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

https://poembound.wordpress.com/2007/02/09/poetry-workshops-week-five-wishes-lies-and-dreams/

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:

http://www.smith.edu/poetrycenter/poets/formohammedzeid.html

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:

http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/owen1.html

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
nauseous

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.

This week’s poembound workshop met at a different day and time, because the principal called and told me she didn’t think there’d be many kids at school on Friday, the day before spring break, and the day after graduation exams. Besides the low projected attendance, Friday is a planned service day for students to work towards the community service requirement for graduation.

Because of the various delays we’ve had, I combined both imagery workshops from the first series – figurative and literal – into one week’s session. I got there early to be sure I had plenty of time to get the handouts copied and to get set up, with my papers, books, and easel ready to go. Five minutes before we were to begin, there were only 4 kids in the room. I wandered the halls trying to round up the rest; it turned out only 8 attended altogether, of the 15 who came to the first session last week.

As I waited to begin, I chatted about testing with the students who had come in. I was honest and frank about what I think of standardized tests – useless, beneficial only to administrators, test publishers, and education bureaucrats, and completely non-representative of the actual value of a person’s true education, knowledge, or skills. They agreed but seemed amazed that an adult, and one who was there in the role of “teacher,” would openly espouse such heretical views about tests they’ve been told are for their own good. I said it seemed better to be open about my views so they knew where I was coming from. I hope my candid attitude will also foster openness in the workshop.

One girl asked why my kids were there – I realized later that I didn’t introduce them last week because they were both getting over being sick and were home with S. I explained we homeschool, and she said she had homeschooled too, but that when she came back to school (for reasons she didn’t explain), the attendance forms her family filed were lost, so she didn’t get credit for the two years she homeschooled.

A family files the forms required by law, but because the school loses the records, the kid gets a raw deal, and is made to believe her learning was not valid – that’s fair? Schools routinely “lose” homeschoolers’ attendance records in Georgia; people post to email lists every year about trying to get a teen’s drivers’ license and discovering the school didn’t keep any of the records they’d filed. But the burden of proof falls to the homeschool family, not the schools. Two years of a child’s life, and she’s told they “don’t count.” Her view was that homeschooling had been bad for her, because it set her back – she didn’t see that it was the school’s dismissive attitude of her family’s choice, not the homeschooling, which hurt her.

I can’t even begin to say how wrong that is, and how unacceptable I think it is for schools to act with such hostility and suspicion towards homeschooling. Thankfully that’s not the case everywhere, and I don’t know the entire story with this girl’s circumstances. The principal I work with has told me she admires what I am doing for my children – which is kind of her, but still illustrates that she probably has very little idea of what we do, because they do as much or more for themselves as I do, educationally speaking. I’ll grant that we make sacrifices as a family in order for me to be physically home with them all day, but they are primarily responsible for their own learning and I am just a companion on the journey. At least she is not telling them or me that we’re wasting our time. She has enough confidence that her school is helping her students, I guess, that I don’t seem like a threat. And, she is just a genuinely nice person.

But we are a threat, as a group – homeschoolers routinely do as well or better (and around here, almost any alternative is consistently better than the average public school classroom – even my local teacher friends agree with that) than schooled kids when measured by society’s standards, even those of us who don’t care to apply those “one size fits all” standards in our home education life. We autonomous learners don’t have the credentials that the education industry would like society at large to believe are necessary for “quality,” “standards-based” education, and that’s scary to some professional educators – how can we do so well without them?

I am thankful every time I set foot in the school, and so are my kids, that we can learn in freedom. My kids are two of the most fascinating people I know, with varied interests, and a wide perspective on the world. Their viewpoints and knowledge aren’t packaged by some educrat – they see the world as full of possibilities and they know they can learn whatever they want. Adults, to them, are people who can help them get the knowledge they seek, or interesting friends, or fellow volunteers, not authorities who can deny their requests, who label them, or who judge them for not measuring up in some way.

I witness that dynamic at the alternative high school every week – there is always some student in a fervent conversation with a staff member over something the student is perceived to have done or not done. One of the reasons we unschool is that I admired a family I met when my children were very young for their lack of that very struggle between adults and adolescents – they had no “us vs. them” feelings, it was we are all learning together, working on our goals, supporting each other.

The students I’ve met so far have little confidence in their own knowledge or abilities, and many of them have been told by some adult in their lives that this is their last chance, or that they’d better listen and wise up. You may recall that one boy last week wrote: “success is such a stress.” Success? Getting a diploma, when you have almost no practical knowledge of life in the real world, little idea of what to do on your own or even what you like to do or how to go about pursuing your dreams (if they haven’t all shriveled up like a raisin in the sun . . . more on that in a bit), and you’ve been labeled as a difficult student, a discipline problem, or in this case, an emotionally disabled person – no wonder he’s stressed.

