In poetry circles, John Reinhart describes himself as an “arsonist.” Not in a casual aside at a gathering of poets or in a murmur that could be mistaken. No, this hit-the-brakes jolt is front and center, in boldface, right at the top of his website: John Reinhart, father, poet, arsonist (home.hampshire.edu/~jcr00/reinhart.html).
Adding further wariness about him, Reinhart’s seventh collection of poems, which will be published in early May, is titled arson. The work of a recidivist, perhaps, albeit one with poetry chops? Actually, there is a rational and educational underpinning, as well as a feat of memory, involved with Reinhart’s bizarre, self-proclaimed calling.
Reinhart is finishing his 11th year as the high school humanities teacher at the Denver Waldorf School, which he attended for 14 years from kindergarten through 12th grade. Reinhart was in the eighth grade when Waldorf started its high school. Shortly before the high school came into existence, Reinhart saw a pamphlet at Waldorf that dealt with its curriculum. On the cover, Reinhart read a quote attributed to Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived in the Fifth Century B.C.: "To educate is not to fill a bucket. It is to kindle a fire."
Reinhart, now 36, had no idea the quote “would sift through all these years,” but it has because it represented an educational philosophy that still resonates with him today.
"I took that quote and thought, ‘Well, if I’m educating, I’m lighting fires,’ That makes me an arsonist," Reinhart said. "Which is much more exciting than to tell people that I teach high school English."
Reinhart admitted calling himself an arsonist might make him stand out to a small degree as a poet. But that minuscule marketing edge, he said, is dwarfed by the relationship between his arsonist interpretation and his poems.
“Of course, within the classroom, I hope that I’m lighting these fires,” Reinhart said. “But I hope, in general, my poetry does the same, and I hope it helps people see the world in a new way that they hadn’t seen it before.”
While in the eighth grade, Reinhart had two poems published but didn’t return to writing poetry until he was in his early 30s. Reinhart has three children and resolved to produce a creative project concurrent with their births.
When Mattheus, eight, was born, Reinhart compiled his grandmother’s recipes in a cookbook, which he distributed to his family. He commemorated the birth of Lucien, six, by recording his second fiddle album with his brother. And when Opal, who turns five in April, was born, Reinhart resumed writing poetry, but “I don’t know what prompted that,” he said.
Three themes in Reinhart’s poetry are science fiction, fantasy horror and a focus on his family. In “saying goodnight,” an example of the latter, Reinhart wrote:
Head / to my chest / my son / listens / "it sounds / like one of those /cars / playing music" / bass thumping /low rider / tinted windows / chrome / yeah, / that’s me."
Reinhart said the late Lucille Clifton, who was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, “is kind of an inspiration,” since she was in her late 30s with five young children when she began writing poetry. Clifton learned to keep poems in her head until getting a chance to sit and write, a technique Reinhart frequently uses.
Reinhart has had seven poetry collections published, all in the past two years: encircled, in 2016, invert the helix, Horrific Punctuation, broken bottle of time and screaming in 2017. dig it was published earlier this year.
Beyond the satisfaction of being published, Reinhart said he enjoys “trying to find new ways to express what might be mundane experiences that we go through every day. Those attempts heighten my own observation and experience, so that I think it changes the way I live in the world.”
Reinhart’s daily experiences are about to unfold far from Denver. He is the newly hired humanities teacher at the Maine Coast Waldorf School in Freeport, Maine, and he expects to be there in mid-June for a faculty retreat. It will be a busy summer as Reinhart, his wife, Coco, and their children get acclimated to new surroundings and Reinhart prepares to meet and teach new students in August.
But now, as often happens, Reinhart undoubtedly will again find poems “just floating through my head” that he’ll eventually sit down to write.
John Reinhart in his room at the Denver Waldorf School. Reinhart is the author of six books of poetry with a seventh forthcoming. Photos by Haines Eason.
Ideally, the completed poems will add to the satisfaction and joy Reinhart has derived from his body of work, pleasures he summed up with a soaring jazz reference in “sparks on windowsills,” which is included in arson.
Reinhart describes in that poem the process of putting a hole in the ceiling and then the roof to install the chimney pipe of a new wood stove. It is painstaking, dusty work, requiring insulation, crawling between rafters and beams, using a portable power saw and pounding nails. But when the job is finally done, an elated Reinhart is “feeling better than Louis Armstrong at the top of his solo at the end of the night.”
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