This summer, we are offering (4) week-long poetry workshops at Whittier High and Frontier High and we’ve just completed our first at Whittier High School. I’m thankful to the students that came with eagerness to interact and be challenged. Also, many thanks for the administrative staff, especially the principal, Lori Eshilian, for her hospitality and support.
We had an average of 7 students and while I prepared to have 10, the smaller size gave everyone more time to share their thoughts. Two of the students brought their friends who attended other schools, which was exciting!
We spent a lot of time talking about words as material and words as tools for communication. So each day, we added to a list of words that we liked for no other reason than the sound and texture of a word. And yes, there was a writing exercise at the end with this list.
And there were others lists as well. More pictures here because I remembered to take them.
Students listing rhymes
“Rhyme words from different parts of speech”
“Rhyme two words that are of different number of syllables”
We also spent time getting to know the group. Turns out that many of them knew each other a little already, so they got relatively comfortable quickly.
Depending on the day and the poem, we began either with a writing exercise or with close reading of a poem.
For one of our exercises we each took a cliché to reexamine and turn on its head. One student started with “a face that only a mother could love” and ended up with —and this still haunts me— “a wall that only a convict could love”.
To list a few poems we read in class:
“Eunoia” by Christian Bök, excerpts
“When Loneliness is a Man” by Yosef Komunyakaa
“Freeway 280” by Lorna Dee Cervantes
“Bicycle Texture.” by Sawako Nakayasu
“Bilingual/Bilingüe” by Rhina P. Espaillat
“sarah’s promise” by Lucille Clifton
“Elegy for Jane” by Theodore Roethke
Analysis of Lorna Dee Cervantes’ “Freeway 280”
Writing a villanelle
The students also came to class with a poem assigned to them from the day before for workshop and we’d spend the latter third of the class reading each other’s poems and wrestling with how the poems were working.
We also had collaborative writing exercises, one of which had us supplying a line each to one another’s poems but still keeping the content intact. We knew, when several poems turned inexplicably dark or silly, which one of us it was that did it.
Some comments from the students about the class:
(regarding most interesting exercises)
“Group creating poems. It helped me figure out other styles of poetic writing by my peers.”; “The group work, even though I prefer writing alone.”; “group poetry writing because everyone’s ideas were so broad and it was great to connect to others on an equivalent topic.”
(regarding what they enjoyed about the class)
“small personal size of the class. Teamwork. Writing in class. Time given to talk. Everyone was genuinely interested on staying on task and writing.”; “learning different styles and how you can write and how your writing affects the message of the poem”; “Being exposed to new poets and having the opportunity to write poetry.”
(regarding what was challenging)
“writing the villanelle poems were challenging but extremely fun!”; “Analyzing new poetry and writing poetry”; “pushing myself to use different styles”; “Analyzing poems through sound, accents, etc.”;”the villanelle because it constricted how you could express your thoughts and you had to create 2 lines you wouldn’t hate to hear repetitively. I loved writing it though!”
One was a songwriter so she performed for us on the last day of class!
Other poems the students heard or discussed or was included in the packet:
“Coolness” – Yosa Buson (transl. by Robert Bly, I think)
“On love, on grief, on every human thing” – Walter Savage Landor
“The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart” – Jack Gilbert
“Cornflowers” – Brenda Cárdenas
“La Bouderie” – Allison Benis White
“The Wild Iris” – Louise Glück
“Hidden” – Naomi Shihab Nye
“To a Newborn” – Amy Gerstler
“Sheherazade” – Richard Siken
“the water buffalo” – Shaun Tan
“Milk the Mouse” – Michael Ryan
“He had enough respect for painting” – Ben Lerner
“To the Young Anglerfish” – Kay Ryan
“lifeline” – Evie Shockley
“My Papa’s Waltz” – Theodore Roethke
“One Art” – Elizabeth Bishop