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

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

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

I then shared a couple of handouts – starting with Jeffrey Ethan Lee’s revision advice for his college poetry courses, which you can find here:

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s his poem:

I Am From

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


If you want to see what I cover in “exploring poetic forms,” you can check out the blog entry from the first set of workshops, here:

When I got to the school today, the principal told me there was very low attendance today, so I’d probably be missing some kids. She was right — only six teens made it to the poetry workshop today, and one of those actually missed the entire discussion portion and came in just as we began writing.

As I was waiting for those few to trickle in, I greeted J., and gave him a book I’d found at the public library book sale last week after the workshop. It’s called the Illustrated Directory of the US Marine Corps, ( He was thrilled. It turns out that another PLC student, T., is also planning on joining the Marines. As I learned last week, J. is already signed up and goes to Parris Island in July.

T. is training with her dad so she’ll be physically fit, but she hasn’t signed up yet. She said her uncle and his wife are both Marines and that “they make good money,” but that “it isn’t about the money.” She told the group it’s always been her dream to serve and she wants to prove to herself that she can do it. J. immediately cracked a huge grin and said, “For me, it’s about the money. I’m staying in 20 years, too, so I can retire!”

T.’s uncle is currently deployed in Iraq, and she said she wants to talk things over with him when he gets back, to make sure she’s ready, before she joins. As the other students came in and we got ready to begin, I found myself praying silently that T.’s uncle will stay safe and come home to talk to her, and that she and J. will succeed and be safe as well. They are both so young . . .

In the first workshops, I felt I’d tried to cover too much when I delved into poetic forms. So this time, I went over the basics of why poets think about form as well as substance, and then we talked about free verse and how it is not just a free for all, but is a form in which line breaks are the poet’s key formatic tool. I suggested that for a look at early free verse they should check out Walt Whitman, and we talked a bit about how he envisioned a new American poetry, less formal and more expansive than its European antecedents.

I then explained that their handouts included a guide to the villanelle form and three villanelles, and encouraged them to read them on their own, because I wasn’t going to go over them in the workshop. Instead, I told them, we’d turn to my passion – haiku and related forms.

This group was more receptive than the last to the notion that what they’d been told about haiku as children was likely not very accurate and I was about to set them straight. For more on how haiku is not what you learned in school, please see the blog entry at the link above. Mainly, please note that haiku is NOT defined as a poem with three lines and a certain number of syllables.

In order to convince the teens that I know what I am talking about, I showed them that I am one of seventeen poets featured in A New Resonance: Emerging Voices in English Language Haiku, v. 4, which you can find here, along with other fine haiku volumes:

We went over the Haiku Society of America’s definitions of haiku and its close relative senryu, which you can find here:

After discussing haiku and senryu, I read several examples of both forms from my own work, and we talked about the subtle difference. My children were glad that they each featured in my examples. I read from several journals which I recommend to anyone interested in these forms, including:

Modern Haiku

bottle rockets

Simply Haiku

The Heron’s Nest

Frogpond – the journal of the Haiku Society of America (the journal itself isn’t online)

As we discussed my poems I talked a bit about the writing life. I encouraged them to continue to write no matter what anyone told them about the practicality. No, you won’t make much money by writing poetry, but you can write no matter what else you do. We talked about rejections, and about believing in your work enough to keep looking at it critically, and sending it back out if you believe in it. Rejection, I told them, is a part of writing, and it doesn’t necessarily mean your work stinks. I was getting some blank looks.

L. piped up and said, “If it comes from your heart, how can it stink?” While there is certainly much to be said on the subject of good writing, and a piece needs to be well written, grammatically correct, and of the highest possible quality before it will be accepted for publication (at least in theory, that is how it should work), L. hit on an important truth, as I told the group.

T., who hasn’t contributed to the conversations as much as some of the other workshop participants, said, “That’s true. If there’s one thing you’ve taught me it’s that what comes from my heart is good.” Again, just when I was thinking that the topic at hand was boring these kids, they let me know how important our work together is.

I do think that L. and T. are right. If you write passionately, if you put your whole self into your work, it will never stink. It may not be polished and ready to go, you may need to revise, but at its heart, the work will be good. I plan to expand on this thought next week, when we talk about revising.

We went over the HSA definition of haibun and the traditions this form grew out of, and I read some of my haibun. At this point the group seemed anxious to write, so I wrapped up and suggested we try working collaboratively first. L. wrote two haiku before we even finished talking.

