Area native sets old poems to new music

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of a series of Saturday profiles of area residents and their stories. To suggest a profile, contact features editor Burton Cole at bcole@tribtoday.com.

AUSTINTOWN — One day last spring, a group of 11th-graders at Cardinal Mooney High School filed into their English language arts class, some dreading another dull day studying dusty old books.

By the end of that hour, they were dancing around their desks, clapping hands and rapping to a poem written 225 years ago by the English poet William Blake.

What set apart Blake’s classic “The Poison Tree” was the rock music that Austintown native Larry Lozier had composed for it. The moment his recording of the classic poem set to music poured out of his boom-box speakers, the students were hooked.

“First you read the poem to the students, then you play the songs,” said Lozier, a musician and guitar teacher who developed a program called “Poetry Rocks Schools.”

“We engage their emotions. Then something magical happens. They start analyzing the theme of the poem. They go into critical thinking mode, which is wonderful,” he said.

For nearly 40 years, Lozier plied his trade in the heart of New York City: He played guitar in local bands; he taught the children of New York tycoons how to play rock ‘n’ roll; he drove a limo for the Rolling Stones; he wrote songs; and he worked hard.

Always, he said, he basked in the city’s cultural riches and soaked them all in.

“I witnessed a performance of Mahler symphony at Carnegie Hall one day,” Lozier said. “I walked in feeling rushed and angry. It was raining and I was late. I walked out two hours later floating on air. It was a transcendent experience.”

The classic Anton Chekhov play “The Cherry Orchard” also inspired a cultural awakening.

“Chekov’s play is about life, about family, about how to get along and carry on. It made me realize that when we go to a concert or a play or even a sporting event, we are not merely spectators — we are creators. We create something together. That’s how great art works. That’s what we’re doing with Poetry Rocks.”

Lozier said he has always been a cultural sponge. At Austintown Fitch High School, he was part of the local rock and blues scene.

At Ohio University in Athens, he befriended an Egyptian musician from whom he absorbed African rhythms and learned instruments of the Nile River basin.

Later, at Kent State University, he met a composer who had been taught by Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky.

“He took me under his wing and taught me music composition,” Lozier said. “I studied with him on and off for eight or nine years.”

Following a brief sojourn in California, Lozier landed in New York in the early 1980s.

At first, he played jazzy guitar instrumental music and faithfully attended Catholic church services (Lozier was and is a devout Catholic). He took his boom box with him one day, set it up in the choir loft, and played lead guitar lines live to a recording he’d made earlier in the day. The parishioners loved it.

“The priest asked me to lead a high school folk group with 20 acoustic guitar players,” Lozier said. “I didn’t want to do it at first, but he talked me into it.”

That endeavor led not only to the teaching career that would sustain him for the next 30 years but also to songwriting.

“It prompted me to start writing songs and I found I had a knack for it. I could do it easily,” Lozier said. “I played my songs in New York bands, made some records on independent labels and went on the road.”

Life on the road for a rock musician is not easy, nor is it enriching. Fortunately, he had by then became well-established as a guitar teacher.

The father of a student one day gave Lozier a 900-page Norton Anthology of Poetry. He wanted to take his daughter into a recording studio and paid Lozier to turn a couple of the poems into songs for his daughter to sing.

It was a vanity project for the father, but it became Lozier’s life mission.

“I wrote the songs with my partner, Rob Nolfe, and they were good songs,” Lozier said. “Of course, the lyrics were great. We asked ourselves, ‘How can we monetize this idea? What can we do with it?’ Then, it just came to me — we could sell it to schools.”

Thus, Poetry Rocks Schools was born.

At first, they called it “The Poetry Project.” It has taken six years to evolve into the fully formed educational product they now have. Among their team of creative, technical and educational experts, Mooney teaching legend Diane Mastro Nard, developed the lesson plans at the core of the program.

Last spring, after his mother passed away, Lozier returned to Austintown, where he now resides in the family home.

He also launched Poetry Rocks Schools a year ago when the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown agreed to test the program in its Youngstown school system. It has since expanded to Trumbull County Catholic schools as well. The Warren chapter of Inspiring Minds — a free after-school and summer program serving disadvantaged youth — has recently agreed to incorporate Poetry Rocks into its summer 2020 curriculum.

Catholic school systems in Houston, Cleveland and New York are also planning to add Poetry Rocks to their literature classes. He has a website as well, www.poetryrocksschools.com.

His goal: “To put it in every school in this country and all the English-speaking countries around the world.”

Cardinal Mooney teacher Peggy Moore said, “What a great idea to connect kids’ cultural lives with poetry. Seeing a poem turned into lyrics in a song is very exciting for students.”

Lozier said that when students are moved by centuries-old classic poems put to modern music, “then they want to recreate that emotion themselves, to become creators, to collaborate with us and to interact with us. They want to know the authors of those words that made them dance — Shakespeare, Poe, Whitman, Wordsworth, Dickinson. This goes back to the lesson I learned from ‘The Cherry Orchard’ — appreciating art together is an act of creation itself.”