Thank you to Sara Burnett for today's post about unlearning expectations in order to create something original. She threw in some poetry writing prompts, too, for teachers and writers alike.
Sara Burnett is a MFA in Creative Writing student at the University of Maryland where she works and teaches. Her poems have appeared in PALABRA: A Magazine of Chicano and Latino Literary Art, Hinchas de Poesia and Poet Lore. She holds a MA in English Literature and was a former public high school English teacher.
Poetry and The Process of “Unlearning”
Recently someone shared a blog post with me from the Poetry Foundation titled “The Average Fourth Grader is aBetter Poet Than You (Or Me Too)” written by Hannah Gamble. I found the post to be extremely provocative. I’ve always wondered and struggled with the idea that it might be better if I “unlearned” what I’ve learned when writing poetry. How does one retain their discovery of and play with language – that fresh and rather supple way of “seeing into the life of things” as Wordsworth said?
In her blog post, Hannah recounts her experiences teaching third-sixth graders during her time in graduate school as a Writer in the Schools (WITS). What surprised her was the nuanced and fresh language her students used simply because the average fourth grader “hasn’t been alive long enough to know how to do it (and by “it” I mean talk about the world) any other way.” She offers plenty of examples, (which I encourage youto check out), but her post particularly resonated with me because of my current work mentoring undergraduate students who work with high school students, of whom many are learning English as a second language (ESOL). I wondered if the “truths” Hannah found working with third-sixth graders would be evident with second language learners as well. With the added pressure of adapting, assimilating, and otherwise erasing one’s native tongue, these students not only risk losing freshness of language, they also risk losing their cultural heritage.
Many of these students in this class want to write poetry even when they may be unenthused to write anything else. Why is that? I think perhaps it’s because poetry is seen generally by the public as a haven for creative expression – where the lawless reign, anything goes, and those speaking standard English need not apply here. Even if I know that’s not always true, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief when teaching younger students, and like Hannah, I found I am often surprised and delighted with what they write. In this class I’m currently teaching, my undergraduate students mentor high school students individually in writing poems mostly about their homeland or acclimating to the US. My undergraduate students do the important work of preserving identity in poetry, of helping to bear witness. They also engender pride in these students’ cultural backgrounds that dominant US culture often undermines. At the end of the semester, student work is published in a professional-looking chapbook and these young writers give a reading to their school.
Back to the poetry. So do these student writings retain a freshness of language (that hasn’t been hammered out of them yet)? I’m about halfway through the term with these students so we haven’t worked too much on revising. But what I’ve found in this early drafting to that question is that the answer is both yes and no. Take a look at two examples:
(about writing & memory)
Does it die like a flower in winter or dry like water in the desert?
Does it fly away like an eagle in the air or stick with you like a magnet?
Does it take an eagle’s wing?
(writing a family narrative)
Seconds minutes and hours were in my mind... (first line)
Once I woke up, everything in my mind was the photography. (last line)
In the first example, while it’s predictable (flower dying in winter or no water in a desert), it’s also operating on the level of using figurative language to write about heavy abstract topics. The student writer is speaking about writing and memory as if it were a living thing. That’s great. With a few tweaks, a refocusing on the image of what the dying, drying, or flying looks like and something more original might be brought out. The second example is less exciting unless you take some liberties and ellipse, “once I woke, everything photography.” It’s not amazing, but it’s better and could jumpstart something. At the very least, it’s worth talking about with the student to model the writer’s mind at work.
Besides revision, I recently picked up another way to get students to see language afresh again and to help them understand metaphor as a concept. I took this from the AWP conference in Boston where I sat on a panel entitled “Bringing Poetry to The People.” Poet, former teacher, and all around inspiring person, Taylor Mali, had this example when he works with younger students. He calls it “Walking Backward Into A Metaphor.” Like any good teacher, he knows sometimes you have to “trick” your students. Try this exercise out for yourself to ignite a poem, or if you teach, share with your students.
1) Think of an object (any object that is not battery powered or sports related).
example (for students): a wooden box
2) Describe the object.
example (for students): I have a wooden box with one hinge broken and a music box inside that used to play a waltz.
3) Now swap the “I have” for “I am.”
example: I am a wooden box with one hinge broken and a music box inside that used to play a waltz.
Voila! Your students have a metaphor and now know what one is. Just to be sure...entertain their questions -- “but how can I be a box? How can a box be me?” It will be good discussion and a way to generate further writing.
There is a more adult “advanced” exercise I’ve tried in a writing group once and then read about years later in a book I can no longer recall the title of. You take an object, in this case it was something in front of us that we had no relation to, like a piece of driftwood. Then physically describe that object in prose for a considerable amount of time (10-15 min or so). Then write about the object as if it were your mother or father. As you can imagine, the results were pretty horrific, and by horrific, I mean brutally honest, good writing. And isn’t that the point of some ridiculous writing exercise – to break your habits of mind and write something that really surprises you?