We tried Timothy Russell’s haiku writing exercise (found here: ). It’s a great exercise in observation, so I recommend it for anyone, not just haiku poets. To start, you write down the month or season and something about the day. Then, you spend a few minutes noticing and observing (outside is best), and jotting down descriptive phrases. Do this about ten times, and you’ll have some raw material for haiku

The group came up with:

First line:
cloudy morning

the breeze leaps from tree to tree
the flags snap furiously
a smiling face in the crowd
ships sail across yellow fabric (a boy’s shirt)

and we wrote a few haiku together:

cloudy morning
the breeze leaps
from tree to tree

cloudy morning
flags snapping furiously
in the breeze

cloudy morning
a smiling face
in the crowded hallway

Then they wrote on their own. All of them wrote, but only a couple of kids wanted to read what their poems:

T. wrote:

in dark morning
clouds float
slowly moving

L. wrote:

morning wind
sun rising into the sky
fog drifts away

black sky
you stroll through the night
waiting for a glimpse of light

We closed by talking about what we’ll do next week – wrap up the workshops with a session on revising poems.

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.

First of all, if you’re following along with the workshops, you might have noticed that this is only the 3rd time I’ve met with this second group, but I’m on the 4th week’s topic. Due to the delays from the March 1 tornado and Spring Break, I condensed workshops 2 & 3, both on imagery, into one session last time. So for quotes, an overview of what I covered, and a list of poems I handed out or read in the workshop, visit the poembound entry called “Fourth week of workshops: the sound of poetry,” which you can find here:

I had eleven teens in the workshop today, and two were from the first group but had missed this session and wanted to make it up. So only 9 of the 15 kids from the second workshop group were there, and some have missed two weeks in a row. As I worried in the last poembound entry, I’m not connecting as well with this group, and they’re not as connected with each other.

Actually, I’m dealing with the classic school dynamic – there’s a small group of students who seem to be a group within the group, and then a lot of kids who come in alone and sit alone. In the last workshop series, the whole group seemed to interact together better. For a workshop that’s important, but I don’t really think it’s something I can influence very much, beyond laying the basic ground rules of civility and kindness.

When I tried to get everyone’s attention and get started today, the “group within a group” didn’t quiet down. I just plowed ahead and in a few moments they settled down. Not a terrific way to start.

I explained that while the entire range of sound tools a poet has at her disposal to shape the sound of a poem is not going to come into play in every poem, they should still know all the tools available. So we went over sound patterns, like alliteration, euphony, and assonance; rhyme and near rhyme; repetition, including refrains and anaphora; and rhythm (whether part of a pattern or not) and meter. I had to move pretty quickly to get through all of these concepts and still have time to read example poems aloud and leave plenty of writing time, so I asked them to call out questions if they had any.

Several times as I explained something or read a short excerpt of a poem as an example, someone laughed. I never figured out if it was something in my presentation, something the group within a group was talking about beneath the current of the workshop, or something my kids were doing that was funny (they sat behind me today). Whatever the cause, it was discouraging.

To discuss the importance of sound in poetry, I reminded them that this is an ancient tradition that was sung or chanted in its earliest forms. I asked if anyone knew of a contemporary example of an art form that is comparable to early oral poetry. As I’d hoped, one boy brought up rap. I agreed and said that any popular song types do some of the same things for our modern culture that oral poetry did for its time (like it or not) – they tell a culture’s stories, deal with universal human experiences and emotions, etc. – and that the tools of rhythm and rhyme are clear to see in these art forms.

To explain poetic meter and introduce the idea of rhyme scheme, I used good old “Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare, which begins, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Since I’d read it in our last session before Spring Break, I knew it was familiar. Before the workshop, I wrote it out on easel paper and marked the scansion (metrical pattern) for the first two lines, and then noted the rhyme scheme in the margin.

When I told the class about iambic pentameter, and we clapped or tapped it out, they quickly noted the sound of a human heartbeat. It’s a cool connection to make — I like seeing the looks on their faces when they realize what they hear. Gregory associates it with the coconuts in Monty Python that are supposed to sound like hoof beats. To each his own!

I briefly discussed rhyme scheme, because I learned in the first round of workshops that at least in my alternative high school sample, students today don’t seem familiar with this idea, and when we talk about forms, I need them to at least know what I’m talking about, or the villanelle won’t make any sense.

I also cautioned them that outside of formal poetry, more contemporary poetry than not is unrhymed, or uses more subtle sound patterns, like near rhyme, alliteration, etc. So far I hadn’t noticed the tendency to arrange all their stanzas in song lyric form that occurred so often with the first group, so I wanted to head that off.

