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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are several poems from the group:

L. wrote:

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

J. wrote:

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

N. wrote:

Emotions and confusion

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

Js. wrote:

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

D. wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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 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:

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!