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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:”

and “Workshops, week 3: imagery:”

– 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:

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.

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

“WINTER:TONIGHT:SUNSET” by David Budbill (scroll down to Jan 3)

“Preludes” by T.S. Eliot

“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 (

“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:

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

“Sonnet 18” by Shakespeare (

“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:

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.