Sincerely Whose? or Poems in the form of letters

The other day I was reading a love poem a student was working on and came upon an ambiguous line. “You need to give your reader a little more information here,” I told her. “No I don’t,” she said, “the poem is to my boyfriend and he’ll know what I’m talking about.”“Whoa! Hold on.” I thumped the palm of my hand down on her desk. “You need to think bigger than that!” She looked up at me confused. Now what does this crazy poetry teacher want from me? her heavily mascara-ed eyes seemed to plead.“This poem could be published in a book! Think bestseller! Think Oprah!” I said.

Okay, so, as my students so often point out, I was getting carried away. But at the very least, within ten minutes she’d be reading the poem to the class and we wanted to know why tears were falling on the pillow in the second stanza.

Getting students to think about audience … that is the readers outside their own head, is crucial to making meaningful poems rather than just heartfelt journal entries. (Not that I have anything against heartfelt journal entries, mind you …  )

I’ve found that reading and writing poems in the form of letters is a great way to drive this lesson home. After all, you can’t write a letter if you don’t know who it’s addressed to. So for the past month I’ve been doing a unit on writing poems in the form of letters.

Here are some poems I’ve used in this month’s unit:

  • “This is My Letter to the World” by Emily Dickinson
  • “Suicide Note from a Cockroach in a Low Income Housing Project” by Pedro Pietri
  • “Undelivered Mail” by Rhina P. Espaillat  (You and your students will have a lot of fun with this one!)
  • “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes (Not exactly a letter, but it really drives home the idea of audience … and my students – teens whose reading levels ranged from 3rd grade and up – were extremely inspired by it … )
  • “For My Daughter” by David Ignatow (Not technically a letter, but it works)
  • “Dear Tia” by Caroline Hospital

Here are some poems I might add next time around:

  • “Letter to NY” by Elizabeth Bishop
  • “Letter from Buddy, Postmarked Heaven” by Lesléa Newman (STILL LIFE WITH BUDDY Pride Publications, 1997

If you have something to add to the list, let me know. I plan to repeat this unit at least once a year!

Recipe for Writing Magic

The idea to start a blog came to me after attending a writing workshop in New York City this summer. Six or seven women gathered in a garden in midtown Manhattan. The leader gave us prompts and five or ten minutes to write. Each time I heard the prompt I faced a moment of white panic in my mind. Would anything come? But then I’d glance around the circle, see the other women bent over their pads scribbling away, and as if being caught up in a tide, my head would drop, my pen would start to move and before I knew it, the time would be up. As each woman read what she came up with I was amazed. Each was a gem, small, bright and glittering.

I was so impressed by what could be accomplished that I tried the same thing at home. I wrote down a series of prompts on index cards and put them in a stack face down on my writing table. Each morning I’d select one, set an egg timer for ten minutes and write. The results? Let’s just say, nothing worth sharing. Why didn’t it work, I wondered? I had all the ingredients: A prompt, a time limit, pen and paper. All the ingredients except one: the group. What I needed to complete the process was a small group who would listen to what I had written the moment it was completed; that is to say, before I had a chance to decide I hadn’t come up with anything worthwhile, the writing had gone nowhere… fill in the blank with the disparaging comment of your choice. A blog, I decided, would be a way to recreate the magic. I have my timer running right now. I have four minutes left to finish this entry. And now I have an audience, too — albeit an invisible one, whose members I know only as a little line bending up and down in valleys and peaks that I can view on my “blog statistics” page.

As a writing teacher I know the magic of groups very well. Every Monday and Wednesday when I meet with my students I stand up and tell them to write about their memories, to write about someone they can no longer see with their eyes, to write about the block they live on, to write about cockroaches … whatever … Then I give them twenty minutes and a room full of quiet. And – presto! Magically, these young women who have promised me they can’t, won’t, will never write … do! When they are done I ask them to read aloud what they have written. The suggestion is often greeted with a chorus of why’s. I give them many reasons: It will help build your confidence; We want to hear the poem in the author’s voice; You can hear the places where you want to make changes when you read it out loud … but I forget to add that the pressure to share it with the group … the fact that there is a group waiting to hear what they wrote … is the magic ingredient that makes the recipe work!

photo by Aja Riggs, copyright 2007

Cockroach Love

I tell my students we are going to write about cockroaches today. They look from one to the other, exchanging that now-familiar, “Is she crazy?” look.


Not only that, I tell them, we’re going to read a suicide note from a cockroach. Then we’re going to explore what the cockroach might be feeling. Then we’ll write love notes from cockroaches, or Dear John letters, or maybe letters seeking employment. Some giggles, then they exchange those, “She’s not really going to make us do this, is she?” looks. They’re teenagers after all; they have their pride.

