Every high school has one of those mythological teachers–the one who is a life-changer, a challenger, and possibly immortal. I had that teacher during my senior year of high school, Mr. Trosey, and it was in his AP Lit classroom where I first really fell in love with crafting poetry. It’s hard to explain him in one blog post so I will try to give some key details about him: he worked at my high school for 30+ years and had students and their children, he looked like hadn’t aged a day, he wore tailored suits (light linen ones in hot weather), he spoke barely above a whisper, he had us analyze Emily Dickinson’s “The last night that she lived” for 7 months (line by line, punctuation mark by punctuation mark–perhaps that’s why I love m-dashes), and he was a notoriously hard grader. I heard from previous students that he was mysterious and probably a vampire. What was he hiding in those classroom closets? (Pillows.) You, gasp, sat in a circle for discussion and there were pillows and blankets in the middle of the circle if you wanted to sit in the “cave.” I could write pages and pages about this teacher but he was one of the first teachers who really encouraged me to enter English and creative writing. And although many students hated his poetry assignments, he was my first exposure to writing a mini-collection of ekphrastic poetry.
Despite getting ready for the AP Lit exam, he truly believed that learning how to write would also help you learn how to read and critically analyze literature. Therefore we wrote poetry all year long. The best poems would enter our class’s publication Stained Glass and be immortalized there. (I ended up becoming the co-editor for Stained Glass and like Erika Meitner and other poets, I followed a similar method of organizing the collection. My best friend [the other co-editor] and I laid out all of the poems on the floor and moved them all around. We repeated this countless times when Mr. Trosey explained there were too many dead grandparent poems in a row.)
I can’t remember our first writing prompt but I think it was related to Maxfield Parrish paintings. We were reading The Great Gatsby at the time and since Parrish was an active painter around that time period, it was fitting His paintings were dreamy, soft, and impossible; Trosey explained it was sort of like an extension of Gatsby’s dreams. He had a slew of large prints and we chose our individual picture and then sat down and wrote. We continued writing poetry this way with other artists too (Monet for example) but sometimes we had to bring in a special object or a photograph.
There was the infamous prompt we all waited for at the end of the year–the candle poem. Our class took a trip to the biology classroom down the hall and we sat down at our tables while he glided around the room handing us candles. From there he lit the one candle and we had to pass the flame on to each classmate. Our job was to sit there in the darkened room, stare at the candle, and write a poem about love. It didn’t have to be a romantic love poem but after 30 minute or so, we extinguished our flame and we were able to keep the candle as a memento. Although it may not be technically ekphrastic, it was still an iconic moment of my high school career. My upperclassmen friends always talked about the candle poem. It was as much of a rite of passage as getting the flour sack baby in health class (which my health teacher didn’t do my year…so disappointing).
Although some people in my class complained about the class, many of us reveled in it. If I dabbled in poetry at all, it was solely based off of my feelings but never anyone else’s. Writing ekphrastically was a lesson in empathy. I took on speakers who were different than me and I had to think like them. How could I render their imaginary thoughts and stay true to the style and content of piece of art I was working off of? Every now and then if I’m stuck for a poem idea, I go look at artwork somewhere–mostly online–and let that inspire me.
Mr. Trosey was romantic in the literary and emotional sense when it came to literature. He was like a John Keating who actually taught. I think that passion was really useful in instilling a love (or at least appreciation) of writing in each of us. For years in high school I was always hesitant about committing to the English major and after discussing it with him, he helped me realize that it was a really good fit for me. I loved reading, writing, revising (well maybe I don’t love revising), and discussing literature. He helped build my confidence and taught me some of the technical skills to pursue my love.