The Urgent Poem
by Laura Gamache
“Only connect,” E. M. Forster wrote. As writers in the classroom, we encourage our students to connect the world they see with their inner world. How can we connect with them to foster their willingness to wander around with us into subject matter where there is no right answer? How do we help them access that inner world their mp3’s and texting thumbs hold more or less successfully at bay?
A friend who teaches six and seven-year-olds recently told me he went to an education conference where he heard the latest in brain research. The research shows that for kids to learn, you have to have their attention. All human learning comes out of relationships. If the teacher doesn’t build connection with students, they won’t learn. “We’ve known this all along,” he said, “it’s what we do.” So what is it I do?
When I am handing out handouts I walk around the room, and hand them to the kids. The kids get ample messages elsewhere that there isn’t enough time, we have to hurry along. How can they, and we, engage if we’re being pushed on to the next thing or obligation or time period? There is time to receive a “thank you” as a handout passes from my hand to a student’s. There is time, I assert to them. I am in no hurry.
I often play “Acronymble”, an acronym-making game, to start class sessions. The first day, I write the word “Acronym” on the board. I might mutter something about how words like this make me a little cross eyed. Below that I write: NFL, USA, WWE, MLB, SCUBA, LASER… Kids say what these stand for, and we arrive at the idea of an acronym. Then I add “ble” to the word, and say we’re going to be nimble with acronyms by making up new ones. For the game, I use a bag of Scrabble tiles. We start with three letters – three kids take one Scrabble tile each, and I write them or the teacher writes them so all can see. After a preliminary, spoken round, three new kids get to pull random letters from the bag, I set my timer for two or three minutes, and each member of the class writes as many acronymbles as they can in that time. “What a great way to get buy-in,” a teacher said to me once. I offer and a student takes what I offer, completing a connection. At the end of three minutes, we spend as much time sharing these ridiculously wonderful word concoctions which reveal depths of vocabulary we can mine for poetry-making. I’ve used little squares of tagboard in lieu of the Scrabble tiles. “Write me a letter,” I say, and somebody says, “M” or “S”, and I say, “That’s exactly what I mean.”
As writers we have a mission to be receptive to the world. This same receptive state is a key to building relationships with kids. We are different from the substitute teachers kids think we might be when they see us for the first time. While we have planned with the teacher to coordinate with their study of ancient India, word roots or persuasive writing, to elicit writing that will go into an anthology or performance, our focus is on process and surprise. We work with creative teachers, many of us, but we are still different. One terrific teacher I have worked with said, “I have to be a generalist as a middle school teacher. I cannot be passionate about any one thing. You bring your passion, and the kids get to see that.” I engage with kids as they set to work or do not set to work after I’ve presented the day’s challenge. I no longer take it personally that many kids haven’t a clue what the assignment is. For whatever reasons, and these include a room whose teacher does not have her class’s respect, kids need a one-on-one explanation of what to do. If someone is totally checked out, I make overtures to engage her/him. I admire a doodle or nail polish, ask about the book on top of a binder, point to anything scrawled on their paper or their hand, ask about the baby photo, or, once, ultrasound picture.
How we approach classroom work can foster connectedness within each community of writers. I used to think I was great at this, but it is hard, increasingly hard to create community among kids who don’t have the experience of community anywhere else. They don’t have the habit of connection or trust, some of them, and some of them are very young. I try to respond to whatever small joining in happens. I crouch beside a child with no pencil or paper in front of her, we talk, or I do, or I pat her shoulder and bring writing tools. It upsets me when young kids seem listless and disconnected, when they sit in their desks and saw at the metal undercarriage with scissors or hold a cell phone down there so they can text, “skool sux,” or “im bord” to a friend down the hall, or have half an ear to the class and the other plugged into an earbud. Kids in poorly run classes have a more difficult time connecting with their writing selves, but they see and hear our attempts to connect, our calls for them to participate in what we love. They might not do anything we can see, and then one day somebody writes a piece to wrench our heart or make us laugh in recognition.
Connection extends inward. When a class connects with each other, and me, they can connect with whatever content I bring, and can connect with their own inner humming, and troll there for new connections. I’m a poet, so I’m going to talk about poems. Poems are magical. Musical true expressions of what it is to be human. They can connect us to one another and to our inner rivers. I’ve seen it, heard it, felt it in the classroom, even and maybe especially in a chaotic one. I read “The Tyger” to two fourth grade classes at Lummi Nation School last week. The next day, one of my students recited the first stanza from memory. He wasn’t showing off or trying to impress me. The poem had lodged in him, and he was enjoying the sound of it. That poem has power I don’t have. Like all great art it calls us out of our daily stupor. I was, we are neither cause nor effect, but catalysts: the necessary presence that allows the reaction to occur within these other beings.
