Advice To Young (and Not-So-Young) Teachers of Young (But Wise) Poets

Advice to Young Poets
by Martin Espada

Never pretend
to be a unicorn
by sticking a plunger on your head

Good advice, no?

Teaching high schoolers, you may find, as I do, that there is some resistance to reading and writing poetry. Much of that resistance is based on what came before, and for too many students, what came before doesn’t relate to the place in which they’re living now. Shakespeare, Dickinson, Yeats, and some stuff about Grecian Urns. As a result, when they begin writing, they already have an idea what poetry sounds like and attempt to cram their voice into the space made by the styles of the ages.

While they bebop through school hallways with a rebellious swagger, their writing stands stiffly behind a podium with a monotonous drone (You can almost picture the elbow patches on their tweed jackets). I want to read poetry that is beast, that kicks down doors with brightly-colored Nike Dunks or is more inked-up than Lil Wayne’s throat.

How do we do it? Here are some places to start:
• Encourage them to write in a style that is similar to the way they speak.
• Help them move away from writing words in their poetry that they wouldn’t use in conversations with actual people.
• Bring in a variety of poetic voices—even those you don’t particularly relate to.
• Lean on influences from television, movies, fiction, music, and current slang or colloquialisms.
• Let them write about themselves

When it is clear they have permission to be themselves, young poets rarely stay gazing at their own navels. They instinctively want to create something bigger—but do so with their own unique slant on the world. Following are some prompts that bridge the gap between the self and the rest of the world.

1. Write a poem in the vein of My Name, by John Minczeski, which tells the story of immigration from Poland.

My name arrived from Poland in 1910 stowed away in the engine room
of a Swiss freighter. The cook took pity on it and every day brought
sausages, berries, and milk. My name for two weeks was deafened
by the sound of pistons and the turning of the twin screws. My name, with-
out a passport or an extra change of clothes, without a toothbrush or a
brown shopping bag, swam to Staten Island, barely missed being
eaten by Sharks. My name didn’t know English. It was taken in by potato
farms and learned to drive trucks and drink beer. My name tripped
over a cabbage and was cut in half by a harrow. Thus I was born. I have
given it years of pain. My name has forgotten how to cry.

Something about the journey in this poem helps students connect their current realities to a larger context of family and society. Brenda, a 9th grader at Chief Sealth International High School, writes of her people that escaped the war in Vietnam on a rickety boat:

My name held on when the seas were rough,
Prayed not to fall.

2. Create a persona poem.

Adopting a persona can also strike a strong balance between what students have to say and what .
Persona comes from the Greek word for “mask” and it is one way to quickly point out how voice is so dynamic in creative writing. After imagining a character, students write in the voice of that character. To do so effectively involves students understanding how they sound and how that might be different from someone else. They still must look for and highlight some point of connection or empathy in order to succeed.

Helen, also from Chief Sealth, viewed a black and white photograph of two boys in an alley and imagined they sounded like this:

You got your Ipods and fancy phones.
Well, we got a gun,
and we ain’t afraid to use it.

3. Take an inventory of what students are listening to on their Ipods, then devise a prompt based on lines from a particular artist or song.

4. Allow students to call out some of their favorite words—based on meaning, sound, or whatever criteria they decide. Those words become a palette from which they draw as they create original poetry.

5. Give students a line from another poet’s work, a sentence from a novel or a movie quotation and ask them to sample that somehow in their own poetry—to turn it into something different from the source and wholly original.

It can be fun to make-believe. Poets who reject Espada’s advice about pretending to be a unicorn, I’m sure, have a magical time for a few minutes. But in the end, they’re still waving a plunger around on their noggins. Plungers belong in the toilet, anyway, and who wants to write poetry that is better off being flushed?

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