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!