Writer’s Blank


Thanksgiving break means I’ve had a little time to sort through my own poems. I found a few about teaching, including this one, inspired by one of my students:

Writer’s Blank

During the poetry lesson
in Mrs. C’s 7th Grade English class
José waved his hand: “Teacher,
Teacher! I have writer’s blank!”
“José, just write. Write
anything. Write
the questions.” Today
I don’t even have the questions.
Except, maybe this:
What can I love
about life
today?
What do you love?

  

photo by Aja Riggs

Poems on the theme of dreams:

These are some of the poems I use with my students to spark ideas for writing about dreams (read my previous post for more details!): 

  •  “Last Night I Dreamed of Chickens,” Jack Prelutsky 
  •  “A Dream Deferred,” Langston Hughes
  • “Stars,” Langston Hughes
  • “Let America Be America,” Langston Hughes
  • “Still I Rise,” (especially the last stanza) Maya Angelou
  • “City That Does Not Sleep” Federico Garcia Lorca
  • “Romance Sonambulo,” Federico Garcia Lorca 
  • “My Dream of Being White,” Lucille Clifton

One student, Kiki, was inspired by these lines from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise”:

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

 In response Kiki wrote this: 

I am the dream

a poor man’s daughter

strong, black and beautiful.

I am a poor man’s daughter,

his one great joy.

I am the child

the child of a poor man.

Ah, but I am the rich one.   

Last Night I Dreamed …

Not long ago I was meeting with a program director from an area agency who wanted to hire me to teach a poetry workshop at her site, and one of my colleagues. The three of us were sitting in my small office discussing how to teach creative writing.

“How do you get students to write poems?” the program director (I’ll call her PD) asked me. And then, “What about when they say they have nothing to write about?

PD is a woman in her late 40s with the curiosity and enthusiasm of a child. She wears her hair short and her bright brown eyes open wide when she leans in to listen.

“Dreams,” I said.

“Dreams?” she asked, sounding skeptical.

“Stanley Kunitz used them,” I offered, “and Coleridge, and … well, lots of poets do.”

But this didn’t seem to be enough to convince her. She has tried teaching creative writing, she told me, and she knows first-hand how hard it can be to get a reluctant student to write anything – let alone a poem. 

 Since she was thinking of hiring me to teach a workshop, I felt I had to prove my point. I didn’t want her to worry that I would stand hopelessly before a group of frozen, uninspired participants and end the workshop having collected nothing but a pile of blank pages. Besides, I don’t like to turn away from a poetry challenge.

I looked to my colleague (call her C) who had been listening closely to this exchange. “What did you dream last night?” I asked.

C is one of my favorite co-workers. She speaks her mind no matter if we’re sitting in the lunchroom gossiping, or in a meeting with funders. 

“Why? Are you going to make a poem out of it?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, “you and I will make one together.” My teacher persona was waking up and I was excited to prove my point.

But a familiar smile flashed across C’s face, and I knew I was in trouble. 

“Sure, I remember my dream, but I don’t think it’s what you have in mind,” she said.

What could I do? I wasn’t about to back down now. “Try me,” I said.

“Okay,” C. said. “Last night I dreamed I was …”

“Wait! Tell it in the present tense, as if it’s happening right now.” I grabbed a piece of paper off my desk, and slipped the pen out from behind my ear. “Start with, ‘I am ….’ ”

“If you say so,” C agreed. “I am in bed,” she began.

“Good,” I said, encouraging her to continue.

“I am in bed and I really, really have to pee.”

Okay, so maybe this wasn’t going to work, after all. Certainly it wasn’t the descent into the riches of the unconscious that I’d been hoping for. Our dreaming minds are masters of puns, metaphors, symbols and arresting images. Often a dream described in the present tense is a poem just waiting to be recorded on paper. 

C kept describing her dream, which never left the realm of bathrooms and nightly urges. I kept transcribing, word for word, what she was saying — all too aware that we were being observed by someone who might now be deciding not to hire me to lead a workshop for her.

It was as if I were living that dream where I walk into a classroom to take an exam I haven’t studied for … or that dream about being on stage without a script …

Nonetheless, I was hired to teach the workshop. C’s poem actually turned out to be quite funny. And time and again I find that dreams provide rich fodder for poems. So, if you want to give it a try read on:

 How to write a dream-poem:

  1. Think of a dream you had recently, or a recurring dream.
  2. Write the dream down in the present tense, as if it is happening now. Use descriptive language and strong verbs.
  3. Re-read what you’ve written. Insert line breaks and delete unnecessary words.

Or:

 Write a poem in which each line begins with the words: I dream …. You can include things you dream about at night … as well as dreams you hold for your future, day dreams, etc.

And Today, Another Cry

icicles-resized.jpgYesterday, I had a new group for poetry. S was sitting right up front, round-faced, with eyes hiding a wink of mischief in them. She wrote her name in a cheerful cursive in pink pen. 

 

The assignment, after reading Aleida Rodriguez’s poem, “Extracted,” was to write a poem about a neighbor.  In Rodriguez’s poem the poet describes going into her garden wanting only silence, but instead being accosted by the neighbor who” mispronounces words in two languages,” and the elderly woman with eyes that shine “like the windows/ of a house well cared for.” Rodriguez’s poem ends with this description of the mute moments she craves: “… nothingmore than the silent vines of my mindfeeling into dark places—blood-sweet—like a tongue exploring the hole left by a tooth that’s been extracted.” 

