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

Cockroach Love

I tell my students we are going to write about cockroaches today. They look from one to the other, exchanging that now-familiar, “Is she crazy?” look.

 

Not only that, I tell them, we’re going to read a suicide note from a cockroach. Then we’re going to explore what the cockroach might be feeling. Then we’ll write love notes from cockroaches, or Dear John letters, or maybe letters seeking employment. Some giggles, then they exchange those, “She’s not really going to make us do this, is she?” looks. They’re teenagers after all; they have their pride.

We read excerpts from Pedro Pietri’s “Suicide Note from a Cockroach in a Low Income Housing Project.” (you can listen to the poem on Rhapsody! Choose selection #10 ) When we are done S. blurts out: “That cockroach has a lot in common with us!” Yes, that cockroach is “depress” (not depressed … my students, and Pietri, say “depress” as in “I’m depress today.”

“And he’s on welfare, too” another says.

“That’s what makes the poem so great,” I say, “the poet has stepped into the cockroach’s … well … not skin exactly, but you know what I mean.”

 

The poet has acted as ventriloquist, putting his feelings into the body of a roach. Whitman did it. He passed “death with the dying, and birth with the new-wash’d babe.” That’s the shimmering transcendence of art … the leap of imagination from my body into that of the lonely-looking woman I passed on the street – or even the bee that was caught in my hair as I stood outside waiting for the bus.

When it is time to write, I relent. I tell the class they don’t really have to write letters as if they were cockroaches. This elicits sighs of relief. “You can write from the point of view of an ant, a spider, a ladybug … any creepy crawly thing.” Oh well, by now they’re resigned.

Here are other suggestions I offered:

  • Include a salutation and a sign-off (it’s a letter, don’t forget).
  • Include two things the bug is doing, two things it’s feeling, two things it fears, two things it dreams of. (You can start each line with I am … I feel … I dream … etc. )
  • End with what the bug dreams … it pulls things together somehow!

My students’ poems, as usual, were dazzling. One had her cockroach write a love note that began: “I am the one you’ve been looking for …” How poignant is that!