Many people tell me that they feel homeschooled kids aren’t in the “real world.” This is so ridiculous I can barely fathom it – my kids are with me as I go about living, shopping, banking, making decisions, comparing choices, working, taking care of my needs and theirs, acting as a productive, responsible member of my community, as well as learning in real situations. When we travel somewhere, we learn about it right then and there; when we want to do something like have the car repaired or plant a garden, we do the research we need to do to make good choices; so what they learn is not a bunch of disembodied facts, it’s practical stuff they need or want to know. They also know a greater variety of people – people of all ages, from all kinds of backgrounds, who do all kinds of work. Which is the real world: the place where students are labeled, sorted, ruled by bells and standardized, segmented facts pieced out and then regurgitated back on high stakes tests, or the actual living, breathing world of human beings going about living and working and learning?

I wanted to tell the students all of this, but it’s tough to tell people who are trapped in a system they have been made to believe is their only hope for a productive future that it lies to them to serve itself, so I danced around the edges, and tried to be both honest and gentle. I focused on the fact that tests shouldn’t make or break a person, which is a safe thing to talk about because many teachers are also exasperated by standardized testing and the way it stifles their teaching things of substance so that the focus can be on raising test scores, which satisfies administrators and government officials who hold the purse strings. And I told the former homeschooler I was sorry the school had made it hard for her. So, with my views on standardized testing aired, my thoughts on education eluded to, and the students intrigued by this strange adult who felt comfortable discussing how wrong it seemed to her to judge people’s lives and work in such a way, the rest of the group trickled in and we began.

I followed the same plan for the workshops as the earlier posts called “Workshops, week 2 : figurative language:”

https://poembound.wordpress.com/2007/01/19/plc-poetry-workshops-week-2/

and “Workshops, week 3: imagery:”

https://poembound.wordpress.com/2007/01/26/plc-workshops-week-three/

– you can see those blog entries for quotes from The Discovery of Poetry and Poemcrazy, and links to the poems I shared with students. I read some poems aloud, and spent time talking to the students about looking at the world through poetic eyes – using a viewfinder or their two hands to frame a view and then writing about the images they spot, listening to conversations for figurative language, thinking about the way we naturally compare things, defining things in terms of what we already know.

One poem I read was “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=175884

We talked about how powerful it is to imagine a deferred dream festering, shriveling, exploding – and the conversation came back to school again. I said that Hughes often wrote about getting through the hoops we all have to jump through in life, the systems we have to deal with, without losing the dreams and hopes we all have. I asked if that didn’t seem familiar – school is a system you have to get through in order to reach your dream of whatever it is you really want to do in life. A few heads nodded.

One of the girls who came in after our earlier conversation on testing asked about my kids. I explained again that they don’t go to school. The group asked more questions about this and I told them that I don’t ever want my children to think of learning as something that happens during certain hours in a particular building according to some plan that someone who will never even know them as individual human beings has devised in order to accommodate the system that imparts the curriculum, not the consumers of that curriculum; rather, I hope they see that life and learning are one and the same. I said that school tells you what to learn and when to learn it, and usually also how, and that our philosophy was to learn in ways that made sense to the kids and explore what they are interested in. The whole idea seemed to amaze the group. Some of them seemed horrified that we don’t stop for the summer, others seemed amazed that I could say that the order of learning things imposed by school isn’t a part of our lives.

After that aside, we got into the practical portion of the workshop. I asked them to take some “tell” examples I had written on the easel paper and write “show” versions – we’d explored some examples of showing the reader strong images rather than just telling what you see, and now I asked them to try it. It was hard to get them to call out ideas – as I said last week, this group is more reticent than my first workshop group. Possibly, they were still unsure of what to make of me.

After an awkward silence, I did the first example myself, to get them started. That seemed to help – again I realized that many of these kids have never been asked to think for themselves or expected to “get” an idea the first time, without being walked through things, held by the hand, led through the work. More than one of the students today asked me “is this right?” I told them there is no right or wrong in my workshop – more on that in a moment – but this seemed unbelievable to them.

Here are two ways to “show” that they came up with, after my example:

tell: A woman crossed the street.
show: Her pumps trampled across the road – click, clack, shuffle – as a driver honked.

tell: It was raining.
show: There was a drip drop sound on the roof.

