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Snowy day a good time for poet to reflect on how art can change young lives


Karen CThe snow falling outside Karen Christensen’s kitchen window creates a charming backdrop for a conversation about the art of poetry. The warm cookies on the table and the cats lolling nearby make the morning even more relaxing, like the feeling of a delicate poem unfolding inside one’s head.

Of course, not all poems are delicate; especially those composed by teenagers. Picture a poem unwinding in a teen’s head during a long bus ride home or an angst-filled poem exploding on the page after a fight with mom or dad. Picture a love song composing itself after a dreamy first date or an unrequited love song snaking its way through a young mind.

These are the kinds of things Christensen thinks about as she plans the Romantic Poetry Workshops for Teens she will be leading at three Aurora Public Library locations this spring. Christensen, a local poet who lives on the West side of Aurora, has been writing since she was 15. More recently, from 2008 through 2011, she got up at 5:30 every morning to write. She completed nine poetry manuscripts, each containing about 120 poems, in those three years. Her poetry has been published in “Downtown Auroran” magazine, the Aurora Public Library Writer’s Group Zine and in “The Vegetarian Shabbat Cookbook.” She has self-published a number of books and enjoys doing poetry readings.

If this snowy day had been in December instead of March, Christensen would have been watching the snow fall from her office in downtown Aurora. Christensen, most recently head of the City of Aurora’s Neighborhood Redevelopment Division, retired at the end of 2012 after working for the city for 13 years.

Although not a native of Aurora (she grew up in Chicago), Christensen has adopted the city as her own. Her retirement plan is to continue to serve on several nonprofit boards and to volunteer.

Christensen agreed to lead the teen poetry workshops (at the Main Library, Eola Road Branch and West Branch) even before the  ink on her last city paycheck was dry. She said it was exactly the kind of thing she wanted to do in retirement.

It doesn’t take long to figure out why.

Christensen loves the arts.

“In the United States, what we are known for is our ability to portray technical ideas,” Christensen said. “We live in a society that is focused on technology. That isn’t anything new, and it isn’t bad. But the importance of the arts and that part of our brains and souls and spirits is so very important as well.”

Christensen grew up in Chicago in the 1950s in an area that was an entry point for immigrants. She attended Chicago Public Schools, including William G. Hibbard Elementary School in the Albany Park neighborhood. Being part of a school in a less than luxurious neighborhood was a stroke of luck for her, Christensen said, because many arts organizations came to give presentations. “After the Chicago Symphony came to my school, I went home and said, ‘I want a piano.’ I didn’t grow up in a household where anyone was a musician. But my parents went to a junk store and got a piano and found me a teacher and I learned how to play. Our family wasn’t wealthy, but my education was supplemented with the arts through the school I attended in an urban community.

“I started writing because I had an incredible teacher in high school.  I won a prize from The Chicago Tribune when I was a freshman, and I was invited to a lunch. So I was in a room with teachers and kids and executives from the Trib. I felt at that point that society was telling me, ‘this is a valuable thing to do.’ I had other good teachers who encouraged me to write, and even though I struggled with math and science, I found that I could use writing to help me think about bigger concepts. If you are looking for things to write about, they are there, even in the most technical of subjects. Understanding the arts informs everything. We have a responsibility to help kids see the world in an interdisciplinary way. The arts, all of them—visual, dance, performance, writing—help us see everything is connected. If we don’t help people view the world as artists, it really limits vision and diminishes lives.”

An overload of technology also diminishes lives, Christensen believes. “I think technology tends to separate us,” she said. “I love the Internet and having a smart phone, but it builds walls because it takes away from everyday conversations we could be having with people. I think the arts in any kind of medium breaks down those walls. I think particularly writing does.”

Christensen will use her life lessons and philosophies as a jumping-off point for leading the poetry-writing programs. “I like the idea of giving out a topic or a word for the teens to just dream about. Let their brains go somewhere with no destination,” she said.

With poetry, Christensen said, there are no rules. “You don’t have to rhyme. Meter is nice, because poetry is meant to be read out loud. When one writes in prose, there are rules to follow. But to me, with poetry, there are no rules. I think it’s a therapy everyone ought to indulge in, because every part of life is so governed by rules. And you can’t hurt anyone with poetry. It’s a nonviolent way of thinking and expressing creativity.”

Christensen said people have told her they appreciate her poetry because it is easy to understand. So she feels that will be a plus when she is working with teens.

“I hope to make a connection (with teens) by showing them what I wrote when I was in high school, she said. “Being a teenager is the most interesting and challenging time in one’s life. You have a foot in the world of childhood, but you can see the next world, the next stage, where there won’t be any rules. It’s a very magical place but it can be a very scary place. We all think being free is what we want, but then we find being free can be very scary. It can be a time of turmoil. I also think when you’re a teenager you are still very open to possibility. Teens are starting to become a little more restrained, but still are open to possibility. They can reach inside themselves and they are still willing to be vulnerable and in touch with very deep emotions.

“When you start to become an adult, a lot of that gets pushed down, repressed, disciplined out of you to fit into an adult world. The messages of the adult world are: protect yourself, don’t reveal how you feel, do things to conform.”

But if you can connect as a teenager with the arts, with poetry and music, you will build a place, a retreat, which you can keep going back to where those deep emotions and honest vulnerability will still be there for you.”

Christensen, 62, said developing her artistic sensibilities early in life helped her stay in touch with her emotions.

For her, it was tapping into music and writing as a teen. “I have always been able to go back to that reservoir of what it felt like to be a teenager,” she said. “Everyone needs to find something that expresses his or her heart: poetry, dance; something to go back to. If you do that, it will be the best way to connect to that time when you were most open.

“We warn kids, particularly when they’re teenagers, about the consequences of bad choices. I want to warn them if they don’t connect with their artistic selves when they’re teens, they may never be able to do that as adults.”

Finally, before stepping into her boots and donning scarf and mittens to step outside into the snow for a photograph, Christensen said: “Doing something artistic is the best therapy. If you can do something creative at the worst times in your life, it will be such a gift. Life will be hard. You need to arm yourself with ways to deal with the tough things. The arts do that.”

The Romantic Poetry Workshops for Teens (ages 12 to 18) are scheduled for:

Wednesday, March 27 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the West Branch, 233 S. Constitution Drive. Call 630-264-3600.

Thursday, April 4 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Main Library, 1 E. Benton St. Call 630-264-4100

Wednesday, April 24 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Eola Road Branch, 555 S. Eola Road. Call 630-264-3400.

Teens are encouraged to bring samples of their own work. Pencils and paper will be available. The program is made possible by a grant from the Aurora Public Library Foundation.



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