Two years before Erica Goss was named Los Gatos’ Poet Laureate, she stumbled across a video poem on the internet, encapsulating “everything she ever wanted to do with young people and poetry.”
Previously, she had taught at the extremely competitive Saratoga High School for five years, and calls this, of all her careers, “the most rewarding because I had to constantly remind [students] that poetry was just as important as studying for AP and all the other things they had to do.”
She thrived on watching teenagers learn to express “how they feel through their words.” She never allowed them to write about love or crushes until they had a significant body of work on other subjects.
Erica finds poetry to be the best match for young writers—“better than any other written art form,” she says, “because [it’s] so open-ended.” Whether they are experienced or have never written anything before, poetry provides them a window for expression.
Erica, herself, says she “grew up in a totally creative household.” Born in Germany—her mother’s home country—Erica was raised in a bilingual home in Southern California until moving to the South Bay in 1985. Erica remembers her parents reading to her all the time. Her dad worked as a professor, and Erica enjoyed the constant energy of interesting guests in their home. Her parents never minimized the importance of the arts, or said, “You could never make a living at that.” In fact, one of her brothers works as a professional musician in New Zealand, while dressed up as a wizard.
Despite that intense creative background, Erica dove into the business world as a systems analyst for over 10 years before going back to school for her BA in English, followed by her MFA at San Jose State. That’s when she began teaching at Saratoga high school, and then spent a few years teaching English and Humanities at Devry College before making the leap to writing full time and teaching private poetry workshops in 2012.
The author of Wild Place (2012, Finishing Line Press) and Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets (2014, Pushpen Press), Erica has also published in numerous journals and anthologies, and won awards for her poetry, including two Pushcart prize nominations.
Erica also hosted several episodes of Word to Word, a show about poetry, produced and aired by local cable affiliate, KCAT. The episodes of the “no budget” television show are now available no on Youtube.
She applied to be Poet Laureate Los Gatos in 2013 when her friend, Parthenia Hickson, retired from the position. Erica’s vision as Poet Laureate was to “reach out to youth,” something she had already had been doing. Erica held a poetry series at Library every 3rd Sunday afternoon, with a featured reader and an open mike. One of the most popular venues is youth night at CB Hannigan’s—an open mike students at Los Gatos High School with parents and kids, a poetry contest for kids.
The magic of poetry and film came together completely for Erica when she attended an AWP conference in 2012, and she describes herself as “amazed” after seeing poetry for the first time on the large screen. There, she the met editor for Connotation Press who later invited her to write a column. Afterward, Erica found herself “immersed in the art form.”
Erica had been thinking about doing a camp for kids, helping them take poems and creating films out of them. Then, she says, “David Perez, Santa Clara’s Poet Laureate, suggested doing something ‘just for girls’ because usually it’s boys who get the recognition.”
Erica immediately latched onto the idea and the project was born. “As a woman who has gone through all the stress and strain of realizing I can do things myself,” she sees the need for more programs to empower girls. As a teacher, Erica has watched “girls shut down when boys come into the classroom.”
“I want to see how they see the world. We tell them what they should think. They are the most underrepresented group in the entire world, regardless of race, etc. What are their hopes and aspirations?” Through this camp, Erica says, “For once, give the girls the tools of image making.”
She thinks their organization, known as Media Poetry Studio—sponsored by California Poets in the schools, Poetry Center of San Jose, and Macy’s—is the first group who has put poetry, technology for together for girls. The summer day camp will run from July 20-31 at the Poetry Center in San Jose.
The camp sessions of 12 girls ages 13 and up, will be broken up into 3-hour sessions of poetry and 3-hour session of media, swapping out the 2 groups of 6 girls between the two primary areas of instruction.
Erica wants to provide, “as much individual attention as possible.” During her instructional portion, the girls will do freewriting, read aloud, and receive individual feedback on poems. Several guest speakers will speak about poetry, including performance.
Erica will teach the poetry side using various forms “from Haiku to longer, more complicated projects.” She teaches kids to write poetry “in the manner of” certain poets or styles as well as more “open-ended” forms. At Saratoga High School Erica says, “the students sent them out to publications and many got published in magazines.”
Erica says, “David will teach the tech side, including editing.” Another teacher, “Jennifer Gigantino, will teach effects like stop motion, etc.” And they will be using extremely sophisticated equipment.
The Dice player is an example of the kind of spectacular work the girls at camp will be exposed to:
Many themes run through the kids’ poetry once Erica removes the typical go-to of “teen love” from the topics. Stories emerge of families making great sacrifices to come to America. Erica recalls a tender poem about a “parent who was disabled in a wheelchair—how parents were carefree when first met, then struggled through disability.” Other students write about what it’s like to be a teenager with all the expectations, or political poetry.
Erica says, “I realized from a very early age that writing made me feel better about things. It connects me to people or when I’m having trouble with things.” In some ways, Erica feels, “It’s my responsibility to write.”
Erica’s sense of responsibility and vision may make it possible a whole new generation of girls in her community—and beyond—to experience that same sense of connection and healing through writing and sharing their poetry ins ever- expanding ways.