If you are looking for this week’s poembound update, check back in a week or so. Thursday night we had a tornado, so there was no school and no workshop.

I’ve just been out with my son. We had in mind trying to check on some friends, and then get over to WalMart; we also knew the president was coming and wondered if we’d be able to see him.

We spent about an hour trying to get over to WalMart and the neighborhood at that end of town where some friends live. The destructive power of the storm and the tornadoes was incredible. We wound around in the historic district and the poor areas behind the hospital, which was devastated. On the “nice” streets, i.e. the middle to upper middle class areas, there were tree services, police everywhere — including many officers from out of town who had no idea how I could get over to WalMart — and lots and lots of electric company crews. There were so many police and so many areas blocked off that we finally gave up and were about to go home, when we decided to try and go a different way. I was sure it would be blocked off, as it was the area we’d heard was most seriously damaged. To my great surprise, there was no police barricade, and no one directing traffic away. So we proceeded, cautiously.

You know what’s coming next . . . in the area behind the hospital and beyond, which is a neighborhood that was absolutely smashed, we saw power lines in the street, utility poles leaning over the street or on top of people’s cars, in yards, etc. Houses, beyond description. One house had no roof and no walls — but somehow the inside looked just as it was. The bed was even made. We saw trees that looked like they’d exploded. Pieces of metal hanging in trees. Cars smashed. A large trash can, hanging in a downed tree. Trees too big to get your arms around, uprooted. Trees on roofs, on porches, on houses, sticking out of houses. Houses that looked like they’d just crumpled. Not only no electricity here, no phone, and where water lines broke, no water.

In every street, there were neighbors walking around, people helping each other, but we saw only one utility crew, and no police. It’s hard not to make the connection that people in this neighborhood are not getting help quickly because they can’t afford it. I know from having several trees down in our own yard that it’s expensive to hire a tree service. I know the power is off, so the lines are dead, but no utility crews had even been by to get the downed lines off the street. There were wires hanging and laying everywhere. After a few minutes we realized that there was no way we were going to get through to WalMart that way either, unless we wanted to sit in the car and burn off our gas. The streets are very narrow, and there were lots of cars trying to get through. We decided it wasn’t that important and turned back.

We checked in with my husband, who said the local radio station was reporting that the president would be speaking in the parking lot of the former wellness center (now a wrecked building), so we parked near the hospital and started walking that way. We fell in with 4 young men, who were excited that the president was going to be there. We tried to turn down a street and were yelled at by a state trooper, despite the fact that three others had watched us go that way. We drifted down the side street, hoping we could turn and wind our way through. The teens began to cut through yards, but there was broken glass and debris everywhere, so my son & I stayed on the street.

We’d heard the helicopters go over, and my husband called back to say the president was reportedly on the ground. We saw some dark cars, so I said “Let’s stop, it looks like he’s coming right by.” When we turned around, the motorcade stopped. There were not many people around — I’d say less than twenty. We were right in front of the house with no walls. People began jumping out of the cars. I began to shake as we realized — holy cow, he’s getting out right here. We were literally just a few feet away. Some people went straight to him, but we kind of hung back a bit, taking photos. Then the governor saw me trying to get my son to look at me so I could take a photo with the president beyond him, and put his arm around him and said, “Come on son, you can meet him.”

A few seconds later, President Bush was shaking my son’s hand . . . . and my camera battery died. The governor teased me about that! I shook the president’s hand too. He looked directly at each person he shook hands with. I thanked him for coming, and asked him, “Please get help to our town.” He said “tough times.” I was so flustered I didn’t say it well. What I really worry about is the hospital. It’s the only one in the county, and it serves a very wide area. Of course, I was also pretty worried about what I’d seen.

The president was very gracious as he greeted people. He acted like he had all the time in the world. He hugged and kissed people, asked how they were, whether their homes were damaged. Asked if they’d been in the storm. He was also clearly aware of himself — he carried himself, for lack of a better word, presidentially. He knows he’s the man.

A few moments later, when we’d recovered a bit from the surprise, my son and I went back over to the governor and thanked him for helping us to meet the president. Then we turned around and there was our congressman, Sanford Bishop. I introduced myself, and took a moment to explain that if you went a couple of blocks past where we stood, it looked as if no crews had even been there, and there were no police, and that in the areas with the nicer houses, there were police everywhere and lots of workers. He tried to argue that there were power company trucks right across the street from us — and there were, although they were just parked there, with no crews in sight. But I asked him to go further, and see what the poorest areas were dealing with. I asked him, “Please, do what you can to make sure the poor neighborhoods get help, because they’re going to need it.” He said he would.

I have no idea whether he will, or whether he was really the person to talk to. In retrospect, maybe I should have asked the governor. All I know is that I was very upset and disheartened by what I saw, and I had to tell someone. I felt so helpless. I wish there was some way to translate all the good intentions that occur around a natural disaster to actual improvements in the lives of people who are stuck in poverty.

I know from working with students at the poetry workshops that the poor in my community face schools that give up on their kids. We have a 33% functional illiteracy rate here — 1 in 3 adults can’t read and write well enough to fill out a job application, according to a local literacy group. There are few jobs — an auto parts plant just closed recently, and it was one of the highest paying and largest employers in the area, and other companies have closed or moved away in the four years we’ve lived here. There are few options if you have only basic education, a low paying job, relatives in the area that depend on you, and no means to just pack up and move somewhere better.

Four years of living in a high poverty area has shown us that it’s easy to say that people can lift themselves out of poverty with a little help, but that it’s incredibly challenging for real people to actually do that, while also worrying about their kids, trying to find and keep a job, and dealing with all the everyday worries of life. Now, some in my community are doing all of that AND facing the prospect of having to recover from damaged homes. It’s daunting. When politicians talk about two Americas, they’re describing my town. I don’t think it’s as simple as rich — or even just economically secure — and poor, though.

Yesterday we heard a woman on the radio say she was afraid to leave her house because she thought there’d be looters. So far, there haven’t been any actual reports of looting, not on the local radio or tv stations, anyway. The reporter announced that the curfew and the extra police would help prevent trouble. I guess if you live where there’s nothing to loot, you don’t get extra help, which is why we saw so few police in the poor side of town.

