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Friday, February 4, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Class draws words from its students' hearts

Seattle Times staff reporter

YAKIMA - Falling snow quilts the lines of the poems on the Poetry Pole in Jim Bodeen's garden.

The Yakima author and high-school teacher will eventually bring these poems inside and put them with the others - four fat folders full of yearning, loss, confession and intimate observation.

Bodeen, 54, put up the Poetry Pole four years ago. He put it close to the road, with pins in the soft wood for people to leave their work. And they have, by the hundreds - from up the street and around the state. The poems are carefully typed or scrawled on a scrap of paper. Some are signed with a flourish, others are left anonymously, like a prayer.

"It's our first impulse at worship and devotion, that's what poetry is," Bodeen said. "It's so true, like being in a confessional."

The same is true in his Latino literature class at Davis High School.

Bodeen uses the classics of Latino literature and poetry to stimulate his students' exploration of their lives along three major themes: looking for America, making new paths and breaking the chains.

He doesn't define the chains, the paths or the ways of looking. His students do.

For some, the class is a way to connect with their Latino heritage, rooted in the Yakima Valley back four generations. They read and write only in English.

Others are bilingual and on their way to becoming bicultural, moving fluidly between their lives in the United States and Mexico. Other students, newly arrived from Mexico, read, think and write in Spanish.

Their writings document a struggle to make sense of life, sometimes in a completely new country. Bodeen calls them "abrecaminos" - people who make a path where there is none.

Consider Alma Varela. She arrived in the U.S. alone at 14 to live with her sisters. She learned English and gradually made the transition from living with her parents in Mexico City to Moxee, a farm town of 1,050 in Eastern Washington. Now 20, she has kept writing through it all.

Varela has since graduated from Davis High School and works full time as a receptionist at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic while taking a full course load at Yakima Valley Community College.

She remembers Bodeen's class as a refuge. "It was very welcoming. Everyone just knew each other had the same background. Their parents might be here, or not. We left something behind, and we came here not knowing what to expect."

The class helped her think about that and write about it. "It was a way to say something. Not just do an assignment but to say something that really means something, and learn that our past is important.

"It was hard, but it was easy, like I was ready to yell it out. It was all piling up. There wasn't anything we weren't allowed to say, and that's how we went as far as we did. I know all the stuff we did was not the most poetic writing. But it was all important."

Bodeen has published several books of his poetry, including "This House," a new book of poems published through an independent press he operates from his home with his wife, Karen, a Yakima banker.

A native of Bowbells, N.D., Bodeen was a dreamy kid marooned amid farm fields. He knew he wanted to be a poet early on.

"I always had the poetry. It was the only thing that made sense," Bodeen said.

He works his students like a kind of drill instructor of the heart. He pushes them to step up to the front of the class and offer up poems that examine their lives, their hearts, their families, their pasts and their futures.

Some pace, stamping their sneakered feet with nervousness. But they fight it, determined to read their work. "I want to rant like crazy old Bodeen," one student reads from his poem, slipping a sly smile at his teacher.

"Keep it moving," Bodeen urges when the room falls silent, as dozens of awkward adolescents squirm. "Read the page. Go! Let's show what we've got."

A student translating his Spanish verse into English asks how good it has to be to get up and read. "As good as you can get it. That's how I want it," is Bodeen's response.

The students applaud each other as they walk to the front, and most give full attention to the reader. Bodeen tells them not to bolt when they finish but to stand there, look their fellow students in the eyes and accept their applause. "That's the love," he reminds them.

A wall thick with their poems, taped one over the other, floor to ceiling, sighs with the press of a hand. They call it the Breathing Wall.

The collection of poems on the Breathing Wall is just part of the class's archive. Bodeen has collected six years of his former students' poems, short stories and writings in a book called "With My Hands Full/Con Mis Manos Llenas," published last fall by his independent press. They will be reading from the book tomorrow in Seattle.

"This wall will die unless you put your poems up here; it won't breathe," Bodeen said. "And I will die as soon as I quit listening to you."

Lynda Mapes' phone message number is 206-464-2736. Her e-mail address is lmapes@seattletimes.com ------------------------- Poetry readings at Elliott Bay Books

Jim Bodeen and some of his former Davis High School students will read from their book, "With My Hands Full/Con Mis Manos Llenas," at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle. ------------------------- Excerpts from students' poetry

From "Living a Struggle" By Alisha Salinas

...You've been through a struggle. Through hell and back! That's what I call it anyway. You stood strong through it all. I hate my father for it all.

The pain from your bruised face shows. I have seen it. The bangs and the clangs late at night... I have heard them. The broken bones... I have fixed them.

The blood shed on the bed posts cuz of the anger he held inside. The tears from your eyes cuz of the enormous Pain he caused you...

Being looked down upon because You were a Mexicana, Because you grew up being A "picker" and in the warehouse, Because you never had The best of things like the rest.

Bull----!!! You deserve it, You deserve it all! And for that I give you my ALL...

Salinas, 18, wrote this as part of apoem writtern for her Latino literature Class.

From "My Life, Is Your Life By Alvaro Navarro

I have seen many friends in caskets. I've seen myself in those tears dropped by their parents.

I feel the pain in my blood I see darkness slowly shutting my heavy eyelids.

I'm tired from running away from the light. I'm ready to shine, I'm ready to leave the darkness.

No I'm not staying in darkness Yes, I'm ready to shine...

_ From a 12 -part poem written by Alvaro Navarro, 18, for his Latino literature Class at Davs High School, Yakima.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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