After our whirlwind tour of sound patterns and tools, I read examples. I added one poem this time, “Night Song,” by Lisel Mueller. There doesn’t seem to be a copy online that doesn’t have a typo. It’s a very lovely poem, and seemed to me one that would resonate with teenagers. Even better, Mueller very effectively uses anaphora and many of the other sound tools we’d been discussing.

The other poems I read aloud were “Samurai Song,” by Robert Pinsky; “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost; an excerpt from “The Raven,” by Edgar Allen Poe; “We Real Cool,” by Gwendolyn Brooks; “My People,” by Langston Hughes; and “Let Evening Come,” by Jane Kenyon. For links, see the earlier sound of poetry workshop entry (at the link above).

With the sounds of these masterful poems swirling in our brains, I asked the group to collaborate on a sound wordpool. The only criteria was that any word they suggested had to be one they liked the sound of. Here’s their wordpool:

insane depressing whump rat
ring idiot nose feelings
chain love hatred peace
more care bears tie dye rock star
sex (gender) hallelujah skip fear
fold ok yeah

I asked them to copy the wordpool into their journals and add any of their own sound words, and spend the remaining time working on a poem.

A college professor friend of mine told me after my first workshop that if every kid wrote something, I was a success. So by that measure, I had a good workshop, because they did settle down and every person wrote something. Five read aloud today, which was a record for this group. I copied down some lines that struck me:

“A ring in my nose, a hole in my heart.”
From a poem by a girl from the first workshop group who sat in today, who has a new nose ring and was taking a lot of ribbing about it earlier in the workshop.

“When I’m sad, I’m strong. When I’m happy, I’m strong.”
Written by a girl who is pregnant.

“Does my gender offend you?”
This poem went on to use the wordpool to address one of the oldest human issues: how women are viewed and treated by the culture at large. It’s by the same girl who wrote the poem “Visions of Earth” in the last workshop, two weeks ago.

I talked a little about editing ideas, and asked them to think about a final project, perhaps a workshop anthology. I mentioned that the first group is organizing a reading. I didn’t get a lot of reaction, so I’m not sure which way this group will go in terms of a project.

As the students were leaving, one young man who had been sitting alone told another he should show me his poem. He did, and it was a very thoughtful, honest, and raw-edged piece. I said I’d noticed the two of them writing and writing, and they both nodded. The boy who showed me his work smiled and said firmly,“Yeah, I pay attention.”

I wonder how many times in his life he’s felt the need to point that out, or how many people look at his skin color, wardrobe, and demeanor and assume he’s not serious about classes? Before you brand me a bleeding heart, think of how many people have commented publicly on the fact that Barack Obama sounds thoughtful or articulate. To my knowledge, this hasn’t even come up in media coverage or commentary about any other presidential candidate.

True story: a couple of African American women who work at our public library told a friend of mine who also works there that they were certain Obama is from another country, because he doesn’t sound American. They were serious. Others who heard the conversation agreed, even after my friend googled his biography (never mind that it didn’t occur to these people that a foreign born citizen can’t run for president). This is the community in which my serious young poet lives.

I didn’t get a chance to copy down his poem, but it was about the frivolity of the wordpool, the fact that words like “rat” and “care bears” are uncool, and how he felt like throwing the journal page in the toilet after he copied down these silly words. He ended with the sentiment that even though the workshop got on his nerves today, no one said he has to be a poet. His final line alluded to his inner rapper, and the whole poem used many of the sound techniques we’d gone over.

I told him that he was dead on about care bears, and that rapping and poetry writing are not so far apart, and I thanked him for showing me his poem. Despite the frustrations of the giggling and whispering, the way the wordpool ended up being about predictable or stale word choices (peace and hate, love and hatred, etc.) rather than sounds, I realized as I thought over today’s workshop that some of the kids are “getting it,” or are writing in new ways, and that’s enough.

Actually, I like to think it wasn’t the workshop itself that got on this boy’s nerves, but that he was bothered by the group within the group, which generated most of the wordpool and chatted without regard for the others. Upon reflection, I think one of the problems with the group dynamic this time is that the principal told me she and her staff had decided which kids to “sign up for poetry,” whereas the first group self-selected based on their interest in writing.

