Poetry Notes

Summer vacation has begun, and so, therefore, also has my quest to complete all the creative tasks that I start or germinate during the school year. Today, I am sitting in my local coffee shop going through an old notebook of writing ideas, and I came across some notes from September 20-22, 2002. Though the notes are not titled (as I am always encouraging my students to do!), I have been able to deduce that they are from my first visit to the Dodge Poetry Festival which at that time was held in Waterloo, NJ. I attended High School Teachers’ Day on Friday and stayed for the general sessions on Saturday and Sunday. It was a wonderful experience. Now that the festival is held in Newark, NJ, it is possible for me to bring my students to the High School Students’ Day. If you are a teacher and can get to Newark for a day trip, I highly recommend the Dodge. It is an amazing experience for both you and your students. Teach them through experience that poetry is not a dead white man’s art form. Poetry is a living art form, and there are many amazing living poets practicing their art right now.

Here are a few notes from that weekend that I wrote down then and still feel connected to now:

If you don’t begin in imitation, you won’t go very far in poetry.

“The more poetry you read, the more original your poetry will be and the less poetry you read, the more clichéd your poetry will be.” Edward Hirsch

When we read poetry, we are looking for something.

How to Teach Poetry: cross the line between literature and creative writing. Make them write; make them follow the beat; it doesn’t have to make sense; make them see the care and the craft.

Coleridge hated the sound of his own name; like to be called STC. (Fun Fact!)

If your writing doesn’t keep you up at night, it won’t keep your reader up at night.

Memorization is important.

Reading a poem well shows better understanding than a test/writing.

Have a poem on you at all times!

Ground covered: poems have to move/change you; begins in one place, ends in another; how did we get there?

Read with your students not to them.

Poetry is a participatory experience.

A lot of teaching includes steering the student to the right poet.

Teach poetry in reverse chronology.

Lyric poems are not about history; they are about time, immortality.

Student Frustration: they speak English, the read English, but they don’t understand this; it causes frustration, discouragement. They feel inadequate and then become hostile. (***Current Note: We must help ease that frustration; we must lead them to poetry in a way that allows them access.)

Chain poem: Give them the first line and give them a crazy first name. Help them realize that they don’t have cooperate with the ideas of the first line.

These are most of the notes from the first day. Think about your poetry; think about your teaching. I bolded a few lines that I find most important. Which notes resonate with you? Comment below with your favorite line from above or add your own note.

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Grading Papers on a Sunny Afternoon

Sunlight on the slick clean table

Melts the edges away

Encroaching on the work

In front of me, anchored only

By a red pen that has lost

The very thing that gives it power.

Soon, if daylight keeps encroaching,

The papers will slip into the molten sea

Of the dissolved table and the coffee

Will tumble into the liquified abyss

Pouring out its heart on the fluttering wings

Of student attempts at composition and

Analysis while the bloodless pen spins

Uselessly through the void–

Unless

The setting sun retracts rather than

Advances its rays on

The evanescing table, setting it back

On terra firma, restoring the student efforts

To their fate once I procure another pen–

Though which option offers deliverance,

For them and for me,

It is impossible to say.

ABOUT THE POEM:

Feeling particularly tired yesterday on my commute home, I knew that if I read as is my wont, I would fall fast asleep and end up at the end of the line. So instead I took out my phone and starting flipping through my photos for inspiration. I came across the one above which I took last week during a particularly trying grading session at a local cafe when my pen ran out of ink. This poem is the result of photography, memory, exhaustion, and imagination, and, once I got started, a thesaurus as I became invested in using various synonyms for “melted” and “essays.”

Woolf Tomes

It is midterms week, and I am swimming in exams to grade. So by all rights, I should be grading essays right now. But, then I opened my laptop and the Google doodle announced that it is Virginia Woolf’s 136th birthday. As a fan of her work, I must write instead of grade–at least until my battery runs out.

My first direct encounter with Woolf was reading Mrs. Dalloway. I cannot remember when exactly or what made me pick it up, but I do remember that it was not assigned reading for a course. This was something I read on my own. And, I was enthralled. Clarissa, Sally, Peter, they all seemed so real to me, I felt at once as if I were at the party and part of the preparations, and that I was eavesdropping on their private thoughts. And then there were Septimus and Lucrezia, such tragedy in their story. I wanted to help Septimus get the help he needed, tell him what his time didn’t know about PTSD, I wanted to help Lucrezia understand him. And how these two seemingly disparate stories were interwoven. Woolf was keenly aware of how people do not stay in their own lane all the time, but rather messily veer off and sideswipe unsuspecting occupants of another lane.

