Ambassador for poetry goes global with her passion

US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy has twice visited Bonnyrigg High School as part of the International Poetry Exchange Program. Marko Pupovac* reports.

Image: Time to rhyme: US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy with students and teachers from Bonnyrigg High School.

United States Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy has strongly promoted the art form of poetry through the International Poetry Exchange, which she founded five years ago to connect students virtually throughout the world.

Ms Kennedy had high praise during her visits to Bonnyrigg High School’s Poetry Club for the students’ commitment and creativity in crafting texts, and for the staff who encourage them.

Bonnyrigg High School is part of the International Poetry Exchange Project, which links though the power of the spoken word students in Japan, Korea, the Philippines and The Bronx in New York.

Ms Kennedy emphasised the importance of poetry for self-expression and conveying emotive messages in her two visits to the school in March.

Asked by students how she developed her passion for poetry, Ms Kennedy attributed it to her family tradition of memorising and reciting poems in safe and shared spaces.

Her inspiration were poets such as Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and William Butler, but her influences were many and varied – from the creativity she saw in urban American schools to Def Jam exchanges. Ms Kennedy also noted the rise in performance poetry since the 1970s.

Bonnyrigg’s Poetry Club was started two years ago by English teacher Brendon Ly, supported by English Head Teacher Geremy Crithary and principal Michael Bryce.

“It started out small with a few poems, some questions and a little bit of food, and the kids have become the driving force for the magic that’s taken place,” Mr Ly said.

The students might have initially come for the food but as they exchanged poetry they came together to engage in a rich dialogue.

“I come for the food; I stay for the poetry,” one club member said.

Mr Crithary said students responded positively to poetry that reflected their interests, values and cultural diversity. A wide variety of poetry styles, including rap songs, were taught in the curriculum.

The two-way exchange with students included Ms Kennedy asking the students why they liked poetry. Some replied they liked exploring emotions through ink on paper; or felt that poetry could empower people and spread awareness on social issues. For others, poetry “lets me hide behind metaphors and symbolism”.

“You don’t know how much you like poetry until you start writing it” was a common sentiment of the Poetry Club members.

Adelle Gillen, Head of Public Affairs at the US Consulate in Sydney, said the Bonnyrigg High students were part of a global initiative that included students from Japan, Korea and the Philippines in the International Poetry Exchange Program.

“We are so excited to see the rich stories that come from our Australian students. Poetry has always been able to have a global reach,” she said.

Ms Kennedy had previously taken part in a Zoom exchange of poetry with Bonnyrigg High School, Aurora College (a virtual public school in NSW), and Marble Hill School for International Studies in the Bronx, New York.

On March 29 Ms Kennedy returned to Bonnyrigg High School for a second teleconferenced Australian-American poetry exchange. Students connected over their shared experiences of English literature and made plans to be pen pals.

Inspired by the prompt of love, students shared poems that reflected the duality of love, such as the need for self-love and the toxicity of relationships, along with touching tributes to Australia’s rural hometowns.

Bonnyrigg High School’s Poetry Club gave Ms Kennedy anthologies of their student poetry, including ‘Poet Trees’ (2023); ‘Best Out of Bonnyrigg’ (2022); a personal anthology, ‘The Native Songbird’ (2022), by Year 10 student, Tamilla O’Hara; and ‘Thoughts Unfold’ (2022), with poetry and prose written by students and teachers in collaboration with Sydney Story Factory.

Ms Kennedy gifted the school a global anthology of women’s poetry, ‘She Walks In Beauty: A Woman’s Journey Through Poems’ (2011).

Year 11 student Marko Pupovac is a proud member of Bonnyrigg High School’s Poetry Club.

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