You can lead kids to a new idea or a genre, give them a journal, and ask them to write, but you can’t make them like it or participate enthusiastically. Several of the kids in this group have lost their journals – the journals I drove about 45 miles away to purchase, that we talked about carrying around so they could collect poetic raw material. In the first workshop group, I had one person lose a journal, and she was upset about it and very careful with the second one.

Several of the kids in the first group showed me poems or other writing they’d done between sessions. Many of the kids in this group simply doesn’t care about poetry and writing enough to make it a regular habit. They’re there because they need some language arts credit, and they were told what time to show up. I think if you asked them, most would say it was a decent way to spend an hour – they don’t resent being there, or hate it. But they don’t love it either.

One reason my family embraces autonomous education is our deep belief that people who are self-motivated truly learn, while externally motivated students go through the motions. Although students who are controlled and directed by external forces and influences may learn something, they don’t love either the process or the result as whole-heartedly, and they don’t retain the learning because they don’t own it.

Think back to your own schooling – do you remember the things you didn’t really care about? Most of us forget whatever we had to learn after the test, but easily remember things we learned ourselves because we wanted to know.

It’s an important but very challenging concept – I know and believe in the freedom to learn independently, but in everyday practice, I often think of something I think my kids should hear or know or learn, and I have to stop my deeply schooled mind from pushing external controls on their autodidactic pursuits. I can tell them about, expose them to, and encourage them to explore further what I find to be interesting or important ideas, but they will each ultimately decide what is important and interesting in their own minds.

Next week, join poembound as we explore themes of “Wishes, Lies, and Dreams,” inspired by the book of the same name by Kenneth Koch.

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.

After several delays, I started a new round of workshops today at an alternative public high school in my town. There were fifteen kids, many of them seniors, in the new group. I’m getting over a very bad cold/sinus infection and had a fairly low energy level, so I wasn’t sure how it would go.

I used the same material as in my earlier post for the first group, called “First week of workshops: gathering raw material,” so if you want to see the poems and quotes, refer to that, here:

As I had with the first class, I told them this week was about warming up to poetry, freeing them to play with words and experiment, and getting comfortable.

After going over what I hoped they’d do with the workshop – try to keep a journal, read and write daily, be open to new ideas and to their own writing, write first drafts freely without worrying about what the result would be like, etc. – we talked about why poetry exists, and what makes poetry necessary. I read quotes from The Discovery of Poetry and Poemcrazy and read them poems by Billy Collins, Robert Hass, and Don Paterson.

We talked about creating wordpools, and I asked them to toss out words. Their wordpool, to me, reflects the pressure they are feeling as they try to get through the graduation exam and as their final weeks of school draw to a close:


I asked them to put words together in any way to make phrases we could use to collaborate on a class poem.

They were slow in responding – there didn’t seem to be much group camaraderie, although there were some kids who seemed friendly in pairs or small groups. With some coaxing and help, we came up with:

escaping is my destiny
I’m singing my survival
success is such a stress
alone I will survive
the fantastic fiendish wigwam
of dark testing

One girl kept saying things like “I just don’t get poetry,” and “I’m no good at this.” I tried to reassure the who group that if they read something that didn’t make sense, they could actually allow that – they don’t have to “get” it the first or even the second or third time, they can simply let the words rest in their minds and take what they can from a poem, without working at understanding. I read from Poemcrazy about poems taking us “beyond sense.” (Poemcrazy, p. 125), and I emphasized that they can write in their journals without trying to get “right” answers – that in fact there are no right answers in the poetry workshops.

Next I went around with my box of word tickets and asked them to take a small handful and copy words into their journals to make wordpools, then play with the words until they made small poems. I reminded them this was an exercise in wordplay, not a time to over think or analyze, and asked them to avoid trying to rhyme, since that forces word choices they otherwise might not make.

There was a lot of talking; it seems to be very hard for teens to work silently, and to leave each other alone. They took a long time to write and play with the tickets, and I tried working with some tickets myself to keep from rushing them.

No one had comments or questions, and no one wanted to read a poem out loud. I had already announced that no one would have to read, and it was up to them, but I was sure someone would want to – there were a couple of kids in the first workshops who were always just itching to read. One girl did show me what she’d written, and then when I responded positively, said I could read her poem out loud.

Here’s the last line: “I won’t accept the darkness, but I have a passion for the light.”

Her poem was about feeling she’s on the edge of a mountain, with no help, trying to hang on without falling.

