The Poetry Lady’s FAQs

A web site is not really a complete web site these days, unless it offers a set of FAQs. I don’t know when FAQ became part of our common parlance, but there it is: short, clunky — rather unpoetic if I do say so myself.

Nonetheless, I feel it’s time that I created my own list of FAQs. After all, there are questions that are frequently asked of the Poetry Lady. In fact, I have a stack of yellow index cards piled on my desk and each one contains a question I’ve been asked during my workshops on teaching teachers to teach poetry. The questions I receive range from:

How do I inspire students to write poetry?


How can I use poetry as a way of enabling people to search deep within and find new ways of expressing themselves?  


 How can I use poetry as a resource for problem solving? 

All very interesting. But for now I will try to address a pair of questions, that though seemingly on opposite ends of the spectrum, almost answer one another. The first is this:

How can I present a poetry lesson without scaring my students?  

I have to admit that this question scares me just a little bit. The reason I think our students are afraid of poetry is that we as teachers are afraid of it. We’re afraid that as we delve into a poem we’ll come face to face with a line that makes absolutely no sense to us … or a word we don’t know the definition of and didn’t have time to look up before class. We’re afraid we won’t understand it and worst of all, that we will be unmasked in front of our students.

Perhaps we’re afraid that the poem’s theme: death, God, love or lust is just too big and too deep for us to handle in 42 minutes. Perhaps we’re afraid to think about these things because in truth we don’t know what we think about them.

Poetry is not math. There is no correct answer. What could be more terrifying to a teacher than that?

 The second question I want to add to my FAQ page is this one:

How can I help my students love poetry as much as I do? 

The teacher who asked this question will have no problem teaching poetry. She will have no problem convincing her students to love it. Because it is almost this simple: Don’t teach poetry, share poetry that you love.

This question reminds us that the answer to the one that preceded it is that in order to avoid scaring your students about poetry, learn to love it yourself!

Sometimes I think the less said about poetry in the classroom the better. Let’s agree not to teach poetry, but instead to read a poem aloud to your students that once made you cry – and invite them to do the same. Post poems that you love, or stanzas from them, in places where students might come across them. The bathroom wall is as good a place as any.

One of my favorite poetry activities, in fact, involves no teaching at all. I simply bring an armload of poetry books into the room and drop them on a desk somewhere in the middle. My instructions to my class are simple: Take a look inside some of these books. Find a line or a title or a stanza or a poem that makes you laugh or that makes you angry, or that makes you say, “Yes!” and at the end of class we’ll listen to what you’ve found.

Instead of teaching poetry to our students, what if we were to join them in the discovery of poetry instead? Share in the mystery. Share in the unanswered and unanswerable questions. Accept that poetry is in itself about Frequently Asked Questions. But most importantly it is about frequently unanswerable ones.


Valentine’s Day Week In Poetry

Photo by Aja Riggs

Monday … for Valentine’s day the students in my morning class wrote love poems … or at least poems to our loved ones. We read some of Pablo Neruda’s poems from his lovely, slim volume: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Neruda’s poems draw on images of the sea and nature. I warned my students that the danger of writing love poems is the danger of falling into cliché. I encouraged them to draw on images from their environment and to write to their lovers or loved ones using original language and metaphor. Still jazzed from last week’s exercise of combining unusual words to make unique pairings, my students were ready for the task. E., who has been reluctant until now to stray far from the grade school notion of poetry that is filled with roses and rhymes, described her lover’s “criminal eyes.” Another of my student poets compared her boyfriend to “a bird who flies off every winter to someplace unsafe.” A marvelous and mysterious turn of phrase. Hallmark’s got nothing on these girls.

Tuesday … I’m writing an article on assignment, and lucky me: I was sent to interview a poet, Ellen Dore Watson. During our conversation we tried to come up with what it is about poetry that keeps this art form not only alive in this age of racing technology, but also relevant. We discussed why it was that after 9/11, for example, people turned to poetry as if they were literally starved for it. Though not as useful as prose on a day-to-day basis, we agreed that poetry is somehow essential. “It’s like a lot of things,” Ellen said of poems. “You don’t know you need them till you need them.”

