This week’s workshop theme is taken from the title of Kenneth Koch’s book on teaching poetry writing to children: Wishes, Lies & Dreams.

I opened by telling them we’d be taking a break from the technical aspects of poetry craft today, dealing instead with the more esoteric art of reading and writing wishes, lies, and dreams.

Here’s what Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge has to say, in Poemcrazy:

“Poetry sometimes takes us not into nonsense, but beyond sense.” (Poemcrazy p. 125)

“Our feelings are often so huge or complicated we can’t express them without going beyond normal speech. That is, we can’t define them without lying. It’s exaggeration, really, hyperbole, a way of telling an emotional truth. Lying or exaggerating this way gives us freedom to communicate intense emotions.” (Poemcrazy p. 70)

“Of course I can’t lie about the facts. It’s important for me to be both real and accurate in poems . . . I need accurate description of what I see to bring the reader with me. Then, with the particulars in place, I can lie all I want to express my feelings. I can be intense and far-out.” (Poemcrazy p. 70)

You can imagine the response I had from a room full of teenagers, many of whom have been labeled with discipline problems, academic or attention disorders, etc., and others of whom are already parents. As we discussed these ideas, one girl gasped, “You’re telling us to LIE?”

Pleased that I really had their attention, I told them there is a big difference between real lies and poetic lies, and we dove right into some examples of poems that deal in the language of wishes, lies, and dreams:

“I Want to Say Your Name,” by Léopold Sédar Senghor (from Rose, Where Did You Get That Red, edited by Kenneth Koch)

“Brotherhood,” by Octavio Paz , translated by Eliot Weinberger http://www.poetrysociety.org/motion/mapsite/pimpoems/atlanta/atlanta.html scroll down

“The Minister for Exams,” by Brian Patten
http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=5921

“Geometry,” by Rita Dove
http://www.gale.com/free_resources/poets/poems/geometry.htm

“God Says Yes To Me,” by Kaylin Haught
http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/126.html

“He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” by William Butler Yeats
http://www.cise.ufl.edu/~hsiao/verse/cloths.html

I prefaced “The Minister for Exams” by joking that this was my public service message of the week, letting them know that the way you score on school exams has nothing to do with what you can do with your life. Predictably, this one elicited a huge response. As I read I looked around, and the kids were smiling, nodding, moving in their seats – this is one of the only poems I’ve read that caused a physical response. One boy said, “Man, he got the short end of the stick.” Indeed.

Before I read “God Says Yes to Me,” I told them about Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s writing that God doesn’t really fit into our concepts of male or female (I’m paraphrasing from his book, God Has a Dream). I suggested that they try to suspend whatever they picture when they hear the word God, and listen to the poem. There were some visibly agitated people. One girl said that was the coolest thing, (God is female in the poem) and another girl gasped and stared at me with her mouth open in dismay.

So, having shaken them up – neither high stakes school testing nor God are what you think they are – I asked them to really focus on wishes, lies, and dreams as they gather raw materials for poems in their journals, and to notice how reading and writing poetry helps to fine tune their emotional radar.

As those thoughts settled, we returned to Poemcrazy:

“Creating a feeling wordpool can be a form of incantation to loosen you up to tell big, fat lies.” (Poemcrazy, p. 71)

Here are some of the feelings words they put in the workshop wordpool, which I wrote on the easel paper:

alliterated disillusioned whole
distraught fearful depressed
comforted creepy contented
hurt sad agitated
cantankerous delicate intensely angry
satisfied unappreciated misled
vanished frayed broken

I asked them to take a few word tickets (see workshop week one for more on word tickets), and then read from Poemcrazy:

“Pick a feeling. Use seven or eight word tickets (along with other words) to help you define your feeling. . . Word tickets may help you get to the core of your feelings in a way you never could with conventional language. Let yourself sound crazy. Lie. Blow up your feeling.” (Poemcrazy pp. 70-71)

Several people read, or had someone else read, their poems today. I tried to copy down some lines that stood out, and then someone asked me if I was writing down the “good” lines, and I assured them I was just noticing things, not singling anyone out. Overall I was amazed at how deeply sad and pained most of the poems sounded. One girl commented, “Wow, we are all so depressed in here.”

We had discussed writing from someone else’s point of view, and another girl, who wrote an angry poem about shopping with her mom, said rather hurriedly that she didn’t really feel that way, but only after I commented that as a mom, it was really hard to listen to the deep emotional truths she touched on in her writing. I said it didn’t matter if it was her feelings or if she was just imagining the feelings, either way, expressing them in poetry is valuable and beautiful. I also told her that she had, through her poem, made it possible to talk openly about how shopping with your mom can feel when you’re a teenager.

Some lines I jotted down from different poems:

“Your annoyances roaring at me like a new violinist screeching out notes.”

“My life is a dog bowl of scraps.”

“My feelings are a can of spray that just burst out with one touch.”

“The strong soul of a poet, broken.”

One girl’s poem was about being diagnosed with ADHD. She described a cottage in the woods where she hid in her mind, taking refuge and resting in the sun where it broke through the trees. Her poem traced years of growing up knowing she was different, and then finally learning why. I was nearly in tears when she was done.

Several of the poems talked about how much it hurt not to be cared for or loved. From things the teachers have shared with me, I know that much of the emotional truth in these poems is not hyperbole.

And T., the young man who I’ve mentioned before, wrote about his poet’s soul – after just five weeks, he knows he has one.

Speaking of T., he was among the workshop participants featured on the local government access channel program produced by the school district, “Kids Under Construction.” You may recall that I mentioned some filming going on during the workshop a few weeks ago, and some of that footage was in the same episode, which aired this week.

We wrapped up the workshop today by revisiting the group’s plans for a final project. T. suggested a Poetry Café – a reading, with ambiance. He suggested candles, tablecloths, and pizza. I asked them to nominate a chairperson to keep the plans on track. Several students called out “Tf.” – she is also a very active participant, who always has much to write, enjoys reading, and offers to read for shyer workshop members.

By the time we broke up for the day, they were discussing venues, poster designs, and a bongo player who can accompany them as they read their poems. They also plan to produce and sell a workshop anthology. I suggested that since our workshops end next week – with a discussion of poetic form – I will keep the following week as open office hours at the school, for students to discuss the Poetry Café plans, meet with me individually about their writing, or whatever they need.

The week after that, I will start the workshops over for a new group of students, and I’ll keep having a brief period of office hours for the kids from the first group to continue meeting with me if they’d like. By the way, I found this page, describing the concept behind this alternative school and noting its sponsors, among which are The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: http://www.cisga.org/plc/plc_whatare.htm

I was delighted to see, as I left, that three of the workshop participants were still sitting together, reading poems out loud. It’s my hope that even as I begin working with a new group of students, this first group will make poetry a regular part of their lives.

So stay tuned – next week, we’ll be discussing poetic forms, and there will be more teens poembound in a couple of weeks!

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