I had read Joyce’s Ulysses in graduate school, and I recognized in Mrs. Dalloway, the precursor to Molly’s grand, twenty-page, last sentence. I loved the way Woolf had us flow in and out of Clarissa’s mind and Septimus’s. This is what brings them so vividly to life. English major/English teacher geek that I am, I read up a little on critics’ thoughts of Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway. Many regard this her most accessible novel and warn of her increasing use of stream of consciousness in To the Lighthouse, some claiming Woolf had gone too far with that one, rendering the story nearly unintelligible. And I thought, “Challenge accepted” and bought a used copy.

I don’t know what those critics were thinking. To the Lighthouse blew me away. I loved it even better than Mrs. Dalloway if that’s possible. Mrs. Ramsay, her children, her husband, Lily Briscoe, Charles Tansley, Mr. Ramsay–what a tableaux they paint of the complexity and messiness of human relationships. Yes, the stream of consciousness is further developed here, but if those critics really could not follow the story, they do not deserve the position.

I have recommended Mrs. Dalloway to my students and keep a few copies on my bookshelf. I have taught at least sections of A Room of One’s Own, always urging the girls I teach to read it all. And I ask them, “Do you agree with Woolf that all a woman needs is ‘a room of her own and five hundred a year’ to be able to write?” And they answer this with varying degrees of insight.

Tonight I am sitting in the Starbuck’s in Penn Station–a loud, busy place–writing my blog, hardly a room of my own, and the woman next to me asked, “Are you writing a paper?”

“No,” I responded, “a blog post.”

“I coudn’t imagine writing here,” she said.

But hearkening back to my earlier post, we have to take those stolen moments when we can. Would I be more productive if I had ‘a room of [my] own and five hundred a year’? I would hope so. But for now, I’ll take my stolen moments and contemplate which Woolf tome to tackle next.

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#WhyIWrite

Today is #NationalDayonWriting, and it has been a whirlwind, hectic day, with paper everywhere, pens scratching, and keys clicking, which means it has been a very good writing day. I celebrated with my students, doing writing activities in all my classes, including a “Tweet” board in the alcove outside my classroom for students to post #WhyIWrite messages.

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Though many were hesitant at first about the assignments, they tried, and succeeded! The sophomores are well on their way to creating detailed descriptive paragraphs about the view from their windows. The juniors are crafting beautiful poetry about a treasured object or love (or as it seems, love gone wrong). And the seniors are are producing academic prose–a mini-research paper on Pygmalion by the Brit Lit group and an analytical essay on symbolism in “The Japanese Quince” by the AP group.

In Brit Lit, we read some critical excerpts yesterday and took notes, so today, the students were asked to bring in one article from a specific database on their chosen topics. Then I walked them through the process of taking notes from an academic article. As they continued on their own articles, I walked around the room offering help and encouragement where I could. Then one student asked me, “When are we going to write this paper?” I said, “We’re doing it now, aren’t we?” Yes, writing is a process. Yes, it’s worth it. Yes, I think they’re getting it. 🤞

The only thing I was not able to do with my students was write with them today, but I could at least talk to them about what I am writing. When one student apologized for her poem being long (maybe a dozen lines), I told her not to worry; I had written a poem this week that went on for two typed pages.

And then I had a prep period which I used to put some finishing touches on said poem and submit it. 🤞

On the way home, I tweeted about #WhyIWrite: “Fueled by coffee and imagination, I can go anywhere, be anyone, anytime, including myself, now.” But that tweet only covers a part of it. Writing rejuvenates me, frustrates me, engrosses me, and exhilarates me. I write to live. I write to communicate. I write to teach, and I write to learn. I write to understand and to be understood. I write because in the beginning was the Word. Writing is in my soul.  

Wishing you a happy National Day on Writing, and many more happy writing days to come!

Sleeping with Poetry

I give my students packets of poems

With the publication data: cover pages, copyright, pages with the

Poems themselves;

Poems printed off the Internet too,

With URLs and website info and even where

They were first printed.

And they studiously flip the pages, scouring them

For every tidbit of information they need to create

A Works Cited page–properly formatted and informationally complete.

And when they finish, they put their heads down

On the desks, exhausted, and bored.  Some

Stare off into space; others twiddle their thumbs, waiting

For the packets to be collected. So they can do something else:

Read a book, doodle a drawing, study for the next final exam.

What they do not do,

What they do not even think to do,

Is read the poems.

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Of One Accord

–With Apologies to Walt Whitman, on this,  the anniversary of his birth —

 

Out of the classroom,  endlessly grading, essays, quizzes, tests, projects,

Students querying, teachers conferring, adminstrators requesting,

My world seems harried with

Deadlines, disagreements, discernment, and classroom dissonance, but

I go forth once more into the dusk, the light of the day having passed me by, yet

The twilight is enchanting as I enter the park in search of

Leaves of grass and blooms on the trees to turn this urban jungle

Into nature’s bounty.  And the park is crowded, I am not alone, now

That the sun has been shining and the skies turned blue.