A few weeks ago I was in a wonderfully well run sixth grade class at Hamilton International Middle School, where it’s safe to be smart, and where the classroom culture allows writing workshop to thrive. “I love my ode,” one of the boys exclaimed to the whole class. The poem begins,
When my grandmother
drops a stick of
in the lentil soup
I take a
In a ninth/tenth classroom, a boy’s poem inspired by Roque Dalton’s poem, “Like You”, begins,
Like you I like the cold side
of the pillow.
Oh, wouldn’t Frank O’Hara love that? Don’t you? Here’s a secret you already know. The kid who wrote this acts like he doesn’t care, makes remarks to delay writing time, has a rep. If I hadn’t read his poem, I wouldn’t know him, wouldn’t feel this surprising connection. I do love the cold side of the pillow. And he made me think about that, because he thought about it, and wrote it down.
In the same classroom at Lummi on a different day, the teacher wasn’t there. We were having a difficult time gelling as a group. I passed around a fill in the blank writing assignment. I hate fill in the blank writing assignments, but sometimes with very reluctant writers who lack confidence, fill in the blank frees them. We all worked at our own writing. I finished mine, fast writer that I am, and walked from desk to desk as kids set pencils down, offering to exchange papers. Chris and I were reading each other’s writing, when he pointed at one of my lines. “This is really powerful,” he told me. I had been about to say the same thing about a line of his, my responsibility as writing mentor. His generosity and sincerity affected me profoundly. Maybe electrons only flow one way, but human connection runs back and forth. Reading and writing amp up human connection, reaching us in that still sometimes rarely visited place inside us.
The teacher has a tremendous amount of power to foster connection. The last time I was in that 9th/10th grade class the teacher went desk to desk, collecting work and photocopying it to give to me. She wasn’t just picking up papers, as might have happened in a different class. She connected with each student, enthusing over their writing, so that even those kids who hadn’t yet finished a piece completed a piece to be able to be part of this sharing, to make her proud of them, to hear her happy praise as she walked for the second time and the third to the photocopy room with another small sheaf.
I read somewhere, and this may be one for the Journal of Irreproducible Results, that adolescents hear about every fifth word an adult speaks. No wonder they get confused! Assume that was tongue-in-cheek, but it did provide the inspiration for my ceding a lot of presentation time to kids in the classroom. If, for example, we’re reading “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, I’ll read it to the group once, so nobody trips over “bawds of euphony” or “innuendoes” as they meet the poem, but then I’ll hand stanzas to small groups to read to one another and talk about. As a student, I hated the group project. I was always in the group with the kid sawing the undercarriage of the desk with scissors. I give them three minutes. I might have them write a parody of that stanza together to present, or have them give a case for why it is the stanza that is most like a Zen koan, a haiku, the opening of a mystery novel, a joke or geometry problem. I might give each the job of presenting that stanza to the class, reciting or acting it out. With a time limit and a set mission, the groups work well, and the kids connect with the poem through connecting with each other.
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” makes the case for Wallace Stevens’s assertion that the imagination refreshes the world. I believe that, and that the result of connection with the great poem, this and any, refreshes our connection with ourselves. I am fascinated by the fact that learning something new grows new connections in our brains. Neurons look to me like long arms with many fingered hands on the ends, the fingers branched and crossing one another. Through an electron microscope you can see that new knowledge causes new fingerlings to branch from the fingers lengthening and connecting with one another. Making a new connection is literally physical.
I share my excitements with the kids I work with. I only bring in poems I connect with. Teachers love “Where I’m From” by Georgia Ella Lyons. I don’t so much care for it anymore, but I love the poems kids write when they’re exposed to it. I believe in osmosis: that a poem you connect with will generate a responding poem in you, and that this happens without my belaboring the point. The connection is between student and poem. My job is to act as catalyst or fairy godmother, depending on which side of the brain you want to come from. I hover to the side and honor the encounter. I try not to mess it up by saying too much. Poet Ron Padgett, who was book editor at Teachers & Writers Collaborative for many years, and who grew up and wrote with poet and artist Joe Brainard, author of the fabulous book length poems, I REMEMBER, MORE I REMEMBER, and MORE I REMEMBER MORE, wrote a prose book titled CREATIVE READING, in which he says that writing is a continuation, an extension of reading.
