While They Were Writing

I start each poetry class by reading a poem to my students. Then I give them a prompt and about 20 minutes to write. I sit at a desk with a pencil and loose-leaf paper, too. I’d like to write while they do, but I don’t get a chance to much. Despite the fact that I repeat again and again, “don’t worry about spelling,” they do. They are teenage girls — and mothers. They don’t have time for imperfection – or so they think. They can’t risk humiliation. So, as I try to compose a line I am interrupted by: “Miss, how do you spell _____?” It could be a word as common as could, or choose, or pregnant. Or even there or clear or dew. Or, I see a student who has written her name and date at the top of the page and nothing else, and I hustle over to help her get started. But sometimes the planets are aligned just so, and for at least five or ten minutes of our writing time everyone is hunched over her paper, studiously working away. Then I can write for a few minutes, too. I keep my students’ papers in folders, and I have one for myself, too.


Here’s one I wrote this spring. I think the prompt was to write a poem giving advice. We probably read “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes and/or “Advice” by Ruth Stone. I wrote:

Teacher to Students 

When you write a poem

don’t forget to breathe.

Don’t think — instead,

give your pencil a shake

and let it say what’s inside it.

Turn your cell phones off! Those ring tones

drown out your own music.

And did I say – breathe!

When you’re not writing, be a poet anyway:
Listen, look, taste, smell – remember.

Don’t fear silence.

Love uncertainty.

Write every day.

Read more than you write.

There are no wrong answers here.

Don’t judge your poems:

you can’t always see them clearly right away.

Know the sound of your own voice.

Normal is overrated. Don’t bother.

And don’t try to be a good mother – it’s impossible — just be a good person.

To be a good writer, live a good life.

If you find yourself using a swear word in your poem,

dig deeper in that same spot. You’ll probably find a strong feeling buried there.

Poems don’t need to be beautiful. Only true.

And, in case I forgot to mention … breathe.

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