While no one else wanted to read aloud, they all wrote in their journals. The principal told me at the end of the session that at last night’s parents’ night, several kids from the first set of workshops read poems aloud. She said that almost none of the kids in this new group has ever had any exposure to poetry. They’re just weeks from graduating, and they’ve never had any poetry? She was telling me not to be discouraged if they didn’t seem very enthusiastic. I wouldn’t say they were unenthused, since they all participated, but they seemed unsure of themselves – will any of them see themselves as poets in a few weeks?

Because of delays, and hopes for the group to write enough poems that some of them feel comfortable participating in the school’s poetry reading in May, I am planning to work two weeks’ worth of imagery workshops into one next week. I want to have an open week at the end for revising and editing.

Because of the tornadoes, I didn’t meet with my workshop students last week. This was supposed to be my first week with a new group; instead, I met today with 11 of the 15 teens in the first group to discuss revision and talk about their plans for their final projects.

First, we talked about the tornadoes and how everyone is doing. Many students and staff at the school are among those impacted by the storm. The administrative assistant told me she only had a little damage. The principal later explained that in fact, she has drywall damage, and a high deductible on her insurance, and can’t afford the repairs. One student lives in the neighborhood I have mentioned in my other blog entries, just beyond the hospital. She is living in the house with her mother, without windows. The landlord, according to the principal, is not helping. Another staff member said the family has somewhere else to stay but the mother won’t leave, since the house is open to weather and people.

A couple of my students were there when the president visited. One student, who is white, said she was pretty sure he just wanted to be photographed with black people because of Kanye West’s accusation, after Hurricane Katrina, that the president doesn’t care about black people. She said she noticed him making sure to take photos with blacks. An African American student agreed with her but was still proud to have met the president. Some of the students agreed when we talked about my son’s observations –he does not agree with many things the administration has done, but was able to set that aside and respect President Bush’s compassion.

The students agreed that it would be hard for anyone not to be moved by the devastation, but on the whole, they felt that while it’s good to respect someone for their efforts, the president couldn’t actually feel their pain. The student who told about the photo ops said “He claimed what he saw was heavy on his heart, but if he had a tornado, he wouldn’t be dealing with this.” Others chimed in, “Yeah, he wouldn’t have plastic over his windows,” and similar comments. The kids seemed to feel that while it was all very nice to come and say how sorry he was for our losses, it wouldn’t make any difference.

I asked, after the principal mentioned that they should be writing lots of poems about all of this, whether anyone had in fact written something during the last week that they might want to share with the group. No one had a tornado poem to share, although at least one person said she was working on something related to the storm.

Sensing that the principal wanted us to get back on track, I handed out a piece on revising by Jeffrey Ethan Lee, which I found on his website:

We went over the main points he makes, and I especially cautioned them against forced rhyme, since so many poems in the workshop have had a kind of song lyric aesthetic, and against cliché and over generalization. Lee also warns his students about trite love poems.

I explained what some of the terms on Lee’s handout mean, like archaic language. There was lots of energy in the room today, and I felt like they were with me . . .

Then I asked if anyone had any poems they’d been working on or had already revised that they wanted to share. Two students were eager to read. The first poem, written by a girl who hasn’t read much of her work so far, was a love poem. Another student even asked if it was dedicated to her boyfriend, and she confirmed this. She was very emotional as she read; I wasn’t comfortable pointing out that this was just the kind of thing that defines cliché, since she was nearly in tears.

T., one of the most prolific writers, who always has several new poems to show me, asked me to read his “The Meaning of Poetry” to the group. It’s a long list poem, with all the lines starting with “Poetry is.” He put a couple of definitions of poetry from the Internet at the top as his epigraph. Here are some excerpts from his poem:

“Poetry is the arc and swish through the hoop of a far flung basketball in that last second effort to win.”

“Poetry is a song in my heart that longs to be heard.”

“Poetry is the mood I am in.”

“Poetry is the real person I am.”

Although the poem as a whole did several of the things that Lee warns students about in his revision advice, T. has come a long way from his first workshop writing two months ago, when everything rhymed and there wasn’t much imagery. I was impressed with the effort, and I am really struck by the idea that he now sees poetry as the real person he is. How could I ask for anything more from the workshops, than to find out that one of my students feels that way? And the first image is certainly perfect for March madness, not to mention an apt description. Poetry really is an arc and swish, in many ways.

I asked if there were any questions about revision, and one student asked, “How do you know where to start, since you wrote the poem and obviously, you liked it that way when you wrote it?” I suggested that distance was a good way to start – set the poem aside for a couple of days or even a week, and then try to look at it from a new perspective. We also talked about reading a poem aloud to listen for awkward words, forced rhyme, rhythmic problems, etc. I encouraged them to read each other’s work; that said, we also talked about how hard it is to take and give criticism. I also said to look for “pet” words that they use over and over.