The runners in their teams,  stretching before the race,  gathering in their teal t-shirts,

The casual joggers getting their exercise glance lightly as they saunter by,

The tourists with their cameras capturing Bethesda fountain, the buskers singing

Lennon around the Imagine mosaic adorned with flowers,

The artists, masseuses, and psychics hawking their wares,

The policemen watching it all, hearing the buskers’ songs

And the people talking in English, French, Spanish, German, Hindi, Farsi, Mandarin,

And so many more, melding into one giant song,  a harmony of humanity,

One day, one moment, when the mass of man – and woman – kind

Coexists, lives side by side, enjoying the evening and

The leaves of  grass.

And these days, these moments,  quietly stack themselves

One after another in peaceful concord without

Notice,  until order is broken and dissonance

Reigns, convincing us all that strife and discord are

The Way of the World and the Solution to whatever

Problem arises.  Return, oh friends, to Strawberry Fields,

Hear the songs of peace,  feel the sun on your face,

Lie in the grass, listen to the gurgle of the fountain, hold

Hands with your neighbor and form a bond that

Knows no bounds and admits no disorder.

I Read, Therefore I am

I am sure you remember me saying here again and again how much work I have to do: the piles of papers to grade; the notebooks collected to be checked; the tests and quizzes to make; the after school clubs to moderate…the list could go on and on. My teacher friends know of what I speak. From September to June, I am swamped, overwhelmed, and behind the eight ball.

In addition to work deadlines and pressures, there are the added commitments of “trying to have a live.” I know, I know, it’s a crazy idea for teachers–trying to have a life outside of summer time. But, there it is. I will not give up my painting time on Saturdays, and I want to find time whenever the weather is nice enough to play golf with my husband. And of course, humans are social animals, so I must find time to get together with friends. (It’s never enough time, but even to touch base and say hello is so important!) Let’s not even mention time needed for grocery shopping (ugh!), cooking (love it, but am often too tired), and cleaning (a never ending process). Don’t forget about laundry!

Then, there is this blog and my other writing. I’ll be honest; I don’t write much aside from the blog. I have great ideas and works in progress but little time (or energy when I have the time) to execute them. Plus, as a member of this blogging community, I want to read and respond to my fellow bloggers.

Eventually, something’s got to give, right? For the past few months, that has been my recreational reading. On my commute, I began spending less and less time reading fiction for pleasure. I either snoozed or browsed Facebook or read some blogs I follow. None of these are bad things. In fact, they are all good things. BUT. There is always a but. I didn’t feel good. I was getting testy, cranky, out of temper. My patience was wearing thin. As a teacher of teenagers, this is not a good thing. The ironic thing is that what I push for my students every single day is that they read. And read. And read. But, I wasn’t. I truly believe in the power of reading in increasing one’s academic success, even when one reads fiction–any kind of fiction. And I’ve always belived too that we learn how to handle situations outside our ken by reading. We escape; we experience worlds beyond our own. But, I wasn’t following my own advice.

Lately, I’ve gotten back on track. I’ve been reading Light Between Oceans. It is heart-breakingly beautiful. The prose is poetic and lyrical. I knew from the beginning that something was going to go terribly wrong, and now I know what it is; how it will be resolved, I still do not know, but I know I be both crying and smiling. And, I feel better. I’m calmer. I’m more patient. Most importantly, I learned that I need to read. I cannot live without reading. How can anyone?

Titles, Facades, and Trivialities

Searching for inspiration today,  I turned to The Daily Post for today’s prompt: facade. Then I turned to a poem I had begun a month or so ago,  and kept working at it.  I’m not sure it’s  finished yet though.  For one thing,  I’m having trouble deciding on a title.  Some options are the following: Awe, Facade, Consumption, Occupy Us,  Trivialities, Reality.

Titles are like the facades of our writing. They are the first thing people see. The first words on which our efforts are judged. They set a tone and convey a message. They are the headlines in our blog feeds. Some are enigmatic; others are direct. Some are symbolic; others are metaphoric. I’ve think most writers would agree that we take them seriously. We angst over them. Sometimes they come easily; other times, like today, they are difficult to come by.

Yet what is funny is that I often have to remind my students to read the title of the pieces we read and study, especially the poetry. They want to dive right in–and finish as quickly as possible– so they miss the point in their rush. And then I ask, “What’s the title?” “Oh! Ah!” And as the saying goes, light dawns over Marblehead. Titles are important.

Here is the poem, as yet untitled:

Sometimes,  I am in awe

Of the trivialities

That occupy us. Yet sure,

These become realities

Of our passions and our

Lives,  distracting us day by

Day and even hour by hour.

