H’s Haiku in Sound

H. missed our big poetry reading, the one she’d practiced and practiced for. That surprised me. Her love of poetry is no secret around our school. On the other hand, I realized she might have stayed home out of fear. H. is militantly shy. Getting her to speak in class was one hurdle her other teachers and I patiently encouraged her over, and getting her to speak to larger groups in public has been an exponentially more serious struggle.

When I saw her next, H. said she’d been sick. Then she missed some more school. She told me she’d been throwing up. I knew what that meant. And soon she confirmed my suspicions. She’s pregnant again.

But we had another big project we were working on, and H. made it to school for enough days to finish it. My afternoon class, which turned out to be just six girls, interviewed each other about why poetry is important to them, then they recorded their interviews and learned to edit them using the computers. H. is good with computers and good with poetry, so this was a perfect fit.

I interviewed H. on tape, following the script she and her classmates had created. I read each question as it was written: What is your name? What have been your biggest challenges in life? When did you start writing poetry … But my favorite part of the recording is the tail end, when I abandoned the script altogether.

That’s a risky thing to have done with H. She doesn’t like surprises maybe even more than she dislikes talking in public — and even though it was just the two of us in my office-turned-recording-studio, she was conscious of the microphone propped up on the desk in front of her, and the countless  potential listeners it represented.

“You mentioned you want to write a book of poems, is there anything more you want to say about that?” I asked.

Her eyes shot me an accusation. I’d tricked her into talking. I’d tricked her away from the script she’d rehearsed so carefully.

“Well,” she said, “I want to write poems that aren’t like anyone else’s.” Then, after a pause, “I hope someone notices me.”

We talked some more. Then, I closed the interview with one last question. “Is there anything else you want to say about poetry?” I asked.

H. thought for a long broadcast second. Finally, she summed everything up with three words: “I love it,” she said. And then, she and I began to laugh.

I’m inexplicably happy to have that moment recorded; the sound of our laughter, a wordless testimony to the joy of poetry. A haiku in sound.


photo by Aja Riggs

Poetry or Bust

In my afternoon class we are reflecting on poetry, what it means to us, and why it should (or shouldn’t) be taught in school. Students have been interviewing one another on this topic. Among the questions they are asking each other are these:

 Should people write and learn about poetry in school? Why or why not?

 H. answered this way:

Interviewer: Should people write and learn about poetry in school?

H: Yes!

Interviewer: Why?

H: Because I would go crazy without it. I would go on strike!



Vocabulary Lesson

As I was introducing a poetry lesson this week, S. was calling across the aisle to C., who was removing the foil from the shish kabob she’d bought (but not eaten) during her lunch break. Another student was working on an assignment for her next class, and still others were passing notes and whispering loudly.

“Ladies, could you please conduct yourselves with a bit more decorum!” I shouted above the din.

This caught S.’s attention. “Why you always have to use such fancy words? It gives me a headache.”

“Good question,” I said. “Why do I use such fancy words?” I wrote the word decorum on the board. “But first,” I asked, “what does it mean?”

“How should we know?” R. muttered.

“Because even though you may never have seen this word before, you know what I was asking you to do just now. What does decorum mean?”

“Acting respectful,” S. offered.

“And being polite,” C. added.

“Good behavior,” someone else added.

“See, you know what the word means.” I said. “Don’t worry if a word looks unfamiliar, you can still figure out its meaning.”

“But why should we use big words?” S. persisted. “I don’t like all those big words.”

“Because that way you can tell someone off and they don’t even know what you were saying,” one young woman suggested.

Fair enough. “Also, the more words you know, the more thoughts you can think. The more thoughts you can think, the more possibilities you have for what you can do with your life,” I offered.

Thus, this week during poetry class I’ve been focusing on vocabulary. For many of my students, who, shall we say, have not exactly felt welcomed into the hallowed halls of academia, new words sting, slap and burn. They’re evidence of what they don’t know. They are like signs that say, “No Trespassing.” “Do Not Enter.”

But for the poet, I told them, words are like treasures. They offer new ways of saying old things. They are new tastes. New experiences. Each one is a doorway into a new world.

