River of Words/ Kalmanovitz School of Education 2013 Teacher of the Year
John Oliver Simon, of Poetry Inside Out; San Francisco, CA
John Oliver Simon scribbled his first poem at the age of fourteen under a full moon on October 19, 1956:Lunatic night, the moon pale silver and the earth below a moonlit skeleton, carved white marble, eaten by starwinds…
After studying at the Putney School, Swarthmore College and the University of California, John’s plans to become a professor of English Literature and write poetry on the side were derailed by the apocalyptic aspirations of the 60’s. He started teaching poetry to children in People’s Community School, a parent coop in Berkeley, and began working with California Poets In The Schools (CPITS) in 1971.
“It was a revelation to me,” John says, “in those first CPITS workshops, how kids who didn’t seem like they had much to say would burst out with the most imaginative poetry.” John became Statewide Coordinator of CPITS in 1978, mentoring poet-teachers and tripling the program’s outreach in the first three years of Proposition 13.
John later conceived and funded projects to teach poetry in conjunction with the art, history and natural science resources of the Oakland Museum of California, and with the immense cultural treasures of the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. “It was one of my greatest thrills,” says John, “to stand below the Stone of the Sun and give chilango sixth-graders the assignment to write about the great earthquake they had recently experienced.”
John fell in love with the Spanish language at the age of 40 and began travelling, studying and translating contemporary Latin American poets. Wanting to get his hands dirty with the work of the world, he spent nine years teaching fifth and sixth grade in a leaky portable in East Oakland, then a year travelling down Latin America by second-class bus and one-star hotel, returning with a poem-sequence, Caminante, which Gary Snyder called “a major poem.”
In 2001 John became Artistic Director of Poetry Inside Out (PIO), a program of the nonprofit Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco. PIO’s big idea is that translation is the deepest form of reading. PIO students translate great poems from a wide variety of languages they may or may not know, and then write their own great poetry inspired by that profound immersion in the poetic process. Over the last ten years, PIO has placed 35 finalists and four Grand Prize winners in River of Words.