three bonus poems, so there are technically four poems every day. On December 3rd, we will have reached 10,000 poems. We’ve only started putting them up in 2004, but I’ve been here since the ’70s. There is a huge amount of poetry being produced.

How many student poems do you read every year?

Oh God, I wouldn’t have any way to calculate that. Thousands, just thousands.

In a list of 25 things she wanted to do before she died, Caroline Hagood, a poet and writer living in New York, wrote “Build a shrine to Marty Skoble, the man who just knew that 5th graders could get poetry.” That’s a wonderful sentiment.

It’s a lovely thing Caroline wrote. I ran across that, too.

How did you know that kids would get it?

Accidentally. One day I went to Fran Greenbaum’s first grade class, and we did this little workshop. These kids could write these poems. It was a revelation. If first graders could do this, if kindergarteners could do this, then I could do it all the way through. I had been teaching about four or five years when Kenneth Koch’s book about teaching children got published, and he was doing exactly what I was doing. It was such an overt confirmation.

I’m about creating an environment where you could write a poem if you wanted to, but you’re too busy doing organic chemistry. That’s fine.

I heard you did some modern dance. Can you tell me a little about that?

It has to do with teaching. I was not a dancer. I was not really interested in dance, but I had a friend who was studying dance. One night he wanted to go to a dance performance of a group called Grand Union. This was in the ’70s. It was in a storefront art gallery. Everybody stood around and these four women danced contact improvisation. Something just happened. One of these women just mesmerized me. It’s hard for me to explain exactly what I felt, but my feeling was clear that this woman had something to teach me. It wasn’t sexual. It wasn’t desire, although she was very beautiful. Our eyes met and I knew that she had something to teach me. Steve knew her. I told him this, and he said, “Let’s go meet her tomorrow.” He trucked me off to her apartment. I was in over my head in this. I didn’t know what was happening or what this was about but I went with it. We sat in Barbara Dilley’s apartment, and I said, “I don’t know, but I know that you have something to teach me.” She said, “Okay. I’m going to be in Naropa this summer. Why don’t you come on out?” So, I went to Naropa. I lived in her house.

And she was totally cool with that?

She was fantastic. Suddenly, I was in the midst of Douglas Dunn, Meredith Monk and these great dancers, watching Barbara’s classes. I couldn’t really take them; I didn’t have any skill, any background, but I could hang out with them. I started photographing them. They started making a piece, and I started photographing them while they were dancing. I had to be on the dance floor to do it. I started walking around them while they were dancing and improvising. More and more of my movements became dance movements of a sort, inadvertently. When it became time for the performance near the end of the summer, they said I had to be onstage with the camera during the performance because I was part of the piece. So I became a dancer.

But what I was really there for was watching Barbara teach. I learned a huge amount from Barbara about improvisation and going with your instincts. A lot of what I do when I’m working with little kids is instinctive. When I approach a child to dictate a poem or to create poem, I know what to say. Or I don’t know what to say, but I say something anyway and it’s often unlocking the door. One of the things she taught me was that in dance there is no such thing as a misstep, there is only the next step. I took this stuff to heart. Between Gabe Howard and Barbara Dilley, I learned a lot about teaching. Although I was teaching before I met either one of them, I think I became a really good teacher — I’m afraid to say great teacher. Something happened during the course of those things that made me a much better teacher, a much more powerful teacher.

Did you do any of your own dancing?

When Naropa was over and when I came back to New York, I had become friends with some of the dancers in Barbara’s group. We started working together to make a dance ourselves. I began to take myself a little more seriously as a dancer. We worked with contact improvisation. We worked up a vocabulary of movements and a set of texts, all of which were my poems. Everybody learned all the poems in the set, and everybody had a vocabulary of movement, the way we related to each other: rolling off each other, rolling into each other, moving each other around. At any point, anyone could start a poem. Anyone could follow with a line or go backward or forwards in the poem. It was all just part of the vocabulary.

We worked on it for two years until we could all think like each other. We knew exactly where the other was going to be and say. It felt completely integrated. And then we performed it at St. Clement’s Church. We performed it at the Neill Gallery on Greene St. David Taylor and I also danced on the bar at the Ear Inn with all the beer mugs around. We started on opposite ends. We met in the middle, and we rolled around each other while we were reciting poems. That’s one of my claims to fame: I danced on the bar of the Ear Inn.

Are you still dancing?

No. After we danced, David went to medical school, and Ann went off to do her own thing because it was really too constricting. I didn’t have anybody else to dance with. I didn’t feel like I could go anywhere else with it. And I was happy. I had done what I wanted to do with dance. It affected me. It changed my life.

And I dance all the time. I dance at home a lot. In fact, I got married a year ago October. We celebrated it in April, and we danced on the table.

That’s great. It came full circle in a way.

Okay, so who’s next?
Bill Walsh. He’s a chiropractor and a kinesthesiologist. He runs a place called the Plaza Center for the Healing Arts.

Previously: Author Robert Sullivan

Noah Davis is frequently lost.