For an overview of the topic of this week’s poetry workshop, see workshop week 5, here:

I went in early today to set up a circle of chairs. As I said last week, because of the various interruptions and disruptions, and the fact that some of the participants are only in the workshop because they’ve been told to attend, I’d had trouble connecting with them. I wanted to try using a less formal room arrangement to see if that might foster more participation.

It certainly led to conversation before the workshop began. The results of the graduation test came out yesterday. L., who still has another year of school to go, passed. He said juniors can take the test, so if they fail they can work on it and try again. I asked the early arrivals who was graduating this year, and what their plans are. Both of the two young men I wrote about last week, who sat alone, are graduating in a few weeks. D., speaking so softly I had to lean in to hear, said he will be attending the technical college (a two year college) here in town.

J., the one who wrote about his frustration with the frivolous word pool last week, is going into the Marine Corps. He heads to boot camp in July. I told him my husband was a Marine for 7 years and that he still speaks highly of the camaraderie. I said we’d lived in Hawaii, which elicited admiring sounds from the students. When I asked if he knew where he’d be stationed, J. said he won’t find out until after Parris Island, but he hopes that he’ll be sent to Iraq, because, he said, he’s heard Marines get $3,000 a day for being in a war zone.

While I am guessing he has the particulars wrong, I asked whether students felt this was right – after pointing out that it has long been Pentagon policy that soldiers on “hazardous duty” receive extra pay. A young woman sitting beside J., wearing an Army sweatshirt, said she thinks it’s only fair, and announced, “My baby daddy in Hawaii, he gets extra because there’s volcanoes and stuff over there.” (If this is obvious, I apologize, but I didn’t know until recently: a “baby daddy” is the father of a young woman’s baby.)

When I had recovered my power of speech, I turned to N. (the athlete who has a natural feel for the sound of poetry and has shown me some very beautiful, thoughtful pieces) and explained what we were talking about – he had just come in. He immediately said that if you volunteer to join the military, you know you’re going to be in danger, and you shouldn’t get extra money.

Another girl said she thought some kids she knows don’t think beyond the money when they hear they’re going to get thousands of dollars in bonuses. She pointed out that the money is no good when you are dead. The group concurred that death is a distinct possibility these days for a new military recruit. J. laughed, and said, “Yeah, I’m maybe going to die.” I literally had chills. Not one person in the room cited military service as a way to serve the country – only as a way to get money, and to travel.

By then all the students who were going to come had joined the circle – I think there were eight or nine today. I told them parts of our conversation were related to the topic at hand: lying to tell the truth in poems, as a way to express big ideas, deep emotions, or difficult subjects.

After sharing what I mean by poetic lies – imaginative alternatives to what our minds tell us is reality, told to plumb the depths of emotional truth, we had a conversation about the idea that some emotions defy the use of conventional language. Unfortunately, this week’s headlines provide the perfect example. Saying that the massacre at Virginia Tech was “awful,” or “tragic” doesn’t come anywhere close to telling the emotional truth. Ordinary language won’t capture it. We talked for a few minutes about the shooting. I asked if they could think of any other situations where they had to “lie to tell the truth” because of the emotion involved, and one girl said right away, “When I talk to my parents.”

We brought the conversation back to poetry and I shared some of my favorite poems that employ “wishes, lies and dreams.” You can find links to them at the workshop link above.

This time I read “Geometry,” by Rita Dove; “The Minister for Exams,” by Brian Patten; “God Says Yes to Me,” by Kaylin Haught; and “I Go Back to the House for a Book,” by Billy Collins.

As with the first workshop group, Haught’s poem caused the most vivid response. She addresses God as “she,” and “her,” and we talked about how that catches readers off guard. I asked whether they thought the poet was trying to provoke; none of the girls said yes, but a couple of the boys did. In the last group, it was a girl who was most shocked by the image of a female God. I told them about Desmond Tutu’s idea that God is neither male nor female as we humans conceive gender, but is instead perhaps beyond our understanding of identity.

“The Minister of Exams,” which I joked was my anti-standardization of education lecture of the week, also got some response – most of the kids agree with my view that high stakes tests are not an accurate measure of a person. A poem about a man working at minimum wage jobs because he failed his exams actually cuts a little too close to the bone at this school. They can easily put themselves in his place, and so far in both workshops, there have been kids who visibly squirmed as I read it.

The most popular poem of the day, however, was “I Go Back to the House for a Book,” one of my own all time favorite poems. N. and L. both really loved this one, and N. said that it reminded him of how we don’t always think about what we do, or about the choices we make. I said he’d hit on the core issue in human communication – so many of us speak or act without thinking through the consequences. We’re reactive, instead of contemplative. This is something I’ve thought about a fair bit lately, as I’m a novice student of mindfulness. Nick grasped it instantly. I’m not sure whether that’s what Collins was getting at, but it’s what his poem said to N.