I read somewhere that the late, great, poet Stanley Kunitz had the first hint of his calling when, as a child, he would skip through the woods repeating a new word again and again because he loved the sound it made in his ears.

When I took a poetry class with Lucille Clifton, she insisted we all stand up, hold hands, and each share one word we love the sound of.

Meanwhile, as my poetry class with S., C., R. and the rest continued, we added words to our list: gnash, unperturbed and ambiguous among them. I invited students to try to use at least two new words in their poems. C. wrote:

Inside the forest …

leaves gnash against each other

they feel like war

is coming toward them …

S., however, remained unconvinced. She didn’t finish her poem that day, and kept crumpling one piece of paper after another. But she did write the word “ambiguous” in big blue letters across the top of her page. Perhaps that was her way of having the last word on the subject. At least it was a brand new, multisyllabic one.


A Poetry Moment

Photo by Aja Riggs

Today I was in a meeting with a colleague when H. burst through the door clutching a piece of looseleaf paper. We stopped our conversation to see what she wanted, and for her part, H. looked momentarily stricken. Realizing she’d just interrupted a meeting in progress she sheepishly backed out of the room and into the hall. She then raised her fist, knocked on the doorpost and waited.

“Come on in,” I said, smiling at her attempt to make a new, more dignified entrance.

H., for those who haven’t been keeping up with my last few entries, is one of my students; a young mom who has struggled with school and struggled to keep her self-esteem up despite her struggles in school … and who has discovered poetry as an outlet, or rather an inlet to her soul … Lately she has just been brimming over with verse.

“Sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to interrupt, but I just wrote a poem and I wanted to show it to someone.”

Of course my colleague and I stopped our discussion and took turns reading H’s poem. We each gave her feedback about what we liked, and then I asked her what class she was supposed to be in.
“Oh,” H. said, flustered. “I guess I’m late now. But I couldn’t help it. I had a poetry moment …” she was still explaining over her shoulder as she rushed back to class.

A poetry moment! The phrase echoed in my head for the rest of the day. When was the last time I was late to a class or a meeting or work because I’d had a poetry moment? Frankly, it’s been too long.

All This Poetry is Messing Up My Mascara!

My students are threatening to re-name our poetry class “Crying Class.”

Last week we graduated from subtle swiping of tears to all out sobbing. The girls make a big show afterward of complaining about how they hate to cry, especially in public.

I, of course, launch into a lecture about how cryng is good and strong and how we have to learn to love our tears.

“Yeah, yeah,” one girl complains. “But the real problem is it’s messing up my mascara.”

That, my dear, is the price we poets pay.

One Poem, Five Reasons for Cheer

On Wednesday one of my poems was published in the local newspaper. That statement alone carries at least five reasons for cheer.

1)      First, it is a real treat to live in an area that has a local newspaper in this day and age, when so many small papers are being bought up or shut down.

2)      Next, to live in an area with a local newspaper and to have that paper publish poetry – what can I say, I live in a wonderful corner of the world, where poetry and all of the arts are valued.

3)       And then, it is a special pleasure to have a poem published at all (no easy feat in and of itself as any poet knows) but to have a poem appear in a publication that is so widely read by those who make up my community, well that’s even more satisfying.

4)      Could it get any better than that? It does! The poem was published next to an article about Sylvia Plath. That would be a nice coincidence for any poet, but for me it’s even more serendipitous.

5)      You see, Sylvia Plath and I have a special connection.  This is a fact that literary scholars have heretofore overlooked, but I will share the details with you. Here goes: I was born just hours after Plath died. When you take into consideration the time difference between England, where she died, and New England, where I live, one could imagine that our spirits passed right by one another as I entered this world and she exited it. If that isn’t enough of a connection, consider this: Sylvia’s first name and mine are almost identical. In fact, I am often called Sylvia by people who don’t know how to pronounce my name. And finally, of course, like Sylvia, I too am a poet. Coincidence? Okay, probably. But I like to read more into things than that. If nothing else it makes life more interesting.

So anyway, I just wanted to mention that it was nice to have my poem published. Cheers!

