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!

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Recipe for Writing Magic

The idea to start a blog came to me after attending a writing workshop in New York City this summer. Six or seven women gathered in a garden in midtown Manhattan. The leader gave us prompts and five or ten minutes to write. Each time I heard the prompt I faced a moment of white panic in my mind. Would anything come? But then I’d glance around the circle, see the other women bent over their pads scribbling away, and as if being caught up in a tide, my head would drop, my pen would start to move and before I knew it, the time would be up. As each woman read what she came up with I was amazed. Each was a gem, small, bright and glittering.

I was so impressed by what could be accomplished that I tried the same thing at home. I wrote down a series of prompts on index cards and put them in a stack face down on my writing table. Each morning I’d select one, set an egg timer for ten minutes and write. The results? Let’s just say, nothing worth sharing. Why didn’t it work, I wondered? I had all the ingredients: A prompt, a time limit, pen and paper. All the ingredients except one: the group. What I needed to complete the process was a small group who would listen to what I had written the moment it was completed; that is to say, before I had a chance to decide I hadn’t come up with anything worthwhile, the writing had gone nowhere… fill in the blank with the disparaging comment of your choice. A blog, I decided, would be a way to recreate the magic. I have my timer running right now. I have four minutes left to finish this entry. And now I have an audience, too — albeit an invisible one, whose members I know only as a little line bending up and down in valleys and peaks that I can view on my “blog statistics” page.

As a writing teacher I know the magic of groups very well. Every Monday and Wednesday when I meet with my students I stand up and tell them to write about their memories, to write about someone they can no longer see with their eyes, to write about the block they live on, to write about cockroaches … whatever … Then I give them twenty minutes and a room full of quiet. And – presto! Magically, these young women who have promised me they can’t, won’t, will never write … do! When they are done I ask them to read aloud what they have written. The suggestion is often greeted with a chorus of why’s. I give them many reasons: It will help build your confidence; We want to hear the poem in the author’s voice; You can hear the places where you want to make changes when you read it out loud … but I forget to add that the pressure to share it with the group … the fact that there is a group waiting to hear what they wrote … is the magic ingredient that makes the recipe work!

photo by Aja Riggs, copyright 2007