Go Inside

Tonight I was sitting in my back yard, staring into the flames that were leaping in the outdoor fire pit, wondering what I would teach my students tomorrow. First I thought about poems I might want to introduce them to. Then I asked myself, “What do I want them to learn about poetry tomorrow?” In the end there’s only one thing to learn about poetry, and of course I can’t teach it. That is, we need to learn to go inside, to explore the dimensions of our hearts and minds. Well, I can’t teach that, but maybe they’ll discover it by delving into one of these poems:

1)   “Stone,” by Charles SimicSimic, our current Poet Laureate, offers an imaginary peek inside a common, stepped on, ignored, thrown in the pond, sometimes flinty, stone. I think this poem will be a good one to begin with, as it is less threatening to journey inside a stone at 10:20 on a Monday morning than it would be to start right off with looking inside ourselves. We can work our way up to that as the weeks progress. To hear Simic read “Stone” click here.

2) “The Unwritten” by W.S. Merwin. Here, Merwin brings us inside a pencil. That’s getting closer to the heart of things, but a pencil is still seemingly just an object made of wood, and so again, it won’t seem too terribly threatening. Until, of course, we start to write about what word is hiding inside our pencils, waiting to be written. (Visit this site to see a copy of the poem … you’ll get a writing assignment while you’re there.)

3) what the mirror said” by Lucille Clifton. This poem brings us to the mirror, where each poet can look inside her own eyes, and if she dares, she can write about the territory that is found there. 




Grandmother Poems – Hold the Clichés

There are some topics that invite cliché and should therefore be avoided as themes for poems. Those include: Babies, Love, and Grandmothers. Yes, I know, that’s what everyone wants to write about. But here’s the problem. Try writing about your baby without getting all gooey or using the word angel or angelic. A love poem free of clichés? Good luck. As for grandmothers, that’s our theme for this week’s poetry classes.


My teen students were immediately silenced when I suggested the topic. Always a bad sign. But after a few minutes of prodding, I learned that the problem was that they assumed they should be writing sweet old lady poems and in fact some had grandmothers who are in jail, on drugs, dancing at parties with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in another. No need to worry about clichés with this group … as long as they felt free enough to tell the truth. Which took some prodding, too.


To get folks started, and to steer them away from cliché’s I offer the following prompts … give it a try:


  • List three objects you think of when you think of your grandmother.
  • List three things your grandmother always says.
  • List the names of the songs, types of music and/or singers she likes to listen to.
  • List your grandmother’s powers: (to heal, to interpret dreams, to scare your father …)
  • List your grandmother’s skills … what can she do better than most people?
  • List three things your grandmother can’t do … drive a car? shingle a roof? speak a foreign language?
  • List three reasons she makes you angry.
  • List three reasons why you love her. (If you’ve been honest and specific enough with the top questions you can afford a little sentimentality here.)


Now, make your list a poem. It is probably already almost there. But to make it complete you can add phrases like: I remember … or My grandmother is … to the beginning of each phrase.


Happy writing … and remember, the truth and a specific detail or two are the best weapons in the war against cliché!

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?


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.


 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.

La Cucaracha

Growing up as a budding young writer, it seemed anytime something difficult would happen to me my mother would say, “Look at the bright side, at least you’ll get a good poem out of it.” Granted, when I was crying my eyes out over my latest heartbreak, those words could be cold comfort. But of course, in the end, Mother was always right. So it is that when I teach my students, teen moms who can describe the variations in color of cockroaches the way some people can describe the nuances of a sunset, I from time to time like to assign poems about bugs. As much as they hate the crawly crunchy critters that plague their attempts at maintaining spotless kitchen floors, the poems they write about cockroaches … or insects in general … are almost always gems. Here are some suggested poems to get the creative juices rolling. (Who knew there was such a wealth of poetry about the humble, confounding roach!)