What neither the reporter nor the woman who was worried about looters said is that the neighborhoods the police are trying to keep people out of are also predominantly white, besides being middle to upper middle class. The poor area behind the hospital, where the president stopped, is predominantly black. When they conversed on the radio about “people walking around who don’t need to be in this neighborhood,” it’s pretty likely that she was basing that on the fact that for some reason, they didn’t “look” like they lived there, and therefore she assumed they were up to no good.

I digress. Before he got back in the motorcade, I heard the president say “I’m glad someone’s happy.” He was talking to a woman who’d come up on foot, was dressed very humbly, and said she was glad to be alive. I felt ashamed that last night, I was so glad for my electricity, which had been restored. This woman was happy, probably without electricity. Maybe even with a damaged house. She was happy to be standing there, talking to one of the most powerful men on earth for a few moments. I’m glad he could bring her some comfort, and I really appreciate that he came here and gave of his time and his compassion today.

P.S. We made it out to some friends’ houses later today and the devastation — whole streets full of trees down, power lines tangled, etc. — was just mind boggling. People who HAVE resources and jobs and insurance and everything else are going to have a terrible time recovering. It’s amazing. The Red Cross reports over 500 houses damaged so far.

This was the final week of the first series of poetry workshops at an alternative public high school in my town. We didn’t meet last week because the school was on winter break. Today only about half the group attended. I can’t get used the fact that even though these kids signed up for the workshops, they often have other things to do. I found out that one of the most active participants, and the chair of the group’s final project, now works at a local nursing home as part of the school’s program there, and is no longer available on Friday mornings.

While I get the idea that this alternative school is trying, in many cases in a last ditch effort before the students drop out altogether, to prepare them for “real life,” I find it very odd that apparently no one has told these kids that not showing up, and not telling the person who is expecting you that you can’t be there, is not a very good way to get along in the “real world.” The principal told me point blank that some of the kids are at work now on Friday mornings, but it she didn’t tell me that ahead of time, or work out a time when more kids could be at the workshop.

I digress. Today we talked about poetic forms. I started by explaining that we would be dealing with this topic very briefly, and that I hoped to introduce them to some new forms and deal with setting the record straight about one of my favorite forms. I suggested if they wanted to know more about forms in general or a particular form, I could help them find resources.

Then I shared some thoughts from The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes:

“The poem’s form and content are interactive systems.” (Discovery of Poetry, p. 288)

We talked about the fact that most of the poems we’ve been reading and writing are in free verse – poems without a structured meter or rhyme scheme – but that free verse is a form as well. I threw out the idea of writing a poem, then writing the same ideas in another poetic form in order to really boil down what the poem is about – whatever content made it through that kind of rewrite is what would stay in the final poem, and perhaps a new form would emerge.

Mayes says, “Free verse is improvisational.” (Discovery of Poetry, p. 256) but also tells her readers, “In both free verse and metered verse, lines are as important to the poem as rungs on a ladder.” (Ibid., p. 260)

I briefly reminded them of what meter is (see workshop week four) and then talked about different kinds of stanzas.

Then I gave them a “Villanelle Map” which I found here:

I went over what a rhyme scheme is, what refrains are, and how the repetition in a villanelle is not just flat, but as Mayes explains, “Each time a repeating line reappears, it should have added significance. Rhythmically, the repetition seems to push the poem forward, like waves breaking behind waves.” (Discovery of Poetry, p. 301)

I gave them three villanelles as examples:

“The Waking” by Theodore Roethke

“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas

I read “The Waking,” asking the group to look at the villanelle map as they listened. I had been seeing some pretty blank faces, but they definitely understood better once they heard the poem. Next time I discuss villanelles, I’ll read one first, then go over the form, then read it again.

We switched gears, turning to some of my favorite poetry – haiku and related forms. I told them I chose these forms to share with them in part because I wanted to clear up the common misconceptions about haiku that most people learn in school.

I’ll tell all of you what I told the workshop, and what I say at readings: if you’ve been told that a haiku is a poem that has a certain number of syllables (say, for example, 5-7-5) in three lines, please wipe that from your memory.

If you want to know about contemporary haiku in English, I highly recommend you read any of the following excellent journals:
Modern Haiku http://www.modernhaiku.org/

bottle rockets http://www.geocities.com/bottlerockets_99/index.html

Simply Haiku http://simplyhaiku.com/

The Heron’s Nest http://www.theheronsnest.com/

Frogpond – the journal of the Haiku Society of America
http://www.hsa-haiku.org/ (the journal itself isn’t online)

Any of those sites will lead you into other sites, and you can thoroughly explore the contemporary English language haiku scene in America, and beyond.

If you teach, or work with children, or simply want to help stamp out the 5-7-5 myth and help children experience the simple beauty of haiku, I recommend reading Spring: A Haiku Story, (classic Japanese haiku translated into English), selected by George Shannon, illustrated by Malcah Zeldis. And do not miss Haiku by Patricia Donegan, which is a wonderful book about writing as well as appreciating haiku, and includes what Donegan calls “haiku activities” such as making a book, or drawing and writing together (haiga). I used some of Donegan’s selections of haiku as examples for the workshop handouts.

Now for the definition of haiku, from the Haiku Society of America:

“A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.”
See http://www.hsa-haiku.org/HSA_Definitions_2004.html for more notes on this and the other definitions I cite below.

I explained to the skeptical teens, who have heard about counting syllables since they were elementary school children, that Japanese haiku contain 17 sounds, called on, but that translators feel that only comes out to about 12 syllables or so in English. A haiku is one breath long, more or less – something I read somewhere in my haiku journey. If you have to stop for another breath as you read it out loud, you are likely not writing just the essence of the experience, as the definition says

As I do in my readings, I parsed the definition, going over each part and clarifying:

— haiku are about real experiences or memories, not imaginary situations
— they are verbal snapshots that use real images, not figurative language
— they capture the essence of the poet’s subject, with no elaboration
— they generally deal with nature or the season; many juxtapose two ideas or images to create an “Ah ha!” or an “ahhhh, yes,” sense for the reader
— the place where Japanese haiku use a kireji, or cutting word, is often marked in English haiku with punctuation or a line break; it’s the pause when you read a haiku out loud
— some English haiku, like Japanese haiku, use a season word, or kigo

I was getting some blank looks, so I read some examples from my own work, including poems from A New Resonance: Emerging Voices in English Language Haiku, v. 4, which you can find here, along with other fine haiku volumes:


We moved on to the H.S.A. definition of senryu:

“A senryu is a poem, structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way.”