This is one of the best parts of the workshops – reading poems aloud and seeing where they land, how they resonate, what sort of thoughts and responses they inspire. L. was reading ahead and asked about another poem in their handout packet, “For Mohammed Zeid, of Gaza, Age 15,” by Naomi Shihab Nye. If you’re not familiar with this one, here’s the link:

I explained that this poem deals with exposing lies more than telling lies, and that poets are often at the forefront of society’s response to popular mistruths. One famous example is Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” which you can find here:

Owen exposed the “old lie,” lifted from a poem itself (one of Horace’s odes) that Britain’s WWI soldiers were somehow making a glorious sacrifice for their country. I brought it up and immediately wished I hadn’t, since they didn’t have the poem in front of them, and I now had to explain what I was talking about! And I have to admit, the way I discussed this poem was shaped by the earlier talk of J.’s potential deployment to Iraq.

What I pointed out was that Owen was able, through his poetry, to expose the horror of poison gas, and to confront the terror of the trenches, juxtaposed with patriotic propaganda back home, which was being used to encourage young men to volunteer for the front. His poem was a response to those in Britain who claimed the soldiers’ sacrifice was glorious. Owen’s experience of trench warfare showed him that war was not glorious. I explained how close the trenches were to each other, and how mustard gas was not something soldiers in earlier wars had faced.

In Nye’s poem, she speaks the truth about the misnomer, “stray bullet” – which is not stray in any sense we normally mean when we use that word. For the victim of her poem’s title, it was not stray at all. So poets can expose what others try to tell their own poetic lies about.

Next we turned to the easel paper and worked on a collective emotions wordpool. I asked that if they think about opposing forces in selecting their words, to help them get into the creative tension such words can provide. Here’s their wordpool:

emotions arrogant
sad confused
passionate smooth
courageous bashful
hate unified/unity
humility/humble bouncy
outgoing stiff
aggravated desirable
angry whack

I laid out several natural items I’d brought in to help the group form interesting imagery to use with the emotions wordpool, including shells, rocks, a small piece of driftwood, and a gum tree seed ball. More of the teens read their poems aloud, or asked me to read them aloud, than ever before with this workshop group. Whether it was the circle or the way we came together in our discussions today, I can’t say, but I’ll stay with the circle for next week.

Here are several poems from the group:

L. wrote:

The emotions in the rock is like a muggy lake,
As transparent as the mud, and outgoing as the everyday spirits.
The smooth surface of the rock, but stiff as a stick.

J. wrote:

slow, fast, run, skip, hop
jump, trot, roll, ride
fly, jog, hitchhike
it doesn’t matter how
I get there I just
want to go home

N. wrote:

Emotions and confusion

emotions are sad
emotions are passionate
emotion is confusion to the mind of one
unity and humbleness is what I desire
but emotions confuse

Js. wrote:

Confused in a world where emotions
are kept secret. Hate has turned
into love but sad all at once
passionate, humble people in
a world so stiff some
wonder if they should give
or give in or give up.
Form a life of forgiveness
trust, unity and always
look up.

D. wrote:

My emotions is going crazy like I’m angry
but I’m not angry why people won’t believe me. Only thing I need
is somebody to help me. Once you get me started I’ll
get a lil puppy. Please forgive me for being so smooth
that’s how I was raise up to never lose my cool.

We talked briefly about a reading or anthology but I sense it’s too close to the end of the school year (they get out in about a month) to interest them in a project.

After most students filed out, and I was talking to the principal about next week’s schedule, N. came back and asked me to read a poem he’d written the night before in his writing journal. He said it was written in anger, so he had to decipher a couple of words for me. It was perfect for the topic of the day – reaching beyond ordinary language to tap deep emotional truth. I had no idea he was experiencing such turbulence inside, although he was a little quieter today.

N. said that when I read the Collins poem he realized he had been trying to say the same thing. His poem was very angry and raw, and he was very hard on himself in it. When I finished reading, he said he’d had trouble in 10th and 11th grade and he was afraid now that he was going on that same path, and the poem was about his frustration. He plays baseball, but wasn’t allowed to play during those years, I gathered because of his grades. Before the workshop he was trying to finish an email to a reporter who wants to interview him about this.

I told him that the very fact of recognizing that he’s on a path at all, thinking about his life and choices, and writing about it all was something most people don’t do, and that I was very glad he’d shared the poem and the concerns with me. I encouraged him to keep writing and to continue to think and that perhaps those things would help him when he felt troubled. I didn’t write the poem down, it seemed too personal, but one line struck me because he repeated it several times, “Why am I the boy I am?”

I also told N., in all sincerity, that I am glad he is the boy he is, and I enjoy his presence in the workshop and truly hope poetry will be something he can take with him and make a part of himself. G. broke the tension then (N. shared all of this with G. & K. beside me) when he said, “Just don’t play for the Yankees.” N. immediately broke into the first real smile I’d seen from him today and said, “Nah, I hate the Yankees.”

Next week, we take a whirlwind tour of poetic forms and revisit a topic dear to my heart – contemporary haiku.