Next I passed out a pile of photos from old issues of National Geographic. I asked them to look at a photo, write, “I see” in their journals and describe the image literally, to make their words become “the thing itself, created by my soul a second time,” in the words of Juan Ramón Jiménez (The Discovery of Poetry, p. 72). Then, I asked them to write “it looks like” and then describe the same photo, this time using figurative language. I only gave them a few minutes to finish, explaining I wanted their language to be spontaneous and fresh.

Finally, I asked them to use one of the two image worksheets in their handout packets, one from Discovery of Poetry and one from The Practice of Poetry. We were running out of time, so I suggested they just generate one or two images using the prompts, and then try to write a short poem using either their National Geographic image or the worksheet images.

Despite the brief time remaining before they had to, as my friend L., a teacher here, told them, “get back to the grind,” several of the students asked me to read their work, and I was universally impressed by the way they applied themselves seriously to their work. The giggling and whispering faded away and everyone wrote. Several of them wrote about the magazine photos. One boy wrote from Frances Mayes’ prompt: “Days pass like . . .” (The Discovery of Poetry, p. 96), and his poem was about everyday frustrations.

This young man is an athlete and identifies himself that way, frequently jokes around, and he’d written a really lovely, sensitive poem. He knew it was well done, too, because he sort of pumped his fist when he finished, and asked me to come over and read it. He used a very natural and effective form, beginning and ending with the same line, and I pointed out how beautifully he’d given the piece a cyclical resonance with that technique. He looked baffled, with an expression that said, “I did all that?”

Only two teens read work aloud. Here are those two, which I copied down:

I see a face.
It looks like Buddha, it says doom.
Brown, frantic big eyes, sharp teeth, spaced eyebrows.
King of the jungle, wild thornberries.

There is a section in the front of National Geographic called “Visions of Earth,” and this phrase is printed on a page I’d brought in with an aerial photo of a North African sand storm, which prompted one student to write:

Visions of Earth

I see the universe expanding, people migrating,
I see nations progressing. I
see races communicating and trusting
each other’s faith.
I see religion converting,
people dancing to rhythms.

After the first girl read her face poem, the second said, “I did this wrong.” I assured her there was no wrong way to do things in the poembound workshops, and encouraged her to share what she’d written about “visions of earth,” so I could reassure her that it wasn’t “wrong.” After she read, the girl next to her said, “there’s nothing but dirt in this photo, you didn’t see that stuff.”

I jumped in and argued that on the contrary, she had used a poet’s eye to really see, beyond the literal image. She’d had a visit from what Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge calls “the image angel,”(Poemcrazy p.149-153) a connection between the concrete world around us and the imagination. Not anywhere near “wrong” – I told the group I’d like to live in the world she saw in that image. Her poem is one of hope, and her view of the world being interconnected was perfect for the storm photo, because the caption explained that southern Europe was covered in the dust of the African storm. We are interconnected, and her poem touched that truth.

Here’s another poem from today’s workshop:

The river flows like the
voice of a sweet child. The
wind is roaring like a lion in a
jungle. Moments of silence
after a long, noisy day that
anyone, anything, would sleep
all day. But when the day is
over, all is back the same.

Several students wanted my feedback and showed me poems they wrote, or images they were working on. Here’s an image from a magazine photo by another of the boys in the group:

The island stretches out from
a coast like a rubber band,
you pop it, it comes back.

He said the photo made him think of how a person would be drawn back to the island again and again.

Because the group had been pretty reserved with me to that point, I was relieved and pleased to see how they dove into the imagery exercises, and also sought my feedback. They really thought about what they were seeing and tried to see things in new ways. I thanked them for tapping into their creative energy after the mind sapping tests in the morning and the crunch they are all in before spring break, with the school year winding down. School lets out here in mid-May, and the principal and other staff have alluded several times to the last minute rush of trying to ensure everyone has the credits they need in these final few weeks. I asked the group to try to notice images and figurative language and capture it in their journals in the next two weeks, and suggested they might even try journaling their dreams when they wake up.

Last week I wasn’t sure I was reaching them, but today they began to open up to what’s possible in their own writing, and it felt like we really were poembound. I sincerely wish spring break wasn’t about to disrupt our workshops, but when we come back together in two weeks, we’ll be talking about the sound of poetry.

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
http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=5921

“Geometry,” by Rita Dove
http://www.gale.com/free_resources/poets/poems/geometry.htm

“God Says Yes To Me,” by Kaylin Haught
http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/126.html

“He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” by William Butler Yeats
http://www.cise.ufl.edu/~hsiao/verse/cloths.html

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!