Again, for more on this, you can take the link to the H.S.A. definitions page. I read some of my senryu, which I expected to garner some chuckles or nods or some response – the only one any of the teens visibly responded to was this:

Easter hymns
the flowers on her dress

Perhaps the humor in my senryu was too subtle for kids who live in a culture permeated by the sledgehammer style humor on The Comedy Channel? I’ve had outright giggles from other audiences who heard the same poems.

Anyway, sensing that I was not reaching them, I plunged on, reading the H.S.A. definition of haibun:

“A haibun is a terse, relatively short prose poem in the haikai style, usually including both lightly humorous and more serious elements. A haibun usually ends with a haiku.”

I handed out a page from Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, which you can find here:

And two of my own haibun:

“Parallel Sunsets”

“A New York State of Mind”

I read this second one aloud. Perhaps because the subject matter was something a little more familiar – the kids have probably all seen pictures of Manhattan even if they haven’t been there – they looked a little more tuned in.

I suggested we try a haiku exercise that I sometimes use, by Timothy Russell. You can see it here: http://shachihoko.homestead.com/1exercise.html

I highly recommend you go to the site and try it for yourself, but here is my overview:

Basically, this exercise is designed to help your observation skills as well as your haiku writing. You write down the month or season, and then something about the day, preferably an observation of nature or the season. The workshop group came up with:

winter cold

Then, quickly write at least ten short descriptive phrases as you look around outside or take a walk, or whatever, jotting down what you see. Some of the phrases the group came up with were:

dead grassy field
pine trees swaying
leafless tree
the smell of cold

Next, you put the initial phrase together with some of the other phrases and come up with some haiku. Here are some we wrote together:

leafless trees
a sense
of cold

winter cold

winter chill
the cold air’s
dull scent

winter cold
I look out
at wispy clouds

One of my students had his mentor in the workshop today, a senior citizen who left just after the haiku exercise. He thanked me for furthering his education! Also, he chuckled at all the senryu.

I asked the group to spend some time writing in any poetic form, other than free verse. One person asked if she could write a “shape” poem, which I explained is called concrete poetry. She called it chaos – it was a jumble of words and phrases, and she was very pleased with it. Another tried a villanelle, a lovely piece about her grandmother. Another wanted to read a poem she’d written between workshop sessions, and it was a rhyming form, in quatrains, about a person she loves – which sounded vaguely like a familiar song lyric. At least two students tried haiku or senryu. They were all too wordy, awkwardly phrased, or about love and things like that, rather than nature. I guess old habits are hard to break. I was glad they tried, and I attempted to give accurate but gentle feedback.

They gave me a status report on the reading plans – and they haven’t made much progress yet. They have a venue, but haven’t set a date, and the person who is the chair of the event is working on Friday mornings and wasn’t in the workshop today. I asked them to get more of a plan together by next week, and we talked about the anthology plans, too. They were talking about charging people who come to the reading and want to read their poems and I suggested gently that they should make this a workshop reading, since it is their final project, and if they wanted to do an open mike poetry night some other time, that would be an interesting idea. When we first began discussing the reading, we talked about it in terms of a celebration of their writing, so I’d rather they focus their energies on revising and reading their work, rather than thinking of ways to make money from the event.

All in all, it was a rough day. I didn’t feel like I connected with the kids, and as I struggled to do that, I ate up time, so they didn’t have as much time to share their work at the end. However, they are still writing, and they heard about some things they’d never considered, and some poets and poems they weren’t familiar with before, so I guess that is good.

Next week, I will be there to meet with anyone who wants to share revisions, talk about editing, or discuss the reading. The following week, a new group of teens will be poembound, as I start a new cycle of workshops.

In case any regular readers were wondering, the schools here have Friday and Monday off for winter break, so I didn’t have a workshop at this week. Stay tuned for poetic forms this Friday!

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

“Geometry,” by Rita Dove

“God Says Yes To Me,” by Kaylin Haught

“He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” by William Butler Yeats

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!

In this week’s workshop, we focused on the sound of poetry. I began with a quote from Poemcrazy:

“Many poems are written for the ear and fall somewhere between music and talk.” (Poemcrazy,p. 164)

and then went on to read another passage from Poemcrazy in which Wooldridge asserts that all of us have a natural rhythm, and that even poetry without an obvious form contains this rhythm as the author has made a conscious decision about line breaks, etc.

We then did a whirlwind tour of poetic devices which add to the sound of poetry – alliteration, which Frances Mayes tells us is older than rhyme (The Discovery of Poetry, p. 34), consonance and assonance, onomatopoeia, euphony, cacophony, repetition (including refrains and anaphora), and meter.

I did some scansion on the easel paper, using a couple of lines from Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, which we read a few weeks ago when we discussed comparison. I clapped out the iambic pentameter and asked them to tell me what the beat sounds like – one possible answer is a heartbeat, which was their immediate response. I enjoy the look of recognition on the students’ faces when we can relate what they previously thought of as rather old fashioned or stuffy to something they know, something very human and real. It’s as if the “stuff” on the page comes alive for them, and the looks on their faces is much like the look a toddler has when she first discovers something new.

We talked about consciously using sound to create atmosphere, to illuminate the subject of their poems the same way that music or sound effects deepen, enlarge, or otherwise enhance a scene in a film or a play. Again, it was lovely, as we covered the somewhat dry, textbook terminology, to see them light up as we made a connection to something they know – these writing techniques help make the “soundtrack” of a poem.

We also talked about the obvious musical connections – a refrain is like the chorus of a song, meter is like the beat, a foot in metrical poetry is like a measure or bar of music, and a change or variation in meter is like syncopation or counterpoint in music.

Before I read some examples of poems that amplified (couldn’t resist the pun) these sound techniques, I asked them to listen to the sound of the poems. And this week, I deliberately chose some poems I suspected they have read before, so that the focus could be on the sound. Of course, I also chose some of my own favorites, in order to expand their poetry “life lists” – there is so much good poetry that never reaches students, but that they really relate to and respond to enthusiastically!

This week’s poems:

“A Very Valentine” by Gertrude Stein

“Samurai Song” by Robert Pinsky

“My People” by Langston Hughes

“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

“Ditty of First Desire” by Federico Garcia Lorca

“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

“We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks

“Let Evening Come” by Jane Kenyon

“Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

and I read one of my own poems, “The Nearness of You,” published in Spire in spring 2005:

The Nearness of You

I wake up with
trees wet on one side,
the small sound
of your breath on
my pillow before
anyone else gets up.

