Word Play

Nancy Kangas is one of those Columbus creatives that has been in my peripheral vision since, well, forever. Somewhere in my house—I am not a hoarder because books don’t count—I have a copy of this lovely mint green ’zine called Dirt that Kangas put out back in the day. I remember it came with a little baggie of soil stapled to the front. I’ve seen her at the library, guiding readers to their new favorite stories, and at poetry and writing events throughout the city. She always has a generous smile and a super cool cardigan.

Since 2000, Kangas has been popping up in pre-school and elementary classrooms as an Ohio Arts Council visiting artist. The artist residencies typically last six-weeks, with Kangas stopping by once a week. “In my first residency in 2000, I was in the hallway of the elementary school in Farmer, Ohio, and someone said, “Oh! It’s the artist!” I looked around to see who it was,” she recalled. “I am a lot more confident now, but still feel the same surprise—that I get to be the one to work and play with writing and people—help them see that art rocks and that they have a voice.”

Starting in 2009, the artist began working with the kids at Columbus Early Learning Centers (CELC) and is taking their collaboration to the next level with The Preschool Poets: An Animated Film Series, a project to take the little ones’ poetry and animate their words and ideas. Working with Josh Kun of Oakhouse Films, the project had a Kickstarter last month and is continuing to take contributions to bring the funny, touching, surprisingly insightful poems to moving picture light.

The four-year-olds at CELC, an organization that offers affordable access to high-quality early childhood education, quickly crawled their way into Kangas’ big heart.

“I see how ready they are to trust and love us big ones. It’s daunting. I could be an axe murderer, but they are right there, saying, ‘Hey, I could love you. Why not?’” she said. “When I am in the classroom, I can see quickly who needs a high five—who needs some love. My heart goes to them like crazy. The teachers I am working with know it times ten. They know A LOT—and are doing the hard work of teaching kids how to be members of a community. Because I am in this amazing role as teaching artist, my job is to make sure I listen to these kids. Often they are not used to adults saying, “Hey. I’m here. What are you thinking?” And so at first they tell me what they think I want to hear: “I want a race car.” But you keep listening. And then they say, “I want my mom to be in my race car.”

Because these are truly little people, Kangas sits with them, crayon in hand, and catches the words and phrases that tumble out of their mouths and minds. Using mentor texts—other poems to get the creative juices flowing—and conversation, her young writers start writing by reading.

“I want to show that the writing process includes listening to others, borrowing ideas, playing with those ideas, and eventually making books that are members of the family in a universe of books.”

The poems themselves are short bursts of wordplay, often linking disparate things together in a way that somehow makes surreal sense. “There’s this one, by Jaylen, that feels kind of famous to me now, I quote it so much:

There’s a little kitten in my heart.

It’s looking at you.”

Adorable, right? Heart-melting, right? It’s a “children are so honest” moment. Kangas agrees.

“I think we say ‘mouths of babes’ because we totally get that there is a stunning directness in how kids this age communicate. They don’t intend to speak in rich symbols, they just DO. When you are a parent, or a teacher in charge of a classroom of kids, you don’t often get the chance appreciate how their words resonate like this. You’re too busy taking care of everything! I am so lucky. I am sitting there waiting to do just that.”

She remembered an especially touching moment: “[that question] reminds me of a time I was not holding a crayon, but just hanging out with the kids. It was one of those days when they seemed to need to move and play act and not sit and write. I was kind of tender myself because my father had recently died, and I was sitting next to Jayden who I suspected had plenty to be tender about as well.

He was playing with the monkeys from the game Barrel of Monkeys, pretending each monkey was a telephone (duh) and taking calls from everybody in his family. Then the monkey rings and he answered and looked at me urgently and said, “Miss Nancy! It’s your dad! He wants to talk to you!””

Through this project, Kangas wants the world to see what she sees each time she steps into the classroom to work with these wee souls, from their abundant love to their deep dark fears.

“These kids love their families non-stop. They name every person on their love-planet. They have me write down every name,” she said. “Then they tell me every monster they fear. And how they will crush it, how they will shoot it down. It’s scary and real.”

To be a part of making The Preschool Poets: An Animated Film Series real, donations can be directed to Oakhouse Films site, oakhousefilms.com, or to Columbus Early Learning Centers, with a note that the funds are to go towards The Preschool Poets Film Project, columbusearlylearning.org.