  • “My Cockroach Lover” by Martín Espada

  • “Suicide Note from a Cockroach in a Low Income Housing Project” by Pedro Pietri
  • “The Coming of Archy” by Don Marqui

Poems my Students* (*mostly Puerto Rican teen moms who’ve dropped out of school) Love

My students have seriously influenced my taste in poetry. After years of teaching the subject to teen mothers who’ve dropped out of high school, I’ve started to see poems through their eyes.

If you’ve never spent time with my students, you might think there’s a danger that my tastes have been dumbed down; that I now shy away from poems with multi-syllabic words or literary allusions. But that would be assuming that my students lack intelligence — which is definitely not the case. I recently read something that said “Beginning readers are not beginning thinkers.” Well said. I might add another level to that: “Low education level doesn’t mean low intelligence.” My students may not be able to spell the word allusion (spell check caught me on that one, too, by the way) but they can smell B.S. a mile a way. Meanwhile, when confronted with a convoluted poem that’s heavy on style and pretense and light on meaning or insight, those of us with MFAs often get lost in circles of doubt about our own intelligence rather than say what needs to be said: which would be, much of the time … as my students say with such eloquence: “This s@&$% is whack!”

I’m all for challenging my students; pushing them to stretch their vocabularies, their imaginations and their confidence in their intelligence. At the same time, they have a point when they get impatient with a poem that’s more about posturing than powerful imagery and emotion.

One of my favorite exercises is to drop a stack of poetry books (anthologies work well) on a desk in the middle of the classroom and pass out sticky notes and pens. The assignment: Read around in these books. Find something you love or or something that makes you think or feel … and put a sticky note on that poem. Write one line about why you like it, and keep reading. When everyone’s tagged at least one poem we go around the room and read our new favorite poems out loud, along with the reasons why we chose them. One group gave these reasons for liking poems:

  • it’s sad
  • it rhymes
  • it’s romantic
  • I can feel it
  • I’ve lived that
  • the word choices are good

As for the poems they chose … a recent round (using the anthology “America’s Favorite Poems” edited by Robert Pinsky) netted the following list of favorites:

  •  “I’m Nobody Who Are You?” by Emily Dickinson
  • “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman
  • “Sonnet 29” by William Shakespeare
  • “Minstrel Man” by Langston Hughes
  • “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes
  • “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks
  • “Ay, Ay, Ay de la Grifa Negra” by Julia de Burgos
  • “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa
  • “The Sentence” by Anna Ahkmatova

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!

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.

Back to School Shopping: Paper, pencils and juggling balls

Two weeks till school and the autumn ritual has begun: Back to School Shopping. Not for my students. They are high school – (or junior high school – ) dropouts. Now they are enrolled in the GED program where I teach. Let’s just say they’re not the pocket-protector types. It’s rare that they come to class with a pen or pencil, let alone a new notebook. We provide the pencils, paper and folders to store their work. But I was the kind of kid who loved school and loved back-to-school shopping – and now I’m the kind of teacher who loves the same. This  year my back-to-school shopping list includes:

  •  Index cards: As I’ve said, the blank page is scary for its vast expanse of white space. The index card is less so; it’s smaller, easier to fill; less intimidating … which is important for my students, who have had their confidence about their ability to write bludgeoned out of them by previous school experiences.

  • Colorful file folders: File folders for storing student work in. Color because manila is too work-a-day. Color livens things up.

  • Colored printer paper: For printing assignments on. Again, white would do, but color makes everything seem more festive.  

  • Juggling balls: Yes, I know, it’s poetry class. But I recently read that ADD adults write better if they take breaks for activities like walking a straight line, balancing on one foot … and juggling. As I mentioned earlier, my students left high school for one reason or another. Not necessarily because they failed school … more likely school failed them. I suspect that many have learning disabilities that they didn’t get the proper attention for. And the more I read about ADD, the more I’m sure that many of my students have it. Or, they’re just kinesthetic learners; the kind of students who need to be moving while they take in new information. So we’ll try taking juggling breaks. 

 Next on my to-do list … decide which poems to start the year off with: What to read? What to write? That … and brush up on my juggling.