The World Smells Like Sweet Sugar Pouring
by Samar Abulhassan
Lately I wonder how much of teaching poetry has to do with creating the right conditions for students to wander, to stumble, to emerge from a poetry experience a little bolder and wide-eyed. “Always welcome distraction,” writes the poet Donald Revell. “Leave the window open. Answer the door. Catching the fragrance of a flower, go and find it.” In Seattle, a generous burst of sunlight recently turned a day into a holiday. Walking from Belltown to Capitol Hill, my feet chose a route studded with Vietnamese noodle shops. At nearly every turn, I felt overwhelmed by the fragrance of anise. Enormous cauldrons of broth simmering in kitchens outside of my sight, the scent of this star-shaped spice spilling into sidewalks, I recalled happy memories of my aunt’s cracked wheat sweetbread spiked with anise, sesame seed and cinnamon.
I could hear the spectrum of experience in the faces of the students at Seattle’s Hutch School this past week as they sampled various spices and dried herbs I had emptied into plastic cups. The lovely Rachel Kessler has provided us WITS teachers with handy worksheets to summon the olfactory forces, in an event we like to call Smell-o-rama. I reminded the students that “smell” is typically the most neglected sense in writing, that it is one of the most powerful memory triggers that can lend to vivid images. One great thing about young students is that they are often jumping out of their seats wanting to share. Sometimes I wish I could call on all of them at once, because you want to catch that gust of wind before cinnamon is too easily connected to pie. The scent of cinnamon took Jake back to skydiving, connected Jenna to a power outage on her birthday. The smell of basil reminded Kasey of making a tree-house with his dad. Barbecue spice reminded Jake of an emergency hospital trip to mend the bloody finger of a family member. The aroma of pepper took Ryan “back to my house that has a two-moded hot tub.” Somehow the smell of garlic reminded Peyton of “flipping my four wheeler,” and the scent of dried rose petals reminded Jonny of “catching a new fish behind Mom’s garden.” Once a memory is surfaced, and perhaps recorded, it might be helpful to allow the path of a poem to sprout with as little interference as possible. I say: when the poem begins to happen, you have to get out of the way.
I also tell students that some researchers believe infants are born synesthetes, experiencing a smell when hearing the sound of their mother’s voice, for example. Neurological opinions aside, from a poetry practice perspective, it can be an exciting experiment. “The senses can and should intermingle,” Charles Baudelaire offered long ago. Inviting the idea of synesthesia in poetry classrooms is one of my favorite things: it makes it possible to offer Arthur Rimbaud’s “Voyelles” to a young student who has no trouble imagining that a vowel sound is experienced as red. “The sound of guitar smells of desert flowers, ” Princess writes. “When I’m happy the world smells like roses, watermelon, rain, purple and pine air freshener,” writes Felicity while Bailey is content with “saltwater, wet grass, dew drops, chlorine, pineapple, arctic air, tulip buds.” Michael Ondaatje’s “Sweet Like a Crow,” a poem full of similes that merge the auditory and visual together in describing the voice of an eight-year-old girl, can be another great launching point. “When I’m happy the world smells like sweet sugar pouring,” Annika writes.
I’ve also been thinking about how to help a young poet move a poem along.
Trying to get places with my signature impaired sense of direction, I give in a lot to being lost, with only a vague idea of how to arrive somewhere. This has made for a lot of epic walks, filled with “wrong” turns that result in overhearing great bits of conversation, messages through flowers, faces, the hands of musicians. Other times walks ignite all kinds of anxieties, weather mishaps or tricky interactions. You may return home hungry and cold, peeling the sad lint from the eyes of strangers off your coat. You might find hives blooming on your arms from sampling shellfish and wish you’d never left the house.
But to send a student on an adventure in which they feel empowered, you might offer a form that might encourage freedom within restriction. A simple assignment (feel free to try this on your own!) is to generate a list of ten words that serve as end-words for a ten-line poem. This word list might be inspired by your environment — for example, I once did this exercise with a group of students while walking through Seattle’s Conservatory, so the word lists were inspired by plants and light and humidity. You get the idea. Then you write a ten-line poem, allowing the subject to appear on its own, each end-word serving as a curve that offers a turn along the way. “Dreams bring summer’s bottom,” Annika writes in one such poem. I welcome being startled in this way. What’s invisible becomes visible, simply through your willingness to trust the process. This reminds me of a quote from John Ashbery, regarding a similar but more complex form that also works with a set of pre-determined end-words. The poet John Ashbery once told someone that “writing a sestina is like riding downhill on a bicycle and having the pedals push your feet. I wanted my feet to have been pushed into places they wouldn’t normally have taken.” A poetry instructor might be able to help a student with a brazen send-off.