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