Wednesday there were no poetry classes because we had a snow day. Despite all my best laid plans to use this gift of time to tidy my home office, catch up on paper work and maybe even write a poem or two, I spent the entire day on the couch sipping tea and reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I came across this lovely passage written about knowledge she gained from a traditional medicine man in Bali:

“The child is taught from earliest consciousness that she has these four brothers with her in the world wherever she goes, and that they will always look after her. The brothers inhabit the four virtues a person needs in order to be safe and happy in life: intelligence, friendship, strength and (I love this one) poetry. The brothers can be called upon in any critical situation for rescue and assistance. When you die, your four spirit brothers collect your soul and bring you to heaven … “

Thursday: Valentine’s day is the day for poetry; it is the one day a year we celebrate sentiment. I heard former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser on NPR saying something like that. He apparently used to send Valentine poems out to a list of 2,000 women. A Valentine poem, according to his definition, could be about anything with red in it. One poem, for example, was about a red potato. That lack of sentimental sentiment appealed to me. Besides, what’s not to love about a potato?

Friday: Poetry got a day off. It needed a rest after all that attention on Thursday. And so did I.

When Chicken McNugget is an Adjective

Last week we wrote about dreams. My students’ poems were serious and heartfelt. Dare I say … pedestrian? They dreamed of getting their GEDs and being the best mothers in the world. That’s lovely … moving even … but where were the metaphors? Where was the imagistic writing? Shouldn’t dreams by their very nature be fanciful? Extravagant? 

So this week I handed out sheets of loose-leaf paper. “Fold it into three vertical columns,” I instructed, “and keep it folded so only the first column shows.” When that task was accomplished, I continued, “Now, write a list of adjectives.” I handed out thesauruses, too. “I want interesting adjectives,” I demanded. “Not good, or bad or pretty, but luscious or sluggish.”

To stoke the fires I asked questions: Name some adjectives that describe hair: “Curly, bald, smooth,” students offered. “Now give me some adjectives that describe farts.” Okay, I asked for it: “Smelly, loud, disgusting …”

After a few more go rounds, we refolded the paper so only the middle column showed. Now it’s time for nouns. Again, I tried to nudge their imaginations in new directions: “Name things that are in your pocket or purse, things that you’d see at a funeral, the strangest thing you’ve ever seen …”

Words were flying around the classroom: nouns, adjectives, even some wayward verbs. My favorite was chicken mcnugget, which made its way into the adjective column, and which we decided could be used to describe, for example, a person’s hands. As in, “He has chicken mcnugget fingers.”

Now we unfolded our papers. Put the words “I have in front of each pair of words,” I said. The last column could be used to add a metaphor or further description, as in: “I have a gaping casket, big enough for your big mouth in,” as E. wrote.

Then we read the lists out loud. We had lines like:

I have stubby cigarettes

And tired camels

I have a chicken mcnugget daughter

And two tired priests.

When we read our poems out loud we had stupendous laughter ricocheting off the Silly Putty walls. And a bunch of teenagers who became adults a little too quickly forgot for an hour to be their tough, serious, burdened selves. And best of all, J., who had done nothing but complain about poetry for weeks was suddenly a raucous little elf.

“I didn’t know we could do this in poetry!” she said between bouts of giggles.

When Poetry Class was over I gathered my things and walked out the door, but I could still hear M and J calling out to each other: “Give me another adjective … no, I want something more interesting.”

What’s another word for elated?


Five Ways of Looking at a Poetry Class


I bring in two poems: Langston Hughes’ Dream Variations, and He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven by William Butler Yeats. It’s too much material for an hour-long class. Especially since I also want to touch on Dream Deferred and MLK’s I Have a Dream speech.  

The night before class I dreamed that I saw Barack and Michelle Obama pulled over on the side of Route 9 and I stopped my car and ran over to wish Barack luck with his campaign and then he started to dance with me right there on the shoulder of Route 9 in front of the driving range and the little shack where you can buy ice cream in the spring.