In this lightness,
I imagine there is
no world, shocked,
stunned, crying.

There is only oak,
pine, mossy boulder,
wren-song singing
the nearness of you.

As we read, I asked what they heard and pointed out things I heard. The superintendent happened to be at the school today, and he came in toward the end of “Ditty of First Desire” and stayed for a few minutes, leaving as I was launching into “The Raven.” The kids seemed not to mind the disruption, although one of them asked the principal before we started if the superintendent could “close us down” if he didn’t like what he saw. She said no . . .

Most of the students had heard “We Real Cool” before and several mentioned what a “cool” poem it is. I pointed out the way the form and the sound of the poem create an atmosphere and a tension, and suggested they try to write a poem in their journals some time in which they limit themselves to short lines in two line stanzas, so see what they come up with. We also talked about the sort of reverse anaphora in the poem – usually in poetry, anaphora refers to the first word in the line repeating, but Brooks repeats the last word in the all but one line.

The other poems that garnered the most response were “Samurai Song,” which everyone liked – it’s a powerful, mantra-like piece that is perfect for a teenager facing the world – and “The Raven,” which elicited giggles and questions about whether it was Lenore at the door. I told them they’d have to read the whole thing to find out (I’d only read the first three stanzas). We talked about how once again, here was an old fashioned poem, but it dealt with a subject we could all imagine – you’re in your room reading and there’s a sound, and you scare yourself out of your wits imagining who or what is out there.

So, with our ears full of poems, we set about making a sound wordpool. I suggested we could pick a theme and call out words that “sound” like the theme or we could just write down words that they like the sound of. They opted for the second idea.

Here is a partial list of their sound wordpool:

cranberry click oat
bubble compadre dictum
butterfat pacem crumb
kiss dolphin dazzle
chocolate gelatinous whirlpool
beat fille droop
waddle cheese foil

After we began, one student asked if she could use a dictionary to get ideas, which is where “dictum” came from. Someone suggested “hola” and I asked for more foreign words – we had several suggestions, from Japanese, Spanish, German, Latin, and French.

I asked that they try to write poems using the wordpool. Only two of the students (the two who read their work every week and seem to take themselves most seriously as poets) wrote poems that were serious and meant to make sense. The others all played with the words and made more nonsense-like poems. I told them that they reminded me of “Jabberwocky” and read a little snippet:

and I also suggested they read some Edward Lear

Here is my nine-year-old daughter’s poem:

Mud bubbles and trois
on toast
in the sand
on a baseball bat
on a boat
in a pit
in the sand.

Before we wrapped up I asked the group to begin thinking seriously about an end of workshop project. The first suggestion, which the others all enthusiastically cheered, was to have a party. I suggested a poetry reading, and they took off with that idea for a few minutes. There was some talk of inviting “everyone,” so I think I’ll suggest they put an announcement in the community events section of the newspaper. I also suggested an anthology of student work.

I proposed that next week they be ready to vote on their decision – anthology, reading, some other project, or a combination of these. I also mentioned that they should plan to take a couple of weeks after our last workshop to get their poems revised, rehearse, etc. We also talked about their choosing an editor to organize and set deadlines. So I am hopeful that next week their brainstorming will gel into a plan. I emphasized that I will be happy to serve as an advisor, but the project is theirs to plan and carry out.

There were several people absent again. Some were out sick, but a few were working on what the principal called “remedial graduation testing practice.” Sounds nasty, doesn’t it? But that phrase has great cacophony, anyway. So I asked them to share what we’d discussed with anyone who was not in the workshop today, which they have been doing all along. I admire that about this alternative school – the teachers and principal encourage the students to support each other’s efforts, and the principal said she has definitely overheard kids telling each other about past workshops.

The principal asked me to consider repeating the workshops for another group of kids. I’m glad that she wants me to come back, and I’d love the chance to continue sharing poetry, and to meet more of the students. She also told me that T., who you can read more about in the Week 2 workshop post, went with his mentor to the Rotary Club this week. As part of his presentation, he read one of his poems. He then spoke about attaining goals. She told me he had no confidence before, and said the poetry workshops have transformed him. How could I not go back and reach even more kids, with that kind of feedback?

I told my current group to consider whether they’d like to continue working on poetry after the workshops end, and I’m thinking I’ll ask the principal to announce that I have “office hours” after the workshops for those continuing students who want to come and talk with me about their work. Another idea would be to schedule a critique group, but I think some of the kids in my current group are more likely to discuss their writing with me rather than read it in front of the group.

Next week’s workshop is called “Wishes, Lies, and Dreams,” which is also the title of a book by Kenneth Koch on teaching young people poetry writing.

Today I came up against the “Trouble With School,” in a couple of ways. First, when I arrived for my 10am workshop about ten minutes early, I started copying my handouts and the principal said I’d need fewer copies because it was “senior skip day.” This student-organized event was causing much strategizing among the staff. When I arrived, the place was abuzz with talk of who had skipped; as I left the building over an hour later, the principal and some staff were finalizing their stance: any student who hadn’t shown up to school by lunch would not be allowed to come on Monday, either. My thirteen year old, G., thought that sounded like a good deal, but I explained that I was pretty sure kids with more than the allowable number of absences couldn’t advance to the next grade or graduate, or were otherwise penalized.

Anyway, we got the workshop underway a few minutes late today, due to the general confusion over how many kids were actually planning to be there. Today’s topic was imagery. Last week we focused entirely on figurative imagery, and today we worked with literal imagery as well, and the way the two can work together in a poem.