I could have assigned a poem about the deep quiet we sometimes crave … or silence, but I was in a lighter mood, and wanted to read about my students’ chatty, nosey or noisy neighbors.  

As everyone settled down to write, S. protested: “I don’t have any neighbors.” 

“You don’t have any neighbors?” I asked, eyebrow arched in disbelief. 

“No,” S. said. There was that mischief twinkling in her eyes, playfully challenging me. 

“Where do you live?” I asked. Our school is in a small city. There’s no place to stand without bumping up against someone else’s music, the aroma of their cigarettes or coffee. 

“In a building.” 

“With no neighbors?” 

“They’re invisible,” she pushed. “Like Casper.” 

“Great,” I said. “Write about Casper, your friendly neighbor.” 

And so S began to write: “She has no hair, no eyes, no nothing/ Only a stupid shadow …” 

After class I rushed to the staff lunchroom, hungry, craving conversation. About fifteen minutes into the break we heard a cry. A student’s voice; the sound of cresting sorrow. Someone came into the lunchroom to tell us: “It’s S.” 

S’s classroom teacher jumped up and she and a counselor went to find out what was wrong. Later we learned the reason for S’s wailing: the father of the baby she is pregnant with, had been assassinated. That is, he was murdered, probably in a drug or gang-related crime. 

S’s cry followed me for the rest of the day and into my dreams. A stupid shadow

…  

Today, I was working in my office late in the afternoon, just before students boarded the vans to go home. I heard another cry. This time it was a sound like the colors of balloons. And more voices joined in: teachers, counselors, everyone cheering. 

This time another student, N., had learned that she has passed her GED. I want to let that sound stick to my clothing and tangle in my hair, like stubborn confetti. 

A Lesson in Puerto Rican Poetry

A few weeks ago I brought Roberto Marquez’s anthology, Puerto Rican Poetry, to my afternoon writing class. All of the students are from Puerto Rico, or their parents are. When I held up heavy, 490  page tome, one student said, “I never knew there was any such thing.”

“Any such thing as what?” I asked. “A kind of writing called Puerto Rican poetry? Poets who are Puerto Rican?”

“Any of it … All of it,” she said.

For the next class I covered a desk in a bright green and blue scarf and piled it with books by Puerto Rican authors including Julia de Burgos, Martin Espada, Naomi Ayala, Pedro Pietri, and Marquez’s anthology … among others. I passed the books around, we read some of the poems, and discussed what it means to call a poem a “Puerto Rican” poem, what it means to write from a Puerto Rican point of view, and so on.

All of this brought me back to when I was eighteen, the age many of my students are now. I took a poetry class during my freshman year of college. The teacher encouraged each of us to discover our unique voice and to write a poem in it. After class I approached her: “But I don’t have one,” I said, “I just talk like everyone else.”

She looked at me and said, “Are you from New York? Are you Jewish?”

I nodded.

“I can hear that in how you speak,” she answered.

That conversation represented an early step on a journey of inquiry into who I was. I began to read poems by Jewish women, I read poems by contemporary women, I looked at the history of Jewish women.

And now, a few decades later, I am coming full circle. I have learned that what I’d said to that teacher was true, after all. I do sound like everyone else. That is, deep down, my pain, my longing, my love, my disappointments and hopes are written in the same universal language of the soul that every human speaks.

At the same time, I know that what my teacher said was true, too: In order to know myself as one among many, I first had to meet myself as a unique representative of my time, culture, gender and ethnicity.

Another writing teacher told me that poetry is about listening to the ‘other.’ You must read and teach poems by people who are different from yourself, she said. Read poets of different eras, different ethnic, race, class and geographic backgrounds.

I’ve taken that message to heart. In my teaching I always bring in poems from the past and the present, classic and contemporary writers. My students are predominantly Puerto Rican, and all are teen mothers. But if we were only to read the poems of young, female, Puerto Ricans we’d taste only one flavor of truth. I love when we read a poem by Christina Rossetti or Anna Ahkmatova and my students get quiet and someone says, “Yes, I’ve felt that, too.”

But after that comment that revealed that some of my students did not even know there are Puerto Rican poets, I remembered the value of starting out with our own voices, and following the sound of our own words into the larger dialogue, then out and back and away …   

This week we read and wrote about food, as that is one of the best ways I know to explore one’s heritage. We read Latina authors, some Puerto Rican, some not, including:

  • “Mango Juice,” by Pat Mora
  • “Risotto Ariosto,” by Aleida Rodriguez
  • the preface to When I was Puerto Rican, by Esmeralda Santiago (in which she describes the experience of buying a guava from a supermarket in New York, after spending her childhood in Puerto Rico eating the fruit directly from the tree).

Writing prompts included:

o       Describe in detail (using all five senses) how to prepare your favorite food

o       Describe in detail (using all five senses)what it feels like to eat your favorite food and/or

o       Describe in detail (using all five senses) how to eat your favorite food