Starting this year, Director of Middle School and High School Transition Kristen Daniel will be interviewing different members of our faculty and staff in a series we're calling Friendly Chats. The interviews, which we will transcribe and publish here, take place at the opening of our weekly faculty/staff meetings. We are excited to share these interviews with you, and hope that Friendly Chats provide everyone in the Friends community the opportunity and insight to get to know the adults on campus a little better!
First to sit down with Kristen for a Friendly Chat is Anhvu Buchanan, one of our lead second-grade teachers.
K: Thank you for being our first guest! To start out, I wondered if you could say a little bit about your name.
A: My first name, Anhvu, is Vietnamese, and my last name is Buchanan. When my mom came to this country, she married an American man with the last name, Buchanan, who isn’t my father. And [they] divorced, but she decided to keep that last name because it was a time period when she was worried about racism, people looking at her differently… But then she gave me a Vietnamese first name, so I don’t know!
A story I tell my students that I’ll share with you now, is that I actually didn’t know my name was Anhvu until the sixth grade. I thought my name was Andrew, and that’s because in kindergarten, kids couldn’t say Anhvu, and it came out as Andrew. And then I went to a private, Catholic school where you just sign up with whatever name you want, so my mom signed me up as Andrew. In sixth grade I went to public school, and the night before school started, my mother comes in, hands me a piece of paper, and says, ‘Oh, they’re going to call you this tomorrow. This is actually your real name.’ And I looked at it, like, ‘What?!’ And for the first three weeks of school, I actually carried around my name because I didn’t know how to spell it... And that’s why I never get mad at students or parents or anyone for misspelling my name, because I remember how hard it was for me.
It became a weird identity thing because in middle school and high school kids say, “What do you want to go by?,” and I would always say my nickname because I was kind of embarrassed, [having to go by a Vietnamese first name]. It wasn’t until 11th grade that I made the conscious choice to ask to be called Anhvu, and that was because I found friends, Asian friends, who were like, ‘Your name’s awesome—be proud of it!’ So having those allies, that affinity group, really made me proud. But if you call my house now, my parents and family members still call me Andrew.
K: I had the pleasure of reading your published poetry over the weekend, which I really enjoyed—
A: Sorry for that!
K: It was great! You’ve published two collections: this first one is called The Disordered, and it was published in 2013. There was a line from one of the poems,
Why aren’t there milkmen anymore? And what is the hourly wage for a starting tooth fairy?
And I love that line because there’s such a sense of playfulness to it, and it made me think or maybe understand why second-graders are drawn to you… I wondered if you could just talk for a little bit about how you approach poetry with second grade.
A: I introduce it as: I have this experience with poetry, and I want to teach you different poetry tools. So each week we introduce a different tool, and I think at this age and any age, even for high school and college, model poems and mentor texts are really important. Also, imagery is really important to me. Sometimes you can just look at a picture, and use that as inspiration for poems or as a starting point for any kind of writing. In addition to tools, we introduce different forms of poetry—haiku, recipe poems, poems that the students may have never come across.
K: Poetry is very personal, so there are certain pieces that appealed to me for different reasons. I hope that you’ll read one of your favorites for us.
A: Sure. The Disordered was my thesis for grad school [an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State]. Prior to that, I was a psych major in undergrad. So this book was basically my poetic reinterpretation of a very scientific text—every poem is based on or influenced by a different psychological disorder. Some of you know that I’m a pretty bad hypochondriac, and this poem is influenced by my personal experience:
I wake up from naps bloated with broken knuckles my spine tingles when I stare at goldfish sometimes there is a pain in my side when I cook meatloaf my face is always flushed when I enter a bingo hall my throat gets sore when dogs bark at me my knees are stiff four days a week I yawn excessively though I’ve never seen anyone yawn before my legs swell up when I shower in the afternoon I lose a bit of hair riding in a taxi after board games I limp for five straight hours the tips of my toes get discolored in February I get shortness of breath eating at a salad bar my vomit is always blue I can’t stop coughing when I listen to morning radio whenever it snows I have back pains my eyes bulge anytime I’m around squirrels I twist my ankle anytime I speak in public my skin gets itchy when I sit on hardwood floors reading the Sunday paper gives me the hiccups my face twitches on birthdays I always fracture a bone after shopping in thrift stores I have difficulty swallowing food in the spring every time I blink I think I’m dying I blink at least sixteen times a minute
K: That was really fun—why do you read it that way?
A: If you notice, a lot of my poetry is in prose blocks or without punctuation. And the idea is that you’re in your mind a lot, and some of these thoughts are just never-ending. But I also like to play with language, and have people read it in different ways without punctuation having to [structure] the poem.