To start everyone thinking about imagery, I shared some thoughts from The Discovery of Poetry, by Frances Mayes, and Poemcrazy, by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge:

“The Spanish writer Juan Ramon Jimenez said, ‘I want my word to be the thing itself, created by my soul a second time.’” (The Discovery of Poetry p. 72)


“Through images we enter the imagination, a doorway to the divine.” (Poemcrazy p. 149)

We also discussed the difference between “showing” and “telling.” I read some examples from The Discovery of Poetry, where Mayes wrote a plain sentence (tell) beside an image that showed the same thing in richer detail (show). After I’d read a few, I asked them to close their eyes and picture a “show” example by Mona Van Duyn:

“You stood at the dresser, put your
teeth away,
washed your face, smoothed on
Oil of Olay.” (The Discovery of Poetry p. 65)

When I asked what the “tell” version of this might be, several students called out that it’s a description of an old woman getting ready for bed. I asked them to keep the ideas we’d discussed about “showing versus telling” in mind as I read some poems that have wonderful imagery, both figurative and literal:

“Nantucket” by William Carlos Williams

“In the Evening,” by Billy Collins (from The Trouble With Poetry)

“Trees in the Garden,” by D.H. Lawrence

“This Is Just to Say,” and “Between Walls” by William Carlos Williams http://www.favoritepoem.org/poems/williams/index.html

http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/programs/2007/01/01/ (scroll down to Jan 3)

“Preludes” by T.S. Eliot http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_2/eliot_preludes.html

“The Runner” by Walt Whitman

“What the Dog Perhaps Hears” by Lisel Mueller

and one of my own poems, “A Prayer to See With Clarity”

Between poems, I pointed out imagery and tried to encourage the group to chat with me about what struck them. As in past weeks, I found that people were slow to get started, or perhaps just reluctant to comment, so I moved on quickly to some collaborative exercises, which they seem to enjoy.

I wrote a few “tell” statements on the easel paper, and asked them to toss out “show” examples for those same statements. My “tell” sentences were: “The boy ran.” “It was raining.” “It was a noisy night.” and “A woman crossed the street.” They came up with ways to show the same things with imagery. For crossing the street, the group suggested something like, “The old lady moved anxiously into traffic in her slow wheelchair, hoping to avoid a direct collision.” Their description of the noisy night was along the lines of, “The old lady stood at her window and saw the police finally arrive to respond to her complaint about the noise across the street.” Old ladies, accidents or violence, and conflict seem to come up during every workshop.

Next I asked them to look at any of a number of objects I brought and put on a table in the middle of the room. I suggested they choose an object, write figurative imagery first, and then literal descriptions of the same object. Here’s what they could choose from: a satin embroidered bag from Chinatown in NYC; a small piece of driftwood; an unusually large lump of beach glass I found in Greece; a very strange piece of shell, which I found on Hilton Head Island, that is covered in small holes and is worn smooth all over; a piece of unprocessed cotton from a living history museum in Lumpkin, Georgia; a couple of rocks with holes all the way through; and a woven rattan ball my husband got in Thailand, which is used for a type of volleyball game that’s played with the feet instead of hands. I invited them to come up and take an object and really look at it, touch it, etc.

Only about half the kids seemed to get into this exercise; although most of them appeared to be writing in their journals, only one or two touched any of the objects and only one took something back to her desk (the rattan ball). After a few minutes I asked if anyone wanted to know more about any of the objects. Someone asked whether the large lump of beach glass was from a lightening strike in the sand – which I thought was an interesting hypothesis. They all wanted to know more about the ball. One girl asked me about the strange shell fragment, and why I picked it up. I explained that I often look for things like that when I travel, to take home and put in a bowl on my writing desk. She said, “I wish you were my mom.”

Everyone returned to writing for a few more minutes. As soon as I could see that most people had finished, I asked them to write a poem inspired by one of their images. In a fairly short time, I could see most people were chatting instead of writing.

The principal had already been through to ask that they read their poems aloud, and I wanted to be sure to encourage them without making anyone feel forced to read. I suggested that if they weren’t prepared to read a first draft of a poem, they could share some of their images. The girl who wrote about the rattan ball read her imagery. She read too quickly for me to note every image, but I especially liked something she wrote about the sky slipping through the spaces in the weave. She did ask me if the imagery was “right” and I told the group that there is no right answer to any of the exercises or writing prompts. This seems intuitively obvious to me but I am reminded every week that this freedom of expression is new to the students.

All of the poems that students read aloud today were about things going on in their lives. I am delighted that the kids are writing throughout the week, and I’m glad they are not feeling constrained in any way by the concepts I’m introducing – no one feels obliged to write about a lump of beach glass if what’s on their minds is an abusive stepmother.

Honestly, I thought the poem someone read about her stepmother was about a boyfriend; I lamented later to my friend L. that most of the poems, once again, were “I loved and I was wronged,” types of work, whereas last week I felt like I’d made progress in helping them to see other poetic subjects besides themselves. The principal told me that the poem I was thinking of was about the girl’s terrible home life. She and L. said they are thankful that the writing workshops provide a forum for sharing these experiences, because the kids at this school are so overwhelmed by their lives that they need to purge their feelings via their writing.

I’m not sure how I feel about the workshops serving that purpose. It’s not that I don’t want the kids to find emotional comfort in poetry, and I am happy they feel comfortable enough with each other and me to share some really “heavy” stuff. L. told me before the workshops began how badly these students need to express the frustrations and hurts they are dealing with, but I realized today that I wasn’t really prepared to respond to this, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be. I think I saw a chance to give them something else to write about, something else to think about, an alternative outlet in which they could perhaps channel their pain but not just by purging it in raw form on the page.

And I think they are building up a store of writing techniques and poetic devices. It’s good to hear some of the things we’ve discussed in their work – figurative imagery, literal imagery, less rhyme, etc. So, while I am glad that poetry offers a therapeutic outlet, I’m there to encourage good writing, and I feel like that’s what I have to offer – suggestions, examples, exercises for improving their poetry craft. As they read today, the principal kept commenting on the way the poems were shedding light on their lives, but I tried to make specific note of the writing, the imagery, the sound of the poem, or some other aesthetic aspect of the work, rather than the subject matter.

Which brings me to today’s second “Trouble With School:” I have repeatedly said that the kids can decide individually whether to read or not read, sit or stand when they read, and that no one should feel pressured to read in the workshop. At the end of today’s session, the principal came back in and repeated that she “need(s) everyone to read for my gratification.” She went on to say they had to stand up because there is a state standard. I interrupted at this point and reiterated that no one had to read, especially not a first draft, and that it was ok to work on poems until you were really satisfied with them before reading aloud to the group. I also asked if the state standards writers had ever seen a congressional hearing, where all the speakers are seated. She defended the standard by saying it’s about performance, and about students having confidence to perform in front of a group. We were both good natured, but I had no intention of backing down. When she left the room I told the students that I am a volunteer, not working for the state, and that I am not comfortable asking people to perform, when our work together is about writing.