I collect student work and share that with students as most of the rest of you probably do as a matter of course. The masterwork casts a spell, but I think work by peers inspires students to write because it is by peers and says true things along the lines of the mentor text, and yet makes students feel they can do that, or better it. And the student work I choose to share says something real, expresses and seeks connection.
Here’s a string of connections, from “Where I Am From,” which you can skip if you know it by heart, to a sophomore girl at Chiloquin High School, a non-WITS residency, to a sophomore girl at Lummi Nation School:
WHERE I AM FROM
I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from dirt under the back porch.
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush,
the Dutch elm
whose long gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.
I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from perk up and pipe down.
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cotton ball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.
I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.
Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments –
snapped before I budded –
leaf-fall from the family tree.
-Georgia Ella Lyons
Lyons’s poem, in answering the question “Where are you from?” beyond geography, acted as catalyst for Tiffany’s difficult poem:
THE ESCAPE FROM TOXIC TOWN
I am from either the Portagie shore
or the middle of France.
I am from a horrible mother and
an unknown father.
I am from the frontlines of custody battles.
I am from the drug-selling grandparents.
I am from a dysfunctional family who
moved to stay away from their troubles.
I am from the never-ending line of people
who don’t know how or why.
I am from a family that hits rock bottom
at every turn. I am from a family that its
children are taken away.
I am from a place where I no
longer know my brothers and sister.
I am from a family that does not
get much, but takes it all for granted.
I am from a family where drugs were
the one and only love.
I am from a lifestyle that seemed fine
till I was old enough to understand
I am from a family that forced me to
grow up too fast and become their leaning
post and guilt holder for everything
that went wrong.
Am I too lost to be saved?
Tiffany’s poem, in turn, spoke to Rosie, who then wrote:
I Am From
I am from a sad home.
Once upon a time it was
beautiful and smelled of fresh
paint. I am from a home
that was once bright and
joyful. Now it is dark and
hidden. Like a bone that
was once strong and healthy
but is now shattered to
pieces. I am from a
father who let me slip
through his grasp and a
mother who never tried to
reach for me. Dad left
for years, but mom left
for a childhood. Adopted by an
aunt said to change my
life, chose drugs eventually.
Strangers come and
go. Thieves, killers, crazies,
all addicts. I thought that
life was fine: until I grew
and my eyes were opened to
the brutality. I am from
a chair next to a hospital bed
awaiting my loved ones
to heal. Feet dangling and innocent
eyes wandering. I am from
a girl with a grudge. She
was broken and never fixed.
The scars you can see in
her eyes and in her voice,
visible to all who dare to
approach her. I am from the
past and present. Changed yet
the same. I am from the
heart of a fighter. The
soul of a lover is distant
“I am from a lifestyle that seemed fine
till I was old enough to understand
gave permission for and led directly to Rosie’s assertion:
“… I thought that
life was fine: until I grew
and my eyes were opened to
This is how the whole history of western and probably all earthly poetry has worked, one poet connecting and extending the work of another. Not that my goal is to create poets-for-life. My goal is to connect kids to their interior selves, and give them space to learn who they are by writing to discover what they feel and think, as William Zinnser so brilliantly writes about in, WRITING TO LEARN.
It is our connection to one another and to this fragile planet that makes us human. Another probably apocryphal piece of knowledge has it that kids these days no longer say they want to be doctors, explorers or researchers. They want to be famous, they say. Famous has no connection to doing anything. It is the twenty first century equivalent to the magical favor of a talking fish, fairy godmother, geni or possibly the vampire bite. “Are you famous?” my students ask me. “Famous among the barns,” I think. “What is famous?” I say. “I make poems and work in schools with kids.” And then they make some poems they sometimes love. “Do you want to hear my poem?” they ask me. “Yes,” I say, though we may be walking down the crowded hallway. Out of the binder bulging and about to spill over like a burger with everything, or out of a back pocket comes the folded paper. We walk, I lean in close, the urgent poem passes from the page through the student’s voice to my ear. I ask to see the poem I may have missed some or most of as the bell rings or the crush of students wells with noise. “Ah,” I point to a line. “That is a great line.” I repeat it aloud. The student beams. I beam. That line or phrase or word connects us in our joy over it, connects us to the whole human history of communication. Who are we? Where do we come from? We don’t know where we are heading, but just now we’re lifted out of the mad purposeless rush, out of the ordinary, into grace.