My other book is called Backhanded Compliments & Other Ways to Say I Love You. What got me writing poetry in the first place was high school: broken heart, listening to music, writing sad songs and poems. So this book was me seeing if I could write better love poems than I wrote in high school. And the idea is, some of these are sad love poems, some are happy, and you just have to read to see what feels right for you. This is called “Board Game Affair.”
BOARD GAME AFFAIR
like the twister that spun from your mouth and crashed into me the first time our words said hello
like the clue you hid beneath your tongue and couldn’t wait for me to discover
like the monopoly between our bodies, the slow boardwalk to and from your door, the hotels and houses aching between my fingers that I wanted to build for you
like the scrabble to find the perfect vowels to fit the perfect word to fill the perfect sentence to create a paragraph so precise that we took down the moon
like the chutes and ladders and mazes and tunnels and shafts and passages and burrows and puzzles and webs I had to crawl through to get just a little bit closer
like the battleship scars I peeled off you one by one, layer by layer
like the risk you took putting ants in your mouth to show me you cared about my poems
like the life I thought we’d have together
like the mouse trap you set up by the windows and the doors to know I would always be
by your side
like the parcheesi way you threw plates at the wall to tell me we needed to talk
like the operation we wanted to get to stitch your lips to my earor your eyes to my eyes
like the sorry! I could never quite seem to prove to you
like the way we wished perfection was something we could actually grasp
like the last time you leaned in to me and whispered yahtzee into my ear and really, truly meant it.
K: When I was reading both books over the weekend, that was one of my favorites. It felt really playful and accessible, and I think that a lot of the poems [in Backhanded Compliments] are very playful; they’re about love and relationships, and you had some exceptionally beautiful lines that spoke to me. One that I thought was really exceptional: You hand me a paddle; I hand you the creek. We listen to the shoreline, then wait for each other’s call.
I know that social justice work is important to you, and you did some work in the juvenile justice system. There is a poem in The Disordered that I’d like you to read for us, and then talk about how you came to that work with young people and what inspired you to write about the experience of someone on Death Row.
I became the witness and reported on the case and wrote about his life and detailed his crimes and followed his story as he approached execution and the paper-thin mirror between us and saw him strapped to the chair and heard the tremble in his voice and sensed his last few gulps and heard the phone call at the very last minute and observed the hope as he was saved temporarily and watched as he disappeared and then returned and strapped down again and they started and I felt his eyes roll back into his head and believed I could smell his body convulse and his mouth drooling and gasping and became my own dry mouth watching him painfully say and goodbye and finally still and still and gravely still and felt the word “dead” uttered by the prison guards and tried to scream but could only muster a spoonful of squeaks and frozen and went home and passed the time away and kept the blinds shut and hid and got angry quickly and often and stayed awake and stayed awake and nightmares and door frames and nightmares and could only stare and drift away and rub my fingers and peeling carrots and crying over the kitchen sink and again and again and nothing left to say about what I saw and what I continue to see.
I taught for an organization called Writers Corp, at the Juvenile Justice Center. And I worked with students as young as nine and as old as 18; it was the most rewarding teaching experience I’ve had, but also the most challenging. And maybe the most challenging part was that every week, I wouldn’t know who was going to be in my classroom because [my students] were getting transferred, (hopefully) getting released, or getting sent to prison. And it was that experience that changed my life, realizing the impact and the power of teaching—that experience is why I’m here.
I had one student, Kevin, who showed me what it meant to be a teacher and how I could change lives. He was the kind of student who didn’t want to write, and I never forced writing. I’d give the students prompts, I’d give them poems, and then if they didn’t want to write, they didn’t have to. And so for months, I was trying to get him to write, trying to get him to write. And then I did a lesson on odes. It was around Mother’s Day, and I came over, and Kevin had written a poem to his mom. And from that moment on, he kept writing. And that was when I knew: This is it—I want to teach, I want to help students. What was hard was that when I came back a couple of weeks later, Kevin was gone. And I had no idea—and I still have no idea—what happened to him. I just hope he’s okay. [During that time] I saw how unfair the system is: I had students who were there for eight months, just waiting for a trial—and that time was not even counted as time served. It was just gut-wrenching.
And the little things [mean something so different in juvenile hall]. Here, students lose pencils all the time. There, when a kid loses a pencil, it’s a lockdown and everyone gets strip-searched, because it could be used as a weapon.
[As for the poem], the death penalty was my worst-case scenario for my students. I had students in there for murder, and they admitted to me that they did it. It was heartbreaking, and that’s where I was reaching with that poem, the heartbreak on so many ends: for the family of the victim, for the person getting executed and their family, for the person who’s actually having to do it. There’s so many ways to experience that moment.
Those things really impacted me, and it’s always in my mind.