The students seemed mostly amused by the different views. I am pretty sure I crossed some kind of line, in terms of showing them that I am not interested in the school way of doing things. Earlier in the workshop, I mentioned haiku very briefly as an example of a type of poetry that is created with literal imagery. I said we’d get into haiku in more detail in a later workshop, but that I wanted them to forget what they’ve learned about counting syllables. They were all dismayed that the old 5-7-5 might be unnecessary, and one girl went so far as to say, “I feel so ignorant that I didn’t know that.” I said, almost without thinking, that it wasn’t her fault; it was just one example of a lie their teachers told them. My son noted later that they really perked up at this. There was, in fact, an audible buzz for several moments. I need to make clear next time that teachers are victims of the lie too, because someone told them to teach haiku that way, or they were taught the syllable counting themselves when they were young.

After the workshop, I did speak with the principal about the reading aloud issue; I emphasized that I am there to encourage writing, not to force people to get up and read, and that some of the work is still in progress during the workshop. Some kids are very willing to read – in fact, one girl asked me before we began if we’d be making time for that again today, because she brought something to share – but others are clearly uncomfortable. I told her I wasn’t trying to contradict her in front of the group, but that I really didn’t want anyone feeling pressured or deciding not to come back to the workshop for fear of being put on the spot, because I’d rather they concentrate on writing.

We had an amiable exchange about this, but she didn’t really get it, because she said she thought it was a “good cop, bad cop” kind of thing and that she was entirely on “my side.” I was relieved there were no bad feelings, but I hope she could see that there is no “my side” in this situation, but the kids’ side – I told her before I began that I was volunteering in order to share what I know and love about poetry, and to nurture creativity, not to test or measure the kids, and she agreed to my running the workshop in whatever way I thought best. I understand she is coming at this from an entirely different perspective, one of “What kind of credit can I give for this? How can we meet state mandated standards? How can I measure progress?” But I wanted to be clear with her that those things are not of any interest to me, especially if they impede any of the students from participating in the workshops, and that I would prefer that her application of these external controls occur outside of the workshops.

Next week – the sound of poetry. And perhaps more culture clashes . . .

This morning was the second week of a six-week poetry workshop I am leading at an alternative public high in my town. I had two new students join us today, which was a pleasant indication of the way the first week had gone over with the kids.

Our topic this week was figurative language. We again used some wonderful explanation and examples from Frances Mayes’ book, The Discovery of Poetry. She notes that figurative language is embedded in our everyday speech — from using similes (albeit clichés) like “slow as molasses” in our conversations, and even in the names of things, like “legs” for the supports that hold up tables, “face” for the front of a clock or watch, etc. Someone in the mists of time made a conscious choice of these terms, describing new things in terms of known things. (Discovery of Poetry, pp. 82-83 and 97)

As we compared literal imagery (a snapshot in words) to figurative imagery (description of something in terms of another thing), I showed them what I meant by describing a tired person, first literally: drooping head, limp arms, eyes closing, slumped posture; then figuratively: a person who is “dog tired.” This, of course, is a cliché. I asked them to try to avoid cliché in their own poems, and asked if anyone could think of a fresh, figurative way to describe tiredness. Based on body language I observed, I hoped tiredness was a state these kids are so familiar with, they’d be full of new ideas. But this request for ideas came only a few minutes into the workshop, and I was faced with a wall of blank faces. So I gave them a couple of my own ideas: a person as tired as a spawning salmon, or tired like over-cooked spaghetti. Some smiles — they were listening, certainly, but weren’t quite ready to open up and share, yet.

To explain the difference in strength between similes and metaphors I explained that they come from different roots: simile from a Latin word for similar, and metaphor from Greek roots that mean “to transfer.” Again, this is beautiful explanation from Mayes. She tells readers that Shakespeare says Juliet is the sun. He doesn’t say “like the sun.” Using metaphor instead of simile, he emphasizes that Juliet’s nature is utterly unlike that of other women, as well as being sun-like. There is only one sun (well, in Shakespeare’s times, anyway, only one known), Mayes explains, and Juliet is the only woman who is the sun. (Discovery of Poetry, p. 83 & p. 86)

I briefly described a couple of other types of figurative language they could try to look for in poems and write in their own: personification, which I knew they’d heard about in English classes before; and synesthesia, which is the description of a sense in ways usually used to describe another sense. An example, by May Swenson:

“I know the seven fragrances of the rainbow.” (Discovery of Poetry, p. 92)

I asked the group to listen for figurative images that struck them as particularly powerful or interesting and note them in their journals as I read some poems aloud. This week I chose more poems, because I wanted to spend more time showing them good examples. Here are the poems I read aloud:

“Harlem” by Langston Hughes (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=175884)

“The Magnificent Bull,” a Dinka poem found in Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? by Kenneth Koch, a book about teaching poetry which includes a small anthology (more on the Dinka here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinka)

“Song” by Robert Pinsky, found in his collection Jersey Rain

“Sonnet 18” by Shakespeare (http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15555)

“Indian Cooking” by Moniza Alvi from an anthology my brother got me in London, New Poems On the Underground 2006, which is a collection of work included in the public poetry project Poems On the Underground

“Separation” by W.S. Merwin, also from New Poems on the Underground 2006

“On Swimming” by Adam Zagajewski, from the anthology Poetry 180, edited by Billy Collins

“The Boy” by Ranier Marie Rilke, from Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?

I asked if anyone had an image that they particularly liked, and got a variety of responses. I was pleased to hear that they seemed to enjoy poems from different periods, not only the most contemporary. As I read, I also pointed out my favorite imagery in the poems.

We talked about training our eyes to see things differently, and I suggested an exercise Kenneth Koch uses in Wishes, Lies and Dreams, his book about teaching poetry writing. He asks kids to hold their hands up in front of their eyes and see things through their fingers (Wishes, Lies, and Dreams, p. 104). In this way they can see, as Koch describes, that the sky now seems as big as their hands. I asked the students to try that, looking out the windows of the room we were in, and suggested two other ways of trying to see things in new ways: cut a viewfinder of any size and shape out of a note card, and use it as a visual artist would, to frame the view. Describe things in the new way they appear. Or, trace a dime on a piece of paper and cut out that small hole. Describe what you see though this focused view.

