Special Interests and Language Arts


August is giving me what we call “scrunch face,” his brow furrowed as he glares at the screen. We haven’t even finished the first line of our daily collaborative poem, and he already sees why it won’t work. We have challenged ourselves to write the world’s first Jazz Poem and now, because no word contains two consecutive A’s, it looks doomed.

Because seventeen-year-old August is finally getting interested in music, after years of avoiding it at all costs, I’ve been giving him a jazz primer. Jazz is the ideal first step because August finds voices intimidating; they tend to overwhelm him emotionally. We listen to Coltrane, Art Blakely, Miles Davis, and more. After a half-hour of close listening and conversation, we switch to writing. That’s when August suggests we invent something totally new, the Jazz Poem.

In the seven years since we started working together, August and I have invented nearly one hundred poem forms together: dinosaur poems, seasonal poems, escalator poems, even numerical formulas like our Fibonacci poem. As a young man with autism, August has a great affinity for rules. We invent each poem by, first, creating the rules. In terms of executive functioning, this is the planning stage, and August is quite adept at it. For this particular poem, we decided to take the word jazz itself as our launching pad. August notes that its most distinguishing feature is the double Z. I suggest that we focus on words that contain double letters, for example the word letters! He thinks this is hilarious, and so we push on giddily.

In the past, August and I have employed abecedarian forms, which basically means that the poems move through the letters of the alphabet as they progress. As often happens when we invent a form, our Jazz Poem becomes a mash-up of two rules: the double letter and the abecedarian. Every line will feature a double letter word, and we will progress through the alphabet. He volunteers to write the first line. And then comes the scrunch face.

Poetry is a terrific resource for students and adults living with autism. It transforms their devoted passion into creative expression, utilizes their innate understanding of the materiality of language, calls on their visual acuity in creating similes and metaphors, and it also plays to their strengths (making rules, following a plan) while offering them challenges (cognitive flexibility, social interaction). That’s a mouthful. New research has shown that the right hemisphere dominance shown by many on the spectrum leads to an inherently poetic brain structure, where metaphor is a primary force. And August is no exception, he’s definitely responded to this way of accessing the power of language.

Since our plan has just hit a roadblock, I challenge August to look for an alternative route. After a short time his eyes light up, and I can tell he’s solved the problem. The first line of our Jazz Poem becomes It’s like my anaconda ate a xylophone.

Not only did he exhibit the cognitive flexibility required to overcome our first obstacle, but he also referenced the last thing we listened to: Milt Jackson! As we continue writing he keeps upping the ante, including lines with double doubles like Stop gagging on that ragged note and then triple doubles like A silly tune will launch this poem.

Language for August is and has always been performative, the words are the action and vice versa. He may struggle with constructing an analytical argument, but when he’s free to let the music of language lead, the results would make Dizzy Gillespie giggle. Twenty-six lines later we’ve done something no one else has done before, and August has another reason to embrace his budding love for jazz.

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Author: Chris

Chris is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who has worked with unconventional students, students with autism and twice-exceptional students for over a decade, specializing in creative writing and executive function. His first collection of poems, American Music (Copper Canyon Press, 2007) was selected by C. D. Wright for the Hayden Carruth Award and his newest collection, The Falling Down Dance (Coffee House Press, 2015), chronicles his experience as a father. He teaches at The Loft Literary Center and will be a Visiting Assistant Professor at Carleton College in 2016. With Brian Laidlaw he co-founded Unrestricted Interest, a writing program dedicated to transforming the lives of students with autism and other unconventional learners through poetry.


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