This was my last week with the second workshop group. Last week I asked them to bring a poem to work on revising, with the possible goal of contributing to a workshop poetry anthology.

When we arrived today, my son pointed out that it was very quiet. One of the staff told me that attendance was very low, so I shouldn’t expect a full workshop. Six kids came, but one left a few minutes into the session and another didn’t join us until about 15 minutes after we started.

I opened with some thoughts on editing from The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes. She talks about achieving the balance we talked about a bit last week – keeping the parts of the poem that come from the heart, but making sure that you’ve made your poem as well as you can, whether that means cutting it or adding to it.

I then shared a couple of handouts – starting with Jeffrey Ethan Lee’s revision advice for his college poetry courses, which you can find here:
www.unco.edu/poetry/jeffrey.lee/html/syllabi/REDFLAGS.htm

Since the few kids I had today looked utterly bored and/or were giggling with each other, I moved quickly to the second handout, the poetry section from Weekly Reader’s Writing for Teens special issue on revision. You can find it here:
http://www.weeklyreader.com/teachers/Writing/WritingPage0405

First I shared an interview with poet Lee Bennett Hopkins about how he revises, accompanied by one of his poems in various stages of editing. The rest of the handout was a poem by a New York City teen before and after revision, with notes on how to give and receive writing critiques.

Since none of the kids brought a poem to revise, and several didn’t even have their writing journals, I suggested we try an exercise in the handout, based on the student sample. They wrote poems using the title “I Am From” as a jumping off place, and then swapped the drafts with a partner and tried asking specific things about the poems so the authors could make revisions. Or at least that was the plan.

Everyone wrote, but no one really got into the critiquing. One boy’s mentor arrived in the middle of all this, and he ended up hurriedly finishing so he could go chat with the mentor about a car he plans to buy. Really.

D. was my partner. He asked pretty good critique questions, about two lines in my poem which could be clearer.

Here’s his poem:

I Am From

I am from a place where you don’t want to go
where red cover the flour and family just say, “so”
A place where you duck and hide to look outside
and have a mean look to hide your smile

I am from a place where killing takes place when
somebody gets kill people just say it’s another day
a place where you had nothing to eat but bread and rice
and your mama did what she had to do to make sure you eat at night

I am from a place where brother had to stick together
to watch each other
a place where you don’t want to go where I
don’t want to go anymore

I’ve added a comma and quotation marks to the second line because that was where I asked him for more information; otherwise the poem is just as he wrote it. He said his uncle was shot and everyone just went on. He tried a few other ways of saying it but ended up leaving the “so.” I think that was a good choice, but I think the quotation marks really emphasize how upset he was to witness this indifference.

He told me the poem was a true story, and it happened in New Jersey, where he used to live. In his old neighborhood there, he said, if you smiled at anyone they would say you were gay, and if you looked at someone wrong, you could get shot. Then he said the police caught the killer but dropped the case, and that when people die there, nothing happens. We talked about working on the word choice but keeping the truth of the poem.

No one wanted to share any poems out loud, although a couple of the other teens showed me what they’d written.

M., a student from the first workshop group who is editing the PLC poetry anthology, came in and asked this group to get their contributions to her by next week. When I asked how the project was going she said that she’d lost some of the poems people gave her and that if they “weren’t going to be selling them” she didn’t know if it was still worth it.

You may recall that the first workshop group had big plans to have a reading, and they thought they’d print up the anthology and sell it. The reading plans fell through. M., meanwhile, had asked to receive additional credit since she was taking on the editing and I spoke to the principal on her behalf. But here she was, telling me she’d not really done the work and also that she didn’t feel particularly motivated to, since there’d be no monetary reward.

While M. was talking, most of the other kids drifted out. It was a deflating ending to the 2007 poetry workshops at the alternative high school in my town. If I continue next semester, I will ask that a) only kids who really want to participate sign up and b) they understand that they are committing to a six week workshop, once a week for an hour.

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