Next I asked them to try some simile and metaphor brainstorming, using a handout from Discovery of Poetry (p. 96) and another, written by Linnea Johnson, from The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. (pp.42-43). In both exercises, the poets wrote part of a figurative image and left the other part blank — the students are invited to fill in the other portion of the comparison. I told them they had just a few minutes and I wanted them to be as spontaneous as possible, suppressing the urge to think a comparison through too much, and instead just capturing the first thing that jumped into their minds. I asked that they turn the papers over when they finished, so they couldn’t go back and “rethink” — again, to capture their initial creativity, un-retouched.

I ended up giving them a few extra minutes inadvertently, because a teacher (my friend L. , who got me interested in volunteering) is filming the work of the alternative program with a student, and he asked me to speak spontaneously on camera about why I am doing poetry workshops. We did a few “takes” and then he asked if I had anything else to read to the group, because he had missed filming that.

I realized I’d intended to read them one of my own published poems — as I explained to my thirteen-year-old son, G., who teased that I was showing off, that I wanted to have some credibility with the students. I wasn’t sure they viewed me as a “real” poet, so I wanted to read a poem of mine from a journal. I chose “From Dust,” published a couple of years ago in Thirsty Magazine. You can see it here: http://www.thirstymagazine.com/Issue1.htm

We moved into another imagery exercise, which I had to improvise a bit. I asked them to look at three objects without thinking about what they really are in a literal sense, and describe them figuratively. I had every intention of bringing three objects from my desk, all things I’ve found over the years in nature. But I forgot my found items, so I chose three things in the room: a tangerine from the principal’s desk; a glass candy dish lid with an interesting pattern; and a flat, piece of pottery, irregularly shaped, and fired in a light terra cotta colored glaze. I asked them to call out what the item I held up “looks like” — an exercise from Poemcrazy, by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge. On a large, easel-sized tablet, I had written: “I see _________, It looks like _________,” and as they called things out, I jotted them down in the “It looks like” section. Then I wrote what the object really was in the “I see” part.

They came up with interesting things, like the tangerine looking like happiness, or a car crash; the glass lid looking like the top of a person’s head; and the flat piece of pottery looking like sand on a beach, or part of a map.

L. taped some of this group exercise too, and then I asked the group to turn to writing poems, using an image they loved as a jumping of point, either from one of the poems they heard, from one of the handouts they completed, or from our group imagery generating. I asked them to try not to rhyme this week, in order to concentrate more on the imagery and less on the rhyming words. I pointed out that I was going to walk around to be available, not to read over their shoulders, and that they should just call me over if they wanted to discuss anything.

Right away, a boy called me over. He was the first to read last week, and seemed to be not only enthusiastic about writing, but also about really applying what we had been discussing. Today, he asked if I’d look at a poem he’d worked on during the week. L. came over and taped us as we talked. He’d written a draft in his journal, and typed the later draft. His poem was really something — a prose poem, about his confusion, his attempts to figure out what’s true, what’s worth believing in, and how to live if you take on those beliefs. I read it silently, and then told him the story of Bono presenting lyrics to B.B. King (when U2 wrote a song for him, called “When Love Came to Town,”). B.B. King’s reaction was, “You’re kind of young to write such heavy lyrics.” (U2 by U2, p. 197). We talked a little bit about the Big Ideas, the heavy stuff, in the poem, about the form he chose, and about the imagery. I asked him how he felt about the poem, whether it helped him work through his confusion (he told me that was what inspired the poem — confusion), and how he’d worked on word choice in the subsequent draft. I encouraged him to continue editing and typing up his poems — he had written several in his journal during the week — and asked if there is a literary magazine in the school system. There isn’t . . .

All of the students seemed to be writing in their journals, so I was glad that everyone felt like participating. One girl, a new workshop participant (and, the principal told me, a new mother as well), asked me how to word something she was picturing – we talked through some possible ways of getting it down, and I asked everyone to consider writing what they see in their minds more than one way to choose the strongest imagery. Several kids had written poems during the week as well. When everyone was done writing drafts today, I talked to them about the possibilities for a final project at the end of six weeks — such as an anthology or a reading, or both. I also pointed out that they could start a literary journal, either in print or online, and solicit work from their peers in the school system. The principal gave them the url of a blog that another alternative high school program in Georgia uses to publish their writing.

Then I asked if anyone wanted to read, or wanted me to read (I offered to collect a variety of journals and read in such a way that no one would know who wrote which poem). A couple of the same kids who read last week chose to read again. I need to work on making sure that other kids also take a chance. I tried to jot down figurative images that I heard in the poems. I don’t always catch everything – my northern ears don’t always make the translation smoothly, and there is also some local “dialect” I don’t always catch. But here are some images that struck me:

One boy read a poem with the moon as a metaphor for his hopes, and carried it through the poem — a bit of moon, a full moon, etc. A girl who read her poem from today as well as a poem from during the week used some strong metaphors and similes: “my heart was the moon,” “broken like split ends,” “I was a bicyclist.” Another boy wrote an entire poem of comparisons to “rotten meat” – an image from “Harlem” by Langston Hughes. His images were more literal, but included last week’s tuna casserole from his grandma and a soiled diaper that had been around for a few days. Hmm . . .

We closed with a few more thoughts on editing, and the possibility of having a critique group, eventually. Next week, we’ll talk more about imagery, especially in terms of adding sensory detail to bring their poems alive.

The first workshop today went well. Fifteen high school students, plus my thirteen and nine year old unschooled children, participated. To begin, I gave a brief overview of what they could expect from the six-week workshop, and what they should expect of themselves. Each participant selected a journal, and I urged them to get into the habit of reading and writing daily, using the journal to collect raw material for poems – “wordpools” (more on that in a moment), diary entries, ideas, thoughts, responses to the poems they read.

Regarding first drafts, I suggested they write poems in one sitting without interrupting the creative flow with corrections. In both reading and writing poems, I asked that they remain open to the ripening of a poem in their minds, rather than forming instant judgments. Similarly, I cautioned against judging their own work too harshly, and told them their journals are a safe space for experimentation.

I also encouraged them to pay attention to the sound of poems by reading them aloud, since poetry is an art that grew out of the oral tradition. I encouraged them to make a point of looking at a poem’s dual nature as a written and spoken work.