So when I woke up of course I was thinking about Barack Obama, and my mind wandered to how he had stood tall after the Iowa caucus saying, “They said this day would never come,” and I wondered what MLK would say about this moment in history, and then a poetry assignment started to coalesce in my mind and Langston Hughes would have to be part of it, and I just love that poem by Yeats, which also plays with shades of light and dark … 

So we have a lot to cover this morning, but J. and R. are sitting in a corner gossiping and I think I see that R. has her cellphone in her lap underneath her desk. And I’m sure she is texting. I’m famous for my anti-cellphone tirades in class but today I just want to teach the girls who want to learn and ignore the girls who don’t.  Like E., who is sitting silent, as always, in her seat along the wall with the coat hooks and calendar behind her. Sitting next to her is a new girl who said she’d never written a poem before.  Then there is M. who wants to know how to spell every word that pops into her head, and K. who wants to do whatever I want her to do without drawing any attention to herself, and just a few other girls.

Every one of them is a story. But first I want to write about E. 


Finally the room is quiet. At least quieter. And the girls are writing poems about dreams. Making my rounds I come across this line on E’s page: “I dream that my brother murder gets justice.” I stare for a moment, trying to make sense of the line. I put an ‘apostrophe s’ after brother and an ‘er’ after murder.

“Is this what you are saying?” I ask. She nods.

I look at the line I just edited. “I dream my brother’s murderer gets justice.” I liked it better before it made sense.

“Your brother?” I ask helplessly. She nods. “I am so sorry,” I say, looking straight into her quiet face, her screaming eyes. I pack a lot of faith onto those syllables. Faith that those words, spoken quietly amidst the sounds of the other students’ bochinche and calls of “Miss, Miss,” and “How do you spell … ?” will carry everything I want to express; every un-sayable thing. Like the wordless well of grief and the crazy faith of dreaming and the easy choice of not daring to dream – and how much I care about E. even though she will never know it – and how much her loss scares me. Because I don’t want it to be true. I don’t want these things to happen to people I know, or to people that people I know love. I don’t want these things to happen. That’s all.  

“I am so sorry.” I try to float all of it on those words … and a little flag of hope, too.  

I let myself dream that the wide still waters in E’s eyes will carry my message inside, all the way in and down to her heart.  


And what about J? What is up with her these days? Before her maternity leave J. had had a breakthrough in poetry class. J. with her anger management issues; J. with her “don’t mess with me” facade. J. came to me and said, “Poetry helps. Poetry is teaching me a new way.” She was my convert! She was the poster child for Poetry Changing Lives! She was writing her anger instead of throwing it at the walls and at everyone who tried to help her.

Then she went off to have her baby and now she’s back.

And so is her attitude.  

“How are you doing?” I asked before class started. “Horrible!” she said. “I’m having the worst f#&@ing day. It was only 10:20 in the morning. She was eating cereal out of an individual serving bowl. “I hate these raisins,” she sputtered. “And the milk is too f#&@ing sweet.” Then she started laughing like the schoolgirl she is supposed to be. 

Five minutes later she tried to pick a fight with me; did that ghetto thing- trying to scare me back. Finally she put her head on her desk and her winter scarf over her head and checked out.  

During writing time she didn’t pick up her pencil — except for a moment to scrawl a few words across one entire piece of loose-leaf paper. “I’m done!” she said, slamming pencil and paper back down on the desk, returning her head to its hiding place beneath her scarf.  

“I dream of going home and everything being good,” she had written. I told her that was certainly a big enough dream to fill a page with, and she said, “Yeah! Like it will ever happen.”  


Meanwhile, J, and M, and K and maybe E and the new girl, love the poems I brought in.

“That’s a phat poem,” M. says reverently after J. reads Dream Variations aloud.  “It feels like there’s a child spinning around in it,” someone adds. E. and the new girl nod their approval.  I tell them how much Hughes loved music and how he tried to make his poems sound like songs. Which prompts M. to ask what the lines music are written on are called. I drew a staff and a G-clef on the board and label the parts. M sets about writing a beautiful poem that borrows Yeats’ rhythm and in which dreams unfurl on a musical staff while her paralyzed body sleeps on …  


Today during this same poetry class the new girl wrote her first ever poem, for which we all applaud her. J. says she should give herself three POBs (Pats on the Back). I agree. She deserves at least three! It’s a momentous day, after all.