Quote Unquote: What You Bring Forth


photo by Aja Riggs


“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

 – From the Gospel of Thomas

At least once a week, it seems, a student asks me why they should write about the hardships they have suffered. Rather than tell the truth of their lives, they will create fictions of empty words and forgettable cliches.

But one by one they crack open. And along with tears, a sliver of light pours through, puddles on their desk, spills onto the floor and washes over their lives.

I am so fortunate to be reminded of this possibility every day.

Quote Unquote: Haunted

In preparation for Wednesday’s visit with poet Mark Doty, I read the following quote from a 1997 interview to my students: 

“I wait to be haunted, as it were, by an image … What happens is something I see registers on a deeper level than most experience does. A seal in the harbor, or the wreck of a fishing boat. I’ll feel this tug in my memory. Then I’ll begin describing it to try to capture it. …” 

“What does the poet mean when he says that he is haunted by an image?” I asked my class of teen moms. 

“I know,” one student said, “it’s like when a song gets stuck in your head. But instead of a song, something you saw gets stuck in your head and you can’t stop thinking about it.” 

And so another poet is born! 

Things that threaten to swamp your craft


photo by Aja Riggs

Every now and then my students amaze me. Okay, at least once a week my students amaze me.

This week’s tale goes something like this: We’ve been reading poems by Mark Doty, who’ll be visiting our school Wednesday. And of course you can’t really read too far into Mark’s work without coming upon poems about homosexuality. And when you teach teenage girls you never know how reading poems about gay men and AIDS and poems with words like butch and queen in them is going to go.

In fact, I spent almost all of my prep time devising strategies to diffuse, deflect, and even downplay the gay thing. I quickly realized that wasn’t going to work. It’s like trying to throw an afghan over the elephant sucking peanuts up off the living room carpet and hoping your dinner guests won’t notice that there’s a pachyderm standing there.

So, before I read “Embrace,” an absolutely beautiful poem in which the author receives a visitation from his deceased lover in a dream, I decided to put the cards on the table.




Okay, so I kind of speed talked my way through the introduction, hoping, I guess, that if I didn’t leave any time for students to comment they wouldn’t have time to say anything homophobic. Then I launched into the poem. Which, by the way, you just can’t speed read your way through. Because at some point when you read it, your voice will get caught on all those tears that building up during the achingly loving descriptions of the narrator seeing his lover again, his face untouched by the pain and suffering and sickness.

When I was done reading there was silence. Then a ripple of sighs sifted through the room. “Wow,” S. said. “I wish I had a love like that.”

Another student immediately began writing a poem about her father who died of AIDS. Instead of love, she wrote mostly of the anger she felt toward him for neglecting her during his short lifetime. But, she wrote, she never would have expressed these long-hidden feelings, if Mark’s poem hadn’t invited her to explore them.

Then T., whose poems have up until now been stifled by that particular brand of teenage girl obsession with polish, shine, neatness and matching — which translates into sweet poems in perfect penmanship about nothing much — finally wrote about her father’s violent death.

And on it went. No one, needless to say, got caught up in the particulars of the poet’s sexuality.

Which brings me to something Mark told his workshop students back in 1996 at Columbia … a workshop I was taking as part of my graduate studies. He said: “Write about the things that threaten to swamp your craft.” That’s the kind of instruction I might have given my class, if I hadn’t been so busy anticipating homophobia that my students were obviously beyond.

 But in the end they got the message anyway. And sailed with grace through the tumultuous waters of their hearts.

Quote Unquote: Weightless Words

Photo by Aja Riggs

I remember once my sister, a visual artist whose studio was filled with canvases, tubes of paints, easels and old coffee cans filled with brushes and sticks of charcoal … in short things … once saying that she was envious of me as a writer: “All you need is a pencil and paper and you can create,” she said.

But I, in turn, have often been envious of the artists in my life. They get their hands dirty with color, they surround themselves with objects that possess texture, shape and depth. The tools of their trade have weight.

We poets and writers have only words. Ephemeral and elusive, they can not even hold their shape as they pass from one language to the next.

Samuel Johnson, the man who gave us the dictionary and the great grandfather of journaling had this to say about the tools of our trade:

“I am not yet so lost in lexicography, as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven. Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote.”

 Me, too.