I am often asked to facilitate creative writing workshops and educational residencies. Along with the invitation is the question: “Can you teach the students to write poetry?” Over and over again my answer is: “Only if you and they are willing to jump blindfolded out of an airplane without a parachute.” The response is usually an open mouth and fluttering eyelids. Allow me to explain: The blindfold is mutual trust in our creative relationship, the limitless potential of the imagination, and the understanding that we are learning together in the process. Learning that endures requires an alternating current. The jumping out of the airplane is the creative risks we will take together in reciprocal experimentation and engagement. The absence of a parachute signifies letting go of all you were ever taught about what it means to write poetry or to teach it. If you are willing to go on an adventure with me, then yes, you can TEACH YOURSELF to write poetry.
Listening to rhyming poetry that has been forced into Western Euro-centric structures, cadences and forms; poetry that is turned out in faddish rhythmical mimicry of that which is designated as “cool” “hip” or “def” littered with shallow political or sexual references, is for me, nothing to celebrate. A crowd-pleasing stew of vocal mimicry, passing references to electronic headlines, spiced with personal story, rehearsed attitude, body language and pseudo-revolutionary theatrics don’t impress me as poetry.
When I witness poet after poet go after the cheap laugh or manipulated hoots, what I see is a loss of authentic voice. Poetry has become a marketing bonanza and many poets, lured by the potential of becoming “spoken word artists” and garnering a following, are approaching poetry as a marketing tool and not a means for seeking authentic voice, moving an audience to feel and think, and if we’re lucky, take action, beyond the moment. I have sadly witnessed long established, older poets twisting their own style to meet the needs of what has become a youth driven market, “Spoken Word” and failing miserably. It is an embarrassment to watch an elder pander to the young, not for the sake of their audience, but for the sake of making a dollar. It would be preferable to clean toilets with dignity than to sell the long sought after authentic voice. How can one spend a lifetime in search of it, find it, and then sell it to the highest or any bidder. Young people know when you’re trying to buy their love and at the core, the message is: “I don’t respect or trust you enough to value who I am. I don’t trust myself to be good enough as who I am.”
Speaking only for myself, since I am an expert on only one subject, my own experience, I see poetry as a tool for intimate human exchange and social engagement across class, race, ethnicity, orientation or age; poetry as a means to provoke political action, awaken the senses, startle the imagination to leap across the boundaries of a colonized mind. Poetry at its muscular essence provides a lens with which to expose falseness in oneself and in one’s society. When the poetry itself rings hollow, then it ridicules itself, the poet and criminally, the audience.
In order to “teach” poetry, we must first examine what poetry means in our own lives. If poetry is simply something we suffered through in school and now as educators are forced to regurgitate as diluted poetry lessons conforming to standard testing requirements, then the act of teaching poetry will be a misery for teacher and student. You can search online for any number of poetry templates, and your students can learn the mechanics of poetry and maybe even turn out a half way decent poem from time to time, but will the learning change them as people? Will it open their minds and hearts to experience the poetic nature of life itself? I feel poetry as the distillation of sensory experiences as they travel through the mind. If the mind is closed, those experiences will shrink, flatten, shrivel; whatever they must to do to avoid opening the locked doors of the comfort zone known as pre-judgment. They will remain in the mind-palace of mirrors seeing only themselves over and over again until they die from sheer boredom.
On a recent trip to Boston, I was deeply moved by an elderly Chinese woman who approached my on a very cold day, holding up two copper coins to indicate to me she was in need. It would have been easier to mutter, “I’m sorry” and keep walking. I chose to stop and be present. I noticed the coins were not pennies, as I might have assumed without a second look. The images on the coins had been worn down and illegible. I saw that her other hand was tightly wrapped around U.S. coins, each one clearly defined.
Those two fists of dominant identity and erased identity created the tension required in art to awaken the mind. The woman’s eyes were full of confusion and shame, as if to ask: “How did my life turn out like this?” I felt grief that I couldn’t speak her language; anger that I live on a society that not only prides itself on being monolingual but in fact, in many of its systems and institutions, enforces it. As I dug through my bulky bag looking for my wallet, she kept repeating: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” No matter what I said or did, I couldn’t convince her that it was she who deserved an apology, from this affluent society where hunger and homelessness have reached epidemic proportions, and our elders considered burdens not living griots of history. Her chant of shame riddled my body and mind with bullets of conscience. How have I, no matter how far removed, been tacitly complicit in her destitution? All I had was a ten-dollar bill. Admittedly I hesitated, first considering my own needs. By stopping long enough to do a mental inventory of what I had and what I truly needed, I was able to liberate myself from any fear of loss or any suspicion of her motives. As I handed her the bill, her body awkwardly leaned into mine, surprising us both. We fell into a hug; no longer strangers, but two women sharing an understanding, a connection that transcended the illusory boundaries that we as fearful, arrogant, covetous humans create. That awkward but luminously authentic embrace still remains with me and will for a very long time. I walked away knowing I would never forget her, not once concerned whether she would remember me. That is the essence of poetry.
In facilitating creative writing workshops, I have consistently found success by making my first priority getting students to experience themselves as creative beings before the words poetry or writing are even mentioned. I want to begin with a clean slate free of negative associations the students may have with poetry or writing. Even in this 21st Century, I’ve witnessed writing used as a form of punishment, not too far from the horrors of writing “I will not talk in class” 500 times. Strictly adhering to he rules of penmanship and the words “your writing is sloppy” can create a sense of shame in the student. The fear of not “doing it right” will often abort the natural instinct to experiment creatively.
To teach poetry, we must first learn to live outside of our fears. We must exalt the place of the natural world not as something to be dominated, but as our wise teacher. We must be open to embrace all of humanity and the natural world. To do this, we must flee the couch and remote (aptly named), the malls, the screens that keep us from meeting the eyes of strangers, the obligatory meetings and holidays, the exhausting niceties of getting by and being liked. We must simply learn to be. This takes intention and courage. To welcome the stranger is to welcome the best in oneself. Of course, we must be vigilant of liars, cons and fools, but ultimately, we must be vigilant of how we are present to life itself. To think and think again. To walk by the harbor and see beyond the sizes of the boats. Our jealously. To breathe in the salt of living, even when it burns. To see and treasure what we have not lose ourselves in the desire of what we have learned to believe we must have. Material possessions and social standing will not keep away Death. We cannot obliterate our fear of Death by running from it. We can embrace the eternal nature of each day lived fully present to out surroundings, our bodies, our encounters and then we will welcome Death as another opportunity to experience all of life, thankful for all we have experienced. Without presence to life and death, there is no poetry. We are well warned by Ezra Pound:
And the Days Are Not Full Enough
And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass.
Children intuitively know how to write poetry; they create metaphor, simile and personify their trinkets and toys when toddlers. We must guard the child’s imagination and encourage it, not with excess, but with limits. Pace. Allow them to learn to make a drum out of an oatmeal box or a plastic tub before buying the drum set. Give them art supplies before you give them computers with graphics programs. Send them outside to play and take a hammer to the television set if necessary. Wake up and smell your body before you brew and smell the coffee. Choose to be alive and model it. Then offer whatever writing prompts, templates or tools you like. The poems will write themselves.