M., who has taken over the editing of the group’s anthology after the original editor took a job that conflicts with the workshop time, said she knows she uses “soul” all the time. We talked about looking for that kind of pattern and replacing overused words here and there, saving the favorite word for places where nothing else works, or where it is especially effective.

I also pointed out that it’s natural to have a favorite word or phrase, and told a story I once read about Maxine Kumin being surprised when a student pointed out how often she used a particular word. But then I joked that if you’re a “rock star” poet like Ms. Kumin, you can do that, but until then, try to watch for overused words. I also pointed out that revisions aren’t permanent. I told the student who’d asked the question about where to begin to try rewriting and then holding the two drafts side-by-side and deciding which version was stronger and truer for her.

I also told the group about a submission I’d sent last week which was rejected with some rather curt comments only a few hours later; I re-submitted the poems after reading them over and deciding they were saying what I wanted them to, and the second editor accepted two of the poems later in the week. If you feel in your gut that the poem is good, don’t give up. They asked me how much I get paid and were dismayed when I said that often, I just get a copy of the journal where the poem is published.

The rest of our time this morning went to discussing their plans for the anthology and the reading, which are the workshop group’s final projects. They have made a lot of progress already, and M. is definitely organized. March 22 is the school’s spring parents’ night, and they’ll be reading some poems. The final reading, which will include the kids in the second series of workshops, will be in early May, just before school lets out.

M. already had a folder full of poems she’d collected for the anthology, and some preliminary plans in place for the reading. She’s not only editing, but keeping everyone on deadline and leading the discussion of how they’ll present the reading. I’m a little nervous about the fact that we hadn’t finished discussing revision and she’s already got people’s final drafts, but I also know it’s not my anthology, it’s theirs. Also, as the workshop today showed me, I can tell them what to look out for as they edit, but if they love their own words, they’re not going to change them.

My goal in leading these workshops was to get the kids thinking about poetry, read good poems with them, and give them the tools to write. Some of them have never loved any schoolwork they’ve done before, so I think it’s ok if they love their own poems. The process is more important than the product, as a sign on my desk, inspired by one of my favorite writing books, reminds me daily. (The book is Take Joy by Jane Yolen.)

We called the principal back in to get their project schedule approved. It turns out that next Friday is a student holiday, again! But I’ve got approval to start the new workshops series on Thursday so that we don’t lose another week. I asked the group to encourage their peers to take the next series of workshops. The principal pointed out that there’s plenty of interest . . . because they’ll get English credit, which they need to graduate. The group did thank me, and I invited them to come sit in on any workshops they missed. M. asked to take my picture on her phone, to show her family! She joked, “See, you’re a rock star poet, too.” God, these kids, teenagers sent to this school as a last resort, many of them with rougher lives than most people will ever have, are amazingly kind and sweet, even innocent in some ways.

All things considered, it was a good day. Many of the students are participating in post-tornado volunteer work – they are working at an aid distribution point at the fairgrounds, helping to feed firefighters who are in town to help, etc. But most of them took time to attend this wrap up session, so I am glad of that.

Next week, check back for the first workshop, “Gathering Raw Material,” with a new group of teens. I’m excited to begin, and I hope you’ll join me in following their journey, poembound.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gave them three villanelles as examples:

“The Waking” by Theodore Roethke

“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

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

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

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

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

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

bottle rockets

Simply Haiku

The Heron’s Nest

Frogpond – the journal of the Haiku Society of America (the journal itself isn’t online)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter hymns
the flowers on her dress

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

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

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

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

And two of my own haibun:

“Parallel Sunsets”

“A New York State of Mind”

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

I suggested we try a haiku exercise that I sometimes use, by Timothy Russell. You can see it here:

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

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

winter cold

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

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

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

leafless trees
a sense
of cold

winter cold

winter chill
the cold air’s
dull scent

winter cold
I look out
at wispy clouds

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This week’s poems:

“A Very Valentine” by Gertrude Stein

“Samurai Song” by Robert Pinsky

“My People” by Langston Hughes

“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

“Ditty of First Desire” by Federico Garcia Lorca

“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

“We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks

“Let Evening Come” by Jane Kenyon

“Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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

The Nearness of You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a partial list of their sound wordpool:

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

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

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

and I also suggested they read some Edward Lear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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