Because of the tornadoes, I didn’t meet with my workshop students last week. This was supposed to be my first week with a new group; instead, I met today with 11 of the 15 teens in the first group to discuss revision and talk about their plans for their final projects.

First, we talked about the tornadoes and how everyone is doing. Many students and staff at the school are among those impacted by the storm. The administrative assistant told me she only had a little damage. The principal later explained that in fact, she has drywall damage, and a high deductible on her insurance, and can’t afford the repairs. One student lives in the neighborhood I have mentioned in my other blog entries, just beyond the hospital. She is living in the house with her mother, without windows. The landlord, according to the principal, is not helping. Another staff member said the family has somewhere else to stay but the mother won’t leave, since the house is open to weather and people.

A couple of my students were there when the president visited. One student, who is white, said she was pretty sure he just wanted to be photographed with black people because of Kanye West’s accusation, after Hurricane Katrina, that the president doesn’t care about black people. She said she noticed him making sure to take photos with blacks. An African American student agreed with her but was still proud to have met the president. Some of the students agreed when we talked about my son’s observations –he does not agree with many things the administration has done, but was able to set that aside and respect President Bush’s compassion.

The students agreed that it would be hard for anyone not to be moved by the devastation, but on the whole, they felt that while it’s good to respect someone for their efforts, the president couldn’t actually feel their pain. The student who told about the photo ops said “He claimed what he saw was heavy on his heart, but if he had a tornado, he wouldn’t be dealing with this.” Others chimed in, “Yeah, he wouldn’t have plastic over his windows,” and similar comments. The kids seemed to feel that while it was all very nice to come and say how sorry he was for our losses, it wouldn’t make any difference.

I asked, after the principal mentioned that they should be writing lots of poems about all of this, whether anyone had in fact written something during the last week that they might want to share with the group. No one had a tornado poem to share, although at least one person said she was working on something related to the storm.

Sensing that the principal wanted us to get back on track, I handed out a piece on revising by Jeffrey Ethan Lee, which I found on his website:

We went over the main points he makes, and I especially cautioned them against forced rhyme, since so many poems in the workshop have had a kind of song lyric aesthetic, and against cliché and over generalization. Lee also warns his students about trite love poems.

I explained what some of the terms on Lee’s handout mean, like archaic language. There was lots of energy in the room today, and I felt like they were with me . . .

Then I asked if anyone had any poems they’d been working on or had already revised that they wanted to share. Two students were eager to read. The first poem, written by a girl who hasn’t read much of her work so far, was a love poem. Another student even asked if it was dedicated to her boyfriend, and she confirmed this. She was very emotional as she read; I wasn’t comfortable pointing out that this was just the kind of thing that defines cliché, since she was nearly in tears.

T., one of the most prolific writers, who always has several new poems to show me, asked me to read his “The Meaning of Poetry” to the group. It’s a long list poem, with all the lines starting with “Poetry is.” He put a couple of definitions of poetry from the Internet at the top as his epigraph. Here are some excerpts from his poem:

“Poetry is the arc and swish through the hoop of a far flung basketball in that last second effort to win.”

“Poetry is a song in my heart that longs to be heard.”

“Poetry is the mood I am in.”

“Poetry is the real person I am.”

Although the poem as a whole did several of the things that Lee warns students about in his revision advice, T. has come a long way from his first workshop writing two months ago, when everything rhymed and there wasn’t much imagery. I was impressed with the effort, and I am really struck by the idea that he now sees poetry as the real person he is. How could I ask for anything more from the workshops, than to find out that one of my students feels that way? And the first image is certainly perfect for March madness, not to mention an apt description. Poetry really is an arc and swish, in many ways.

I asked if there were any questions about revision, and one student asked, “How do you know where to start, since you wrote the poem and obviously, you liked it that way when you wrote it?” I suggested that distance was a good way to start – set the poem aside for a couple of days or even a week, and then try to look at it from a new perspective. We also talked about reading a poem aloud to listen for awkward words, forced rhyme, rhythmic problems, etc. I encouraged them to read each other’s work; that said, we also talked about how hard it is to take and give criticism. I also said to look for “pet” words that they use over and over.

M., who has taken over the editing of the group’s anthology after the original editor took a job that conflicts with the workshop time, said she knows she uses “soul” all the time. We talked about looking for that kind of pattern and replacing overused words here and there, saving the favorite word for places where nothing else works, or where it is especially effective.

I also pointed out that it’s natural to have a favorite word or phrase, and told a story I once read about Maxine Kumin being surprised when a student pointed out how often she used a particular word. But then I joked that if you’re a “rock star” poet like Ms. Kumin, you can do that, but until then, try to watch for overused words. I also pointed out that revisions aren’t permanent. I told the student who’d asked the question about where to begin to try rewriting and then holding the two drafts side-by-side and deciding which version was stronger and truer for her.

I also told the group about a submission I’d sent last week which was rejected with some rather curt comments only a few hours later; I re-submitted the poems after reading them over and deciding they were saying what I wanted them to, and the second editor accepted two of the poems later in the week. If you feel in your gut that the poem is good, don’t give up. They asked me how much I get paid and were dismayed when I said that often, I just get a copy of the journal where the poem is published.

The rest of our time this morning went to discussing their plans for the anthology and the reading, which are the workshop group’s final projects. They have made a lot of progress already, and M. is definitely organized. March 22 is the school’s spring parents’ night, and they’ll be reading some poems. The final reading, which will include the kids in the second series of workshops, will be in early May, just before school lets out.

M. already had a folder full of poems she’d collected for the anthology, and some preliminary plans in place for the reading. She’s not only editing, but keeping everyone on deadline and leading the discussion of how they’ll present the reading. I’m a little nervous about the fact that we hadn’t finished discussing revision and she’s already got people’s final drafts, but I also know it’s not my anthology, it’s theirs. Also, as the workshop today showed me, I can tell them what to look out for as they edit, but if they love their own words, they’re not going to change them.

My goal in leading these workshops was to get the kids thinking about poetry, read good poems with them, and give them the tools to write. Some of them have never loved any schoolwork they’ve done before, so I think it’s ok if they love their own poems. The process is more important than the product, as a sign on my desk, inspired by one of my favorite writing books, reminds me daily. (The book is Take Joy by Jane Yolen.)

We called the principal back in to get their project schedule approved. It turns out that next Friday is a student holiday, again! But I’ve got approval to start the new workshops series on Thursday so that we don’t lose another week. I asked the group to encourage their peers to take the next series of workshops. The principal pointed out that there’s plenty of interest . . . because they’ll get English credit, which they need to graduate. The group did thank me, and I invited them to come sit in on any workshops they missed. M. asked to take my picture on her phone, to show her family! She joked, “See, you’re a rock star poet, too.” God, these kids, teenagers sent to this school as a last resort, many of them with rougher lives than most people will ever have, are amazingly kind and sweet, even innocent in some ways.

All things considered, it was a good day. Many of the students are participating in post-tornado volunteer work – they are working at an aid distribution point at the fairgrounds, helping to feed firefighters who are in town to help, etc. But most of them took time to attend this wrap up session, so I am glad of that.

Next week, check back for the first workshop, “Gathering Raw Material,” with a new group of teens. I’m excited to begin, and I hope you’ll join me in following their journey, poembound.