Two volumes serve as our guidebooks for this journey through poetry: Poemcrazy by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge and The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes. Quoting from these books, I asked the group to consider why we write and read poetry – why do we need poems, as opposed to other forms of writing? Here are two fantastic quotes from Mayes:

“Old wisdom claims that all poems come from courting, praying, or fighting.” (The Discovery of Poetry, p. 8 )

“Like a loaf of bread – which is somehow more than flour, yeast, salt, and water – a poem is more than words, rhythm, and lines.” (ibid, p. 9)

After I tossed these ideas around for a few minutes, I shared some insights from Wooldridge:

“Poetry and freedom can’t be separated. Poetry takes us places we might never have imagined we would go. Poetry can be incendiary, revolutionary, outside bounds and rules and systems. Poetry is uncontainable, and therefore dangerous, ignoring established order.” (Poemcrazy, p. 180)

“Poems can also thrill and expand us. They can speak for us in ways we never knew we could speak for ourselves.” (Poemcrazy, p. 181)

I have to admit, I was expecting the kids to be visibly motivated by these ideas – this is exciting stuff to me! None of them had any comments, and I could see some eyes glazing over, so I moved rather quickly into reading poems.

I shared three poems out loud:

“Measure” by Robert Haas (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=178698),

“Poetry” by Don Paterson (http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/027.html), and

“Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins (http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/001.html).

Here are the final two stanzas of “Measure” –

“and I almost glimpse
what I was born to,
not so much in the sunlight

or the plum tree
as in the pulse
that forms these lines.”

I told the students that here was something I find thrilling: the act of creating poetry, or even just digesting someone else’s poems, could give them a glimpse of what they’re born to. Personally, I find the entire writing experience of capturing the words that are coursing through my mind, watching the poem form on the page even in its rawest form, working out the rough edges, making the thing I’ve conjured move beyond me and stand on its own, utterly amazing.

We moved into making what Wooldridge calls “wordpools” – collections of words, gathered as raw material to spark creativity and provide starting points or even whole poems. To get them started, we created a collaborative wordpool. The words they tossed out were fairly predictable: big ideas like hope, peace, love, despair; teenage touchstones like kiss, food, confused; a few interesting choices, like lollygag. I heard very few verbs and suggested they add some; they gave me stab, surrender, demand, need.

As I wrote the words down on a giant notepad for everyone to see, there was much giggling, whispering, etc. Even the more serious kids seemed to relax once I moved away from the “lecture” portion of the session into this give and take. No one had offered any comments or questions about the ideas or poems I’d presented, although I saw some smiles and glimmers of recognition as I read the poems. Next time I will solicit responses directly – when I asked for words, they gave words, so I’ll try asking more specifically for thoughts and observations, rather than assuming they know how to respond. After all, these kids have been in school for many years, where for the most part they have been asked merely to give “right” answers, not critical observations. I hope to encourage them to think for themselves, rather than accepting what I say as true or false.

We wrote a collaborative poem, using the wordpool. I reminded them that they could use as many or few wordpool words as they chose, adding other words to make phrases work, and I asked for people to call out lines of the poem, which I added to our notepad.

Here is what they wrote:

“As I think of peace,
I need to run, not eat,
I demand love instead of despair,
I lollygag through my mind to find hope,
I surrender to a kiss at the risk of being stabbed,
I can’t think about food, I can only think about love.
I heard you ask but all I heard was blah.
I am confused.


(the last word was my nine year old daughter’s contribution)

I pointed out that they naturally gravitated to a repetitive form, returning to “I” at the beginning of each line. I encouraged them to copy the wordpool and the poem in their journals.

I then circulated with my box of “word tickets” – something I’ve used for years, and another idea from Poemcrazy. The word tickets are a giant wordpool, a shoebox full of tickets (which I bought in a large roll at an office supply store when I first began using them) with words cut out of magazines, catalogs, etc. pasted on one side. Everyone took some tickets and they began making wordpools in their journals. Then we took time to write, and I tried to circulate a bit to make sure no one had questions or felt stuck.

When I asked if anyone wanted to share poems, I could see some people immediately withdraw a bit. Others practically jumped to their feet. A few kids read, and I was impressed with some of the vivid imagry in their poems. The first reader was a young man who’d chosen to sit alone (most kids were in groups at large tables). His mentor arrived just before he began reading. His poem was about what it would be like to break out of a cocoon. While he wrote it from the first person, I could tell he took to heart some of the ideas we’d explored about poetry dealing with themes that are bigger than just one poet’s voice.

The others, while they had some interesting use of language, were mostly fairly introspective and “angsty.” I expected this – heck, that’s what I wrote as a teen. Also, my friend who teaches at this alternative school has often said that many of the students there really need someone to talk to, and are hungry to express themselves. Several of the poems rhymed – and as expected, that created some awkward word choice and phrasing.

One girl asked me if I consider songs poetry. Without knowing exactly what she was referring to, I dodged the question somewhat. I agreed that lyrics could be poetry, and reminded them again that poetry was once chanted, sung, or recited. But I cautioned against trying so hard to make a poem rhyme that they put out the spark they started with. Based on the generally cliched “ I love/I despair/I’m going to stay strong” sorts of themes I heard in their poems, I am guessing I wouldn’t find much poetic about the lyrics she had in mind, but who knows. Maybe next time I’ll read some of Bono’s lyrics . . .

The principal had come in to hear the readings, and pointed out that she wanted people to stand up to meet the Georgia standard for “public speaking” – I had just said that if someone wanted to read, they could sit or stand, whatever made them comfortable. In order to counter the effect of feeling put on the spot, I suggested that from here on out, if people wanted to share their work but felt nervous or self-conscious, we could collect the poems and I could read some anonymously.

We talked about editing very briefly. I suggested that the most important thing to do when rewriting was to consider the importance of every word, making sure nothing unnecessary stayed in the poem, and choosing the most specific, descriptive words they could. Mayes suggests removing all the nouns, verbs, and adjectives in a poem and replacing them, in order to get away from “easy” word choices and to “wake up your language.” (The Discovery of Poetry, p. 469) When the principal asked if they had homework, I told them they could rewrite for next week or write more first drafts, and asked them to try and write something in their journals daily and read more poems. I also threw out the idea of possibly having a reading at the end of the sessions, or publishing a class anthology. There was a murmur in the room – and then the principal suggested we serve tea and cookies at the reading. Much giggling, again. Some of these kids may never have taken their own work seriously. I hope they will, through poetry.

On Friday, I’ll begin a six week poetry workshop at an alternative public high school near my home. This school is for kids who are considered “at risk” for various reasons. I’ll be blogging about the workshop, so stay tuned.