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Artist-in-residence taps imagination of Troy students

| March 8, 2005 11:00 PM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

The second-graders furrowed their brows, gripped their pens or pencils tightly and hunched over pieces of paper. The room was quiet as they pondered, puzzled and inwardly pleaded with their imaginations to deliver something good. A few looked skyward for inspiration. A girl let out a big sigh.

Writing poetry is hard work, they were learning.

Fortunately, the children had an experienced guide. Neal Lewing of Polson - an actor, musician and writer for 45 years - appeared Thursday at Morrison Elementary School in Troy as artist-in-residence. He worked with individual classes before performing at an all-school assembly to end the day.

He used jokes and acting ability to hold students' attention during a discussion of what poetry is and why people write poems. Mostly, Lewing emphasized the form's inherent freedom.

"Anybody can write poetry," he said. "There are no rules. It's how you express yourself."

Lewing said he was drawn to poetry as a high school student, publishing his first piece as a junior. It provided his first lesson in literary criticism.

"One editor said 'My gosh, we've got another Shakespeare on our hands,'" he recalled. "The second one said 'I don't know. I think we've got another shoe salesman.'"

With that background, the students were ready to write. Lewing told them to write down their poem's title, then trade papers with someone sitting nearby. That caused plenty of stress among the young writers.

One boy moaned, "I pretty much don't get it."

Another plunged into the task but soon sought help, asking Lewing, "How do you spell 'garbage?'"

"I put in 20 exclamation marks," a girl said with pride.

"Is that why you needed two pieces of paper?" Lewing asked.

Most of the poems were about cats, dogs, mice or birds. But one student, apparently taking a cue from Lewing's earlier story, wrote about shoe salesmen.

Each poet stood to read his or her work. Most of the remarks from classmates were kind - "Super" or "It should get a double A."

However, when Lewing asked what kind of poem a student had just read, a classmate blurted, "It was annoying."

Ashley Neely got a thumbs-down review from one peer, who called her poem "crazy."

The 8-year-old girl stood her ground, replying, "It is not. It's true."

Before leaving to meet a fourth-grade class, Lewing urged the children to take their poems home and read them to their parents. He also suggested that each family sit down together and have parents write poems.

"You'll be amazed at what they can do," Lewing said.

He spent Friday working with classes at Troy High School, then performed a benefit concert Saturday night to raise money for the Troy Fine Arts Council.

The mini-seminars with students were typical for Lewing, who works with about 500 students from kindergarten through 12th grade every year.

Morrison Elementary School Principal Lance Pearson said the artist-in-residence program that brings professionals such as Lewing to school is a valuable way to expand children's horizons about the arts.

"It's a great thing to have," he said. "Last year we had a juggling group and they were fantastic.

"A lot of our focus this year has been on writing. This was a chance to incorporate fine arts and put it all together."