The subtitle of this highly entertaining and moving collection, Composing OurselvesSonnets About Teaching Composition on the U.S.-Mexico Border, tells what all of these poems are about: education, good writing, and the bicultural, bilingual community of students in Laredo, Texas. Randy Koch has recorded his experiences in the form of a diary of sonnets, or sonnet-inspired poems. By the end of the book we know a lot more about teaching, the student-teacher relationship, the pleasures of the English language and the art of writing, and the culture gap between Anglos and Hispanics than we knew going into the book. Meanwhile, the poems are a great pleasure to read. Some are funny, some sad, some worried, some joyful, all of them compassionate and most of them passionate. The author clearly cares for his students, just as he cares for the craft of communication.
Some of the poems focus on the students themselves: their troubles, domestic bruises, pregnancies, attitudes, laughter, excuses, resistance to learning, and pleasure in learning. We learn the students names and personalities as theyre presented in narrative poems that read like epiphanal short stories. Some of the stories poke fun, but overall theyre full of respect and concern.
Other poems reveal the teaching life, full of rewards and hard work and difficulty. Two of the poems show the drudgery of grading papers. The poems are autobiographical, and clearly this teacher/poet enjoys his work. Even the monotonous parts of the job become pleasure as he turns them into humorous anecdotes and adventures. A recurring motif is the teachers sidekick, a skeleton who audits every class and reminds us of the structure of good writing.
And good writing is a large part of what this poetry book is about. Randy Koch tries to sell his students on the proper use of a colon, the strength of active verbs, the value of topic sentences and outlines, and the morality of conciseness. We who read these poems are reminded of these important principles and hope his students are paying attention.
Randy Koch has worked at a stockyard, a nursing home, as an ambulance driver, and as the manager of a pool hall for teenagers. More recently hes taught English at Rochester Community College and for six years he taught Creative Writing at the federal prison there. He has been teaching developmental English , Freshman Composition, and Creative Writing at Laredo Community College for the past four years, and he is also the editor of La Fontera, a literary magazine.