We read excerpts from Pedro Pietri’s “Suicide Note from a Cockroach in a Low Income Housing Project.” (you can listen to the poem on Rhapsody! Choose selection #10 ) When we are done S. blurts out: “That cockroach has a lot in common with us!” Yes, that cockroach is “depress” (not depressed … my students, and Pietri, say “depress” as in “I’m depress today.”

“And he’s on welfare, too” another says.

“That’s what makes the poem so great,” I say, “the poet has stepped into the cockroach’s … well … not skin exactly, but you know what I mean.”


The poet has acted as ventriloquist, putting his feelings into the body of a roach. Whitman did it. He passed “death with the dying, and birth with the new-wash’d babe.” That’s the shimmering transcendence of art … the leap of imagination from my body into that of the lonely-looking woman I passed on the street – or even the bee that was caught in my hair as I stood outside waiting for the bus.

When it is time to write, I relent. I tell the class they don’t really have to write letters as if they were cockroaches. This elicits sighs of relief. “You can write from the point of view of an ant, a spider, a ladybug … any creepy crawly thing.” Oh well, by now they’re resigned.

Here are other suggestions I offered:

  • Include a salutation and a sign-off (it’s a letter, don’t forget).
  • Include two things the bug is doing, two things it’s feeling, two things it fears, two things it dreams of. (You can start each line with I am … I feel … I dream … etc. )
  • End with what the bug dreams … it pulls things together somehow!

My students’ poems, as usual, were dazzling. One had her cockroach write a love note that began: “I am the one you’ve been looking for …” How poignant is that!

Jump In

It’s scary to jump into very cold water. For some people it’s even scarier to jump into a poem. Here are a few suggestions I offer to my students … and friends 🙂 

1. Read the poem aloud. Don’t try to understand it. Experience the poem as you would a piece of music: What images come to mind as you read it, what mood does it evoke in you?

2. Notice the images in the poem. Why did the poet show you these particular images? What do they make you think about? How do they make you feel.

3. Notice the form of the poem. Does it rhyme? Do any words or phrases repeat? Are the lines long or short? Do the words sound like someone speaking in casual conversation or is the language more formal? How does the form affect the feeling and/or meaning of the poem?

4. Ask yourself: What is the poet trying to tell me? Why did she or he write this poem?

5. Write back to the poem. Poetry is a conversation across time and space. The poet has written to you. Now write back to him or her.

No Postage Necessary

This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me, —

What better lines to begin the semester with than those? After all, what teenager has not felt as Emily Dickinson must have writing those words?

“Don’t worry about understanding every word of the poem,” I told my students, ages 16-21, all young women; all either pregnant or parenting. Instead, I asked them, “What emotion is the poet describing?”

Loneliness was not hard to identify.

“Have you ever felt that way?”

A sea of nodding heads. Even heads that were resting on arms that were resting on desks seemed to nod slightly.

Poetry is so often written out of that utter loneliness. And the fact that everyone else has felt that loneliness, too, ought to tell us something. Can we really be such lonely souls if we are feeling the same thing as all of the other lonely souls who share our planet?

In any case, poetry is our opportunity to send a letter to the world. No postage necessary. So, for our writing assignment that day we started each line of our poems with the words “I want to tell the world…”

Some lines that linger with me:

I want to tell the world how disappointed I feel.
I want to tell the world how tired I am. So tired I could go to sleep right here.
I want to tell the world that my son got his first tooth!
I want to tell the world something happy.
I want to tell the world something crazy.
I want to tell the world I went rowing today — on the only river there is.

And perhaps my favorite line, written in the margin of one student’s paper:

“This is my first poem!”

And so the correspondence begins.

photo by Aja Riggs Copyright 2007

Those Who Can —

Those who can’t — teach. Or so the expression goes.


I never planned to teach … writing or anything else. From an early age I knew I wanted to be a writer. Yet here I am: Teaching — and writing. I have become a hybrid: A writer/teacher, or a teacher/writer.


By that I mean teaching and writing are no longer separate for me. To teach poetry I have to be a writer. And when I write, I teach. All writers are, in a sense, teachers. Writers educate their audiences, whether it’s about their fiction, their truth or the poem of their soul.


Teaching is also a form of publishing (which means to make public). A teacher publishes her message to her students every day.


One of my teachers, Lucille Clifton, has said she writes to learn — rather than to teach. But even that statement shows how inextricably the processes are linked: teaching/writing/learning.


The word education shares its root with educe; to draw forth. Isn’t that what writing is about … drawing forth a deeper story, a deeper truth?


Even before I became a teacher I’ve always disliked that expression: Those who can’t – teach. But now that it’s what I do, I know for sure that for writers at least, it’s simply not true. I might even change it to: Those who write – must.