Poetry is my imagination drifting slowly through the endless universe.
So wrote Emily, a fourth-grader at Lewis and Clark Elementary School in Missoula, Mont., in a poem called “Poetry,” inspired by lessons from the Missoula Writing Collaborative—an organization that helps 2,000 children across western Montana to create 24,000 poems every year.
Caroline Patterson ’78, a Montanan herself, is the organization’s executive director. Originally from the state capital of Helena, she holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Montana, where she has also taught. Her writing and editing credits include the short story collection Ballet at the Moose Lodge and the anthology Montana Women Writers: A Geography of the Heart, as well as extensive travel writing and several children’s books.
“Outraged” at the paltry poetry curriculum in her own children’s middle school, she signed on in 2011 to start teaching for the Collaborative. She went “on a mission,” she says, to introduce Helena’s students to Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop, along with regional voices such as Richard Hugo and Sandra Alcosser.
Patterson has directed the Missoula Writing Collaborative since 2014.
Founded in 1994 and directed by Patterson since 2014, the Collaborative sends 12 writers into 12-week residencies to teach poetry at 30 different schools—“everywhere from little two-room schoolhouses to big multi-classroom schools in Missoula,” she says, and from the Bitterroot Valley to the Flathead Indian Reservation. The curriculum focuses largely on Native American poetry. “Mountains,” by fifth-grader Ameah, written in the Salish language and translated into English, describes “trees of deep happiness and mustangs of wildness” in a heaven “for Native Americans who died fighting and trying.” The Collaborative also runs a summer day camp on the University of Montana campus, where kids write about the vegetables in local gardens and artifacts at the university’s museums.
Most of the students are around 9 to 11 years old—an age group that Patterson loves working with, because they are so in touch with their senses and eager to share their experiences. “It brings in kids who are often kind of left behind academically,” she says of the poetry program. “All of a sudden, things like grammar and spelling and clarity of thought happen on the page, because they really want to tell a story about a bike jump, or about an ice princess, or about barrel racing.”
Much of Patterson’s work as executive director consists of securing donations and grants for the nonprofit Collaborative, which serves many low-income schools. With support from the National Endowment for the Arts, it produced an interactive online Missoula Children’s Poetry Map, an illustrated map of locations around the city (“Rattlesnake Creek,” “Mobash Skate Park,” “Missoula Farmers’ Market”) featuring text and audio of kids’ poems about each place.
At the end of every 12-week session, each school publishes an anthology of original work, and students read aloud for parents and neighbors. One little boy, Patterson recalls, “got up five times and read everything he’d ever written.”
Duke is the assistant editor of Amherst magazine.