“I fly with your perfume in my nose / and I think how we were old snails.”

by Sierra Nelson

This past December I had the wonderful opportunity to work with some of Port Townsend High School’s 11th grade English Classes writing poetry. One early morning class, just waking up and warming their words into the still cold room – and an afternoon class, charged and restless and lively at the end of the school day, trying to wrestle words onto the physical page.

For two intense and wonderful weeks I went into their classroom every day. The first day we kicked things off by writing a collaborative manifesto: what we thought poetry could do, and more importantly, what we wanted it to do. Here are some excerpts of what the students came up with:

Poetry grabs your attention
Poetry asks questions
Poetry makes you Think and Feel
Creates silence
Creates noise
Poetry should not be painful!
Poetry should not fill you with a sense of dread!
Poetry calms you, entertains you
It can change your emotions
Poetry expresses feelings better than you can,
Explaining the incomprehensible,
What’s in your head on the page so people can understand it
Poetry helps you escape reality
Poetry helps you enter reality

Not a bad start! I love that the contrarian impulses of high school can all be contained within poetry. It does create silence and noise, and it can offer imaginative escape as well as the opportunity to delve deeper into our experience. But my favorite moment was Logan’s addition, when he confessed that the prospect of writing poetry filled him with dread and that it often seemed painful. I was so glad he was brave enough to say that – sparking an interesting conversation about the possibilities of poetry. Did it have to be painful? How could we make it our own this time?

Over the course of the two weeks we wrote collaboratively and individually, and we wrote on typewriters, in our notebooks, and on tiny pieces of pink and green paper. We borrowed words from science and literature to make something new. We wrote postcards, sonnets and odes. We wrote using our senses (surprisingly challenging!), and looked to our memories to write list poems of the images we found there. (I was blown away by how brave, vivid and moving these lists were – a turning point in the writing for many of the students.) We wrote unusual love poems you probably won’t find on the Hallmark aisle. (Some of my favorite poems of the residency, I have to confess!)

Here’s a few small excerpt of the many (not painful!) wonders that emerged:

Do you see the clock on the other side?
The one sleeping on its emerald bed?
As I stood where the stoplight stands
I thought only and completely of you.
(“Postcard” – Elizabeth Beacham)

The scenic route 12, with its scenic dips
A long state in all directions
even longer in depth
An unreasonable amount of nature
stunting into the sky.
(“Postcard” – Tristan deRochefort)

Admirals of the fleet
Make the doorways
From the monsters’ jaws
With the heads of horses
(“Creatures of the Sea” – Cole Altemose)

Your passion fuels my racecar.
It puts a dagger in my hate for the world.
When I am with you I think to myself who are you.
I fly with your perfume in my nose
and I think how we were old snails.
Your face crushes the uncomfortable silence.
You heart makes wrong feelings die.
You are true and trustworthy and my kneecaps
collapse every time I think of you.
I wish I would be with you always.
(“Your Passion Fuels My Racecar” – Mitch Thomas)

When my eyes see you
My legs stalk on you
My mind infatuating about you
My batteries never die only for you
(“My Soul About You” – Topaz Putra)
My cat resembles a sack of pataties.
She waddles around like a pregnant lady.
Her yowls split the air looking for her baby.
My hand strokes her soft hair one last time
as I say, “See you latie.”
(“Ode to a Cat” – Logan Rising)

And so much more! The culminating event was a reading at the Port Townsend restaurant The Upstage, a popular live music venue. Real microphones and stage lights, a crowd of supportive friends and local poetry fans – the students were excited and nervous. Kaile asked if she could read first, since she was late as it was to basketball practice but she wanted to come read anyway. (She kicked us off with a great poem about basketball, in fact!) One by one the students read their pieces, warming up to the stage, showing no sign that they’d been nervous moments before. By the time we got to the end of the sign-up sheet, the students were clamoring to read AGAIN, pulling out additional poems they’d brought, hopping up to read collaborative haikus, reading poems for their classmates who couldn’t be there. By the end we practically had to pull the readers off the stage!

The restaurant proprietor also thanked the students and welcomed them all back anytime to share more poetry during Monday nights’ open mic. (Several of the students thought they might, especially if they banded together to read a few poems each.) I’ll leave you with a poem one of the students wrote for that night:

There’s a golden and dusty room
Filled with the chimes of glass and voices
Every night it’s something different
There’s music or a poetry reading
The bustle of the kitchen battles the noise of the bistro
The center stage sits low below its patrons
Who talk, take part, and leave
The those left inside work in dim light
To make the traces of the day disappear
(Chad Anderson)

Hurray poetry!


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