really rough draft

As my poetry students begin diving into the real work of writing their own original poetry, it is time that I venture in the same direction. It is time to move away from simply admiring poetry and from shaping poetic prose, and into actually crafting poems myself. This is not comfortable territory for me, partly because I feel like I know who I am as a writer of prose-my voice is clear to me as I employ it and this grants me confidence. As a poet, I almost feel as though I’ve lost my voice or as though I am in the midst of some identity crisis. I don’t know what kind of poet I want to be or could become. Imposter syndrome possesses undeserved strength and takes over my mind convincing me that I should just not even bother to explore my poetic identity. It drowns out all of the rational writing advice I so freely give to students and persuades me to put the pencil down…even when I know better.

Today, my students read Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “The Stolen Camera” and heard John Mayer’s song “3×5” and considered what it might mean to really see the world and hold those images only in our minds. Then, they went outside to find something in the natural world to truly take in…all the while knowing that they would be writing from this experience. In a quick write session after our time outside, I wrote the following lines after paying specific attention to two trees standing side by side, one dead and leafless and the other fully alive and overwhelmed by green foliage. This is truly a very rough draft, composed in maybe 8 minutes of class time and not edited since…sharing here is my way of reminding myself what this process will feel like for my students. A level of vulnerability is required when drafting writing and turning it in for feedback–in doing this we are essentially saying, “Here, let me pour myself across the page and you can then dissect my truth and tell me where I have been false” This is not easy work. But it is critical work. So, here is that untitled draft…

Barren brown branches stand strong,

though morosely self-aware—

right next door stands

another set of branches,

generously glorified by the green

leaves clinging in pride reveling

in their vitality.

 

Death and life—side by side

coexisting peacefully—

as though friends…

Unaware one should fear the other

Unaware the other is fueled by the one

 

—One eye…then the other

In closing the first, death

dominates the landscape in front of me.

In closing the other, life

blooms brilliantly verdant.

Looking through both eyes reveals

the truth of the world—

 

Not all is death.

Not all is life giving.

Both…together…side by side…

giving weight to the world—

balance to our existence—

an end to the beginning.

 

Shielding one from the other

is neither prevention nor protection.

Only loss.

 

(Day 16! Got home super late from a lovely night out but still managed to get this writing done!)

exchange

“Poems change landscapes rather than photograph them”

Jericho Brown 

I woke up yesterday morning absolutely elated about the prospect of returning to school. You might question this stance. I get that. After all, what sort of individual finds excitement in exchanging dreamy leisurely vacation days for weighty exhausting workdays? Maybe I should have felt grumpy about having to wake up early and wear real clothes and makeup, but this time, I simply couldn’t.

What I knew as I awoke that morning was that with the opening of the second semester also came the start of my semester long Poetry elective. This is a class that is altogether indulgent on my part. It is not a course that is steeped in technicality and terminology. It is not a course overwhelmed by analysis and singular right answers. I could teach that class, and kids would learn plenty, but they would miss the point.

My poetry class is more of an invitation, an entry point if you will.

I simply want my kids to fall in love with poetry. I want them to find themselves in poet’s lines and then to be willing to then put themselves on the page. In reading poetry, I want them to better understand the people of this world whose experiences differs from theirs–to recognize that just because someone else’s truth is different from their own, doesn’t make either truth wrong. It just makes them different–and we can respect difference. We can learn from difference and the brevity of poetry makes us more amenable to remembering that. I want them to witness, to understand what an arrangement of words can create not simply on a page, but within our spirit, within our minds, within our core-and to know that their words can do that for other people too. I want them to not just know but to feel that they are in fact poets. Will each of them be published? Probably not–half of them didn’t even sign up for the class intentionally…they just “lucked into” it:) Does that mean they aren’t poets? Not in my opinion. They will do the hard work, write themselves into the identity, and it will linger with them even after they leave my space.

How can I predict this lasting identity with certainty? Well, I suppose I cannot.

Except, for this.

As I was leaving work this evening after a ridiculously long day, I received a text from a former student. They wrote, “Decided I’m going to start writing every day and get back to working on my craft. Here’s a poem I wrote today, still not polished off but I wanted to share it with you:)” Okay, so a couple of things–First, these are the moments that make the long days worth the effort. Second, they attached screenshots of a draft of an incredible poem–one that wasn’t assigned or worth points, but was valued far more than any grade. There was a later text that included this as well, “…I don’t know, it felt good to write it out…”

What a lot of people are missing is that when we stick solely to the form and function …what we miss when we focus only on essays of analysis and everyone in the room reading the same teacher selected poem at the same time…what we lose when we introduce poetry with apology and corroborate the learned student philosophy that poetry is worthless or too complex is this opportunity for a kid to grow up and still be able to express themselves poetically if for no other reason than to get what is inside, out. That is a gift worth more than any A on any report card. When we allow ourselves (and our students) to find the poetry that moves us, to write about what matters to us, to discover our own poetic voice, our vision of this world is intensified and enriched. When we become poets and think poetically we have this constant unfailing gift of expression that can be wielded to heal, to sort through, to rejoice, to thank, to revel in the fact that when all else fails, words and our ability to arrange them will not.

What I knew as I awoke yesterday morning was that while some of my students might come to me not so sure about poetry, every single one of them would leave with the gift of it. What I knew was that my job this semester consisted of nothing more than opening the door and shepherding them through it…supporting them as they uncover their voices and choices…pointing out their triumphs and helping to clarify their confusion.

What I knew was that this semester would bring gifts to us all, and I could not wait to begin.

(Day Two of the King Cake writing challenge 2020–it’s nice when inspiration comes via text:) )