After several delays, I started a new round of workshops today at an alternative public high school in my town. There were fifteen kids, many of them seniors, in the new group. I’m getting over a very bad cold/sinus infection and had a fairly low energy level, so I wasn’t sure how it would go.

I used the same material as in my earlier post for the first group, called “First week of workshops: gathering raw material,” so if you want to see the poems and quotes, refer to that, here:

As I had with the first class, I told them this week was about warming up to poetry, freeing them to play with words and experiment, and getting comfortable.

After going over what I hoped they’d do with the workshop – try to keep a journal, read and write daily, be open to new ideas and to their own writing, write first drafts freely without worrying about what the result would be like, etc. – we talked about why poetry exists, and what makes poetry necessary. I read quotes from The Discovery of Poetry and Poemcrazy and read them poems by Billy Collins, Robert Hass, and Don Paterson.

We talked about creating wordpools, and I asked them to toss out words. Their wordpool, to me, reflects the pressure they are feeling as they try to get through the graduation exam and as their final weeks of school draw to a close:


I asked them to put words together in any way to make phrases we could use to collaborate on a class poem.

They were slow in responding – there didn’t seem to be much group camaraderie, although there were some kids who seemed friendly in pairs or small groups. With some coaxing and help, we came up with:

escaping is my destiny
I’m singing my survival
success is such a stress
alone I will survive
the fantastic fiendish wigwam
of dark testing

One girl kept saying things like “I just don’t get poetry,” and “I’m no good at this.” I tried to reassure the who group that if they read something that didn’t make sense, they could actually allow that – they don’t have to “get” it the first or even the second or third time, they can simply let the words rest in their minds and take what they can from a poem, without working at understanding. I read from Poemcrazy about poems taking us “beyond sense.” (Poemcrazy, p. 125), and I emphasized that they can write in their journals without trying to get “right” answers – that in fact there are no right answers in the poetry workshops.

Next I went around with my box of word tickets and asked them to take a small handful and copy words into their journals to make wordpools, then play with the words until they made small poems. I reminded them this was an exercise in wordplay, not a time to over think or analyze, and asked them to avoid trying to rhyme, since that forces word choices they otherwise might not make.

There was a lot of talking; it seems to be very hard for teens to work silently, and to leave each other alone. They took a long time to write and play with the tickets, and I tried working with some tickets myself to keep from rushing them.

No one had comments or questions, and no one wanted to read a poem out loud. I had already announced that no one would have to read, and it was up to them, but I was sure someone would want to – there were a couple of kids in the first workshops who were always just itching to read. One girl did show me what she’d written, and then when I responded positively, said I could read her poem out loud.

Here’s the last line: “I won’t accept the darkness, but I have a passion for the light.”

Her poem was about feeling she’s on the edge of a mountain, with no help, trying to hang on without falling.

While no one else wanted to read aloud, they all wrote in their journals. The principal told me at the end of the session that at last night’s parents’ night, several kids from the first set of workshops read poems aloud. She said that almost none of the kids in this new group has ever had any exposure to poetry. They’re just weeks from graduating, and they’ve never had any poetry? She was telling me not to be discouraged if they didn’t seem very enthusiastic. I wouldn’t say they were unenthused, since they all participated, but they seemed unsure of themselves – will any of them see themselves as poets in a few weeks?

Because of delays, and hopes for the group to write enough poems that some of them feel comfortable participating in the school’s poetry reading in May, I am planning to work two weeks’ worth of imagery workshops into one next week. I want to have an open week at the end for revising and editing.