The first workshop today went well. Fifteen high school students, plus my thirteen and nine year old unschooled children, participated. To begin, I gave a brief overview of what they could expect from the six-week workshop, and what they should expect of themselves. Each participant selected a journal, and I urged them to get into the habit of reading and writing daily, using the journal to collect raw material for poems – “wordpools” (more on that in a moment), diary entries, ideas, thoughts, responses to the poems they read.

Regarding first drafts, I suggested they write poems in one sitting without interrupting the creative flow with corrections. In both reading and writing poems, I asked that they remain open to the ripening of a poem in their minds, rather than forming instant judgments. Similarly, I cautioned against judging their own work too harshly, and told them their journals are a safe space for experimentation.

I also encouraged them to pay attention to the sound of poems by reading them aloud, since poetry is an art that grew out of the oral tradition. I encouraged them to make a point of looking at a poem’s dual nature as a written and spoken work.

Two volumes serve as our guidebooks for this journey through poetry: Poemcrazy by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge and The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes. Quoting from these books, I asked the group to consider why we write and read poetry – why do we need poems, as opposed to other forms of writing? Here are two fantastic quotes from Mayes:

“Old wisdom claims that all poems come from courting, praying, or fighting.” (The Discovery of Poetry, p. 8 )

and
“Like a loaf of bread – which is somehow more than flour, yeast, salt, and water – a poem is more than words, rhythm, and lines.” (ibid, p. 9)

After I tossed these ideas around for a few minutes, I shared some insights from Wooldridge:

“Poetry and freedom can’t be separated. Poetry takes us places we might never have imagined we would go. Poetry can be incendiary, revolutionary, outside bounds and rules and systems. Poetry is uncontainable, and therefore dangerous, ignoring established order.” (Poemcrazy, p. 180)

and
“Poems can also thrill and expand us. They can speak for us in ways we never knew we could speak for ourselves.” (Poemcrazy, p. 181)

I have to admit, I was expecting the kids to be visibly motivated by these ideas – this is exciting stuff to me! None of them had any comments, and I could see some eyes glazing over, so I moved rather quickly into reading poems.

I shared three poems out loud:

“Measure” by Robert Haas (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=178698),

“Poetry” by Don Paterson (http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/027.html), and

“Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins (http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/001.html).

Here are the final two stanzas of “Measure” –

“and I almost glimpse
what I was born to,
not so much in the sunlight

or the plum tree
as in the pulse
that forms these lines.”

I told the students that here was something I find thrilling: the act of creating poetry, or even just digesting someone else’s poems, could give them a glimpse of what they’re born to. Personally, I find the entire writing experience of capturing the words that are coursing through my mind, watching the poem form on the page even in its rawest form, working out the rough edges, making the thing I’ve conjured move beyond me and stand on its own, utterly amazing.

We moved into making what Wooldridge calls “wordpools” – collections of words, gathered as raw material to spark creativity and provide starting points or even whole poems. To get them started, we created a collaborative wordpool. The words they tossed out were fairly predictable: big ideas like hope, peace, love, despair; teenage touchstones like kiss, food, confused; a few interesting choices, like lollygag. I heard very few verbs and suggested they add some; they gave me stab, surrender, demand, need.

As I wrote the words down on a giant notepad for everyone to see, there was much giggling, whispering, etc. Even the more serious kids seemed to relax once I moved away from the “lecture” portion of the session into this give and take. No one had offered any comments or questions about the ideas or poems I’d presented, although I saw some smiles and glimmers of recognition as I read the poems. Next time I will solicit responses directly – when I asked for words, they gave words, so I’ll try asking more specifically for thoughts and observations, rather than assuming they know how to respond. After all, these kids have been in school for many years, where for the most part they have been asked merely to give “right” answers, not critical observations. I hope to encourage them to think for themselves, rather than accepting what I say as true or false.

We wrote a collaborative poem, using the wordpool. I reminded them that they could use as many or few wordpool words as they chose, adding other words to make phrases work, and I asked for people to call out lines of the poem, which I added to our notepad.

Here is what they wrote:

“As I think of peace,
I need to run, not eat,
I demand love instead of despair,
I lollygag through my mind to find hope,
I surrender to a kiss at the risk of being stabbed,
I can’t think about food, I can only think about love.
I heard you ask but all I heard was blah.
I am confused.

Boo.”

(the last word was my nine year old daughter’s contribution)

I pointed out that they naturally gravitated to a repetitive form, returning to “I” at the beginning of each line. I encouraged them to copy the wordpool and the poem in their journals.

I then circulated with my box of “word tickets” – something I’ve used for years, and another idea from Poemcrazy. The word tickets are a giant wordpool, a shoebox full of tickets (which I bought in a large roll at an office supply store when I first began using them) with words cut out of magazines, catalogs, etc. pasted on one side. Everyone took some tickets and they began making wordpools in their journals. Then we took time to write, and I tried to circulate a bit to make sure no one had questions or felt stuck.

When I asked if anyone wanted to share poems, I could see some people immediately withdraw a bit. Others practically jumped to their feet. A few kids read, and I was impressed with some of the vivid imagry in their poems. The first reader was a young man who’d chosen to sit alone (most kids were in groups at large tables). His mentor arrived just before he began reading. His poem was about what it would be like to break out of a cocoon. While he wrote it from the first person, I could tell he took to heart some of the ideas we’d explored about poetry dealing with themes that are bigger than just one poet’s voice.

The others, while they had some interesting use of language, were mostly fairly introspective and “angsty.” I expected this – heck, that’s what I wrote as a teen. Also, my friend who teaches at this alternative school has often said that many of the students there really need someone to talk to, and are hungry to express themselves. Several of the poems rhymed – and as expected, that created some awkward word choice and phrasing.

One girl asked me if I consider songs poetry. Without knowing exactly what she was referring to, I dodged the question somewhat. I agreed that lyrics could be poetry, and reminded them again that poetry was once chanted, sung, or recited. But I cautioned against trying so hard to make a poem rhyme that they put out the spark they started with. Based on the generally cliched “ I love/I despair/I’m going to stay strong” sorts of themes I heard in their poems, I am guessing I wouldn’t find much poetic about the lyrics she had in mind, but who knows. Maybe next time I’ll read some of Bono’s lyrics . . .

The principal had come in to hear the readings, and pointed out that she wanted people to stand up to meet the Georgia standard for “public speaking” – I had just said that if someone wanted to read, they could sit or stand, whatever made them comfortable. In order to counter the effect of feeling put on the spot, I suggested that from here on out, if people wanted to share their work but felt nervous or self-conscious, we could collect the poems and I could read some anonymously.

We talked about editing very briefly. I suggested that the most important thing to do when rewriting was to consider the importance of every word, making sure nothing unnecessary stayed in the poem, and choosing the most specific, descriptive words they could. Mayes suggests removing all the nouns, verbs, and adjectives in a poem and replacing them, in order to get away from “easy” word choices and to “wake up your language.” (The Discovery of Poetry, p. 469) When the principal asked if they had homework, I told them they could rewrite for next week or write more first drafts, and asked them to try and write something in their journals daily and read more poems. I also threw out the idea of possibly having a reading at the end of the sessions, or publishing a class anthology. There was a murmur in the room – and then the principal suggested we serve tea and cookies at the reading. Much giggling, again. Some of these kids may never have taken their own work seriously. I hope they will, through poetry.

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