We let things of import fly by

Without a glance or a

Thought.  We allow all of

This minutia to pour

Down and be things that move

Us in a frenzy. We

Permit the little things

To be what others see,

Pretend to live like kings

Over kingdoms of silly

Inconsequential points

When we should mount hilly

Fields, weighty with data points,

Converse, debate,  and try

To find meaningful depths instead of

Sugary facades of tantalizing

Gossip, name-calling, and clever memes.

A Rose by Any Other Name…

Recently,  my husband and I went to a local animal shelter to adopt a cat.  Leo, my feline love,  has recently passed away,  and while we were (and are) still grieving,  we missed having a cat presence in the apartment.  We still love our lost Leo, but we knew we have enough love in our hearts to welcome another shelter cat into our home.

Before we left,  I took a quick look online to just get an idea of the cats available. I wanted to meet the cat in person before we brought one home,  but it’s still fun to look. And I noticed two things: there are an awful lot of black cats in the shelter, and many shelter cats have crazy names. It is this latter point I wish to address today. I told my husband that if the cat which chooses us has a crazy name, we’re going to have to change it. I’m not gong to call out “Hey Chizzy Chaz, I’m home” for the next 15 years.

So off we go, and after some time we are chosen by a ginger tabby, a marmalade some say, of considerable heft named Lionel.  Rich asks me,  “Are we going to keep his name?” “Lionel,” I think. “That’s pretty normal. I can deal with it.”  “Sure, ” I say.

Now take a moment and think before you read on.  What is your first association with the name Lionel?

Then, I turn to the solid mass of fur purring next to me and sing, “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?” It certainly seemed appropriate for the situation and indicates my first association with the name Lionel. Lionel looked up and kept purring.

After bringing Lionel home,  I called my mother to tell her about her new grand-cat, and her response is “Is his last name Hardcastle?” You see,  she is a fan of the BBC series As Time Goes By, and Jeffery Palmer’s character is Lionel Hardcastle. So, Lionel will now be called Mr. Hardcastle by his Nana.

Next,  I went on Facebook to announce the arrival of the newest denizen of our apartment. Along with the many congratulations and exclamations of how cute he is,  there were a few more Lionel associations.  One friend asked if he likes train–ah,  yes, Lionel trains,  THE standard of toy  trains. Another noted that like his predecessor,  he bears a leonine name–seems like a tradition forming here.   A couple of friends referenced Lion-O from the ThunderCats–not a bad allusion, but there is no way my Lionel will wear a blue leotard! So many associations from a limited group of people.

This got me thinking.  What would come up if I googled his name? Most of the first page of results are links about Lionel trains, then Lionel Ritchie does show up as well as soccer player Lionel Messi (at least he’s not the biter). Then,  I clicked the related searches tab for “Lionel name.” Here were the sites related to the meaning of names.  To no one’s surprise,  Lionel means either little or young lion. It is from the French, the Latin, and the Greek. Every culture seems to have a little lion in it!  In Arthurian legend,  Lionel is Lancelot’s cousin. (I feel like I should have known that.) Interestingly,  according to one site,  people with this name have a deep inner desire for love and companionship.  I hope that proves true for cats too.

Every year, I have my students research the meaning of their names and ask their parents why they choose the name they did.  Then we examine the names of the characters in the novels and stories we read.  Often,  these names are indicative of the character’s personality or circumstance or cultural heritage. And unlike parents who cannot know their child’s likes and dislikes when they name him/her,  we writers know our characters intimately before we publish. We must choose those names with care so that our readers can see them as we do. Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre seems stony when we first meet him as his rocky name would lead us to believe, and Jane describes herself as plain. In Gabrielle Zevin’s novel All These Things I’ve Done, the teenage boy who is a bit of a, let’s say jerk, has the last name of Ardsley. You know what you’re hearing there, right? That’s purposeful. And the good guy is named Goodwin who goes by Win. Yes, we know who to root for. Which association do you as a writer hope to conjure up in your reader when you name your character?

And sometimes, we writers may find it necessary to rename our characters as we move through our drafts. We get to know them better as we create their worlds and see them move around in them. Sometimes a name change clinches together pieces of his/her character that had seemed tenuously connected. And  sometimes, the chosen name is too real. I once named a minor character Steve Stricker. I liked the alliteration and the strength of the name, both of which fit his position in the story. Then, one day my husband and I were watching golf, and there he was! Steve Stricker is a real person, a pro golfer! I had to make a change so that people who know golf weren’t bringing their associations of the real person to my story.

Where does this leave us on Lionel’s name? He seems to respond to it,  and I’m just trying to not call him Leo.That’s a fifteen year habit that is hard to break, especially with both names beginning with L. But, I think in time he’ll live up to the little lion that he is, and I hope he’ll continue to exhibit his desire for camaraderie.

What association do you have with the name Lionel? What characters have you named for a specific reason? Have you ever had to change a character’s name? Why? Join in the conversation below.

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but it will not create the same response from the reader if you call it an Eastern skunk cabbage.

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