When I was asked to introduce one of the two student speakers at this year’s graduation for the high school where I teach in Shanghai, China, I was more than honored to do so. However, I wanted it to be special, fitting both the young man who asked me and the circumstances of this occasion, so I decided to do it in verse, specifically in blank verse followed by an original Shakespearean sonnet.
In order to celebrate the event, a parent group put together watch parties along/near the Bund on May 31. While I could not attend (since I’m here in the U.S.), I watched online as colleagues, students, and parents shared their images over social media. Here’s one of the images of a special skyscraper lit up to celebrate our two campuses’ graduates:
A little while later, a current student sent me this image:
This is likely the largest audience to whom I’ll ever read a poem (and this is also likely the largest that my head will ever appear). I still don’t really know how the pre-recorded video really went over with the crowd, but the student whom I introduced liked it, so that’s enough for me.
In case you were wondering what I said, here are my introductory remarks:
To all of the students who graduated this year (both at SAS and across the globe), congratulations!
As a reader of this blog, if you get a chance, follow the link in the video. By doing so, you’ll find the student whom I introduced, a colleague who introduced the valedictorian speaker and the valedictorian speaker herself, our faculty speaker, our head of school who is also a poet, and many, many more wonderful moments, including the opening remarks by a member of the Graduating Class of 1949! Or, you can just click here, at least for the time being: https://www.saschina.org/class-of-2020/puxi.
All my best,
For this year’s #NationalPoetryMonth, I wanted to contribute to the reading and writing of more poems, specifically poems in received forms. Although limited in both equipment and in video production skill, I have posted a few videos which I’m calling, “Poet-Friends & Forms” in which I either address a specific poet-friend and a form in which they’ve worked (Episode 1) or I share my conversation with that poet-friend about a specific form (as is the case in Episodes 2 and 3). This is a work in progress, and I’m not sure how many more I’ll be able to produce this month, but right now there are three episodes, all designed to introduce viewers to some poetic forms they might want to learn about and/or try out for themselves.
Here are the three episodes currently available:
Episode 1: Rhina Espaillat & the Ovillejo
Episode 2: Lewis Putnam Turco & the Rubliw
Episode 3: Moira Egan & the Sonnetto Rispetto
Be well, stay safe, and write on!
As a poet, author, and teacher, I love sonnets, so this episode of Poet-Friends and Forms is pretty special. In it, fellow sonneteer and overall brilliant poet, author, translator, and educator Moira Egan discusses not only the sonnetto rispetto form but sonnets in general and gives some tips for the beginning sonnet writer!
Moira has been a poet-friend for nearly eighteen years, ever since I took her workshop at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. In fact, it was that workshop that led me back into poetry and to form, eventually to publishing my own sonnets and quatorzains in a variety of places. Without her guidance and instruction, I might not have discovered the joys of working in set forms, let alone the sonnet!
So please check out this very special extended episode of Poet-Friends & Forms! And again, Happy National Poetry Month!
In the first episode of Poet-Friends & Forms, I spoke about Rhina Espaillat and the form, the “Ovillejo” from The Book of Forms, A Handbook of Poetics, Including Odd and Invented Forms by Lewis Putnam Turco. In this episode, I speak with Lewis Putnam Turco himself about the “rubliw”, his friendship with the poet and translator Richard Wilbur, and upcoming editions of The Book of Forms, The Book of Literary Terms, and The Book of Dialogue in 2020. I’m ever grateful to Lew for taking time out of his day to chat with me, and I hope you enjoy tour conversation.
Some background on the “rubliw” (as adapted from The Book of Forms):
- To write a rubliw (pronounced: ruh-bloo), which is a type of epistle, use one rhyme (a monorhyme) set by the name of the person being greeted. It’s nine lines total, and each line increases in its poetic feet until line 5, which then decreases by one foot in each subsequent line. So it begins with iambic monometer, progresses to iambic pentameter in line 5 and then regresses to iambic monometer by line 9. (Adapted from Turco’s The Book of Forms, A Handbook of Poetics, Including Odd and Invented Forms, UPNE, 2012).
Here’s my attempt at the form, which I sent to Lew, hoping he would consent to an interview (I write “attempt” because I botched the pronunciation of the form, so my monorhyme is imperfect and my end rhymes, well, you can see for yourself):
I hope you enjoy watching this episode and get to know a little more about the rubliw and Lew himself. If you want more information about Lew’s Manuscript Collection at the University of Iowa, you can go here.
If you want to give the rubliw a try, why not brighten someone’s day by sending them a message in this poetic form? If you do, I’d love to read a rubliw or two from you!
Be well, stay safe, and write on!
National Poetry Month 2020! I usually spend a small portion of the first day of National Poetry Month writing a promotional post for my “I Notice” Method and the”Noticing Poetry” Unit Plan at The Academy of American Poets or promoting how to transition the method to distance/online learning in order to help teachers and students engage in reading poetry. However, today, I’m taking a break from that to introduce a new project just for fun during National Poetry Month. I’m calling it, “Poet-Friends & Forms”, what I hope will become a new, irregularly published YouTube video series where I speak briefly about a poet I know and a form in which they’ve worked.
Check out my first attempt at an episode below:
Here’s my own ovillejo that I wrote after Rhina introduced me to the form nearly a decade ago at the West Chester Poetry Conference (on Form and Narrative):
Last Workshop at West Chester -- with a line taken from Rhina Espaillat The work done here every year relieves form's pains it rains verse. Adios friends, oh, viejos! We crammed in close to find 'a-has' in las palabras. Every year it rains friends' ovillejos. by Scot Slaby
If you want to give the form a try, let me know how it goes by submitting your own to the Comments feed below!
As always, if you’re in a country currently experiencing a rise on COVID-19 cases, please practice social distancing, stay safe, and read (and write) more poems…
As more and more of the world stays at home more and as so much negative news circulates online and on television, we need to remember the good out there. To that end, I hope that this post helps you limit lugubriousness by finding the funny!
Some Good News (SGN) with John Krasinski
I came across this show the other day while desperately wanting a break from all of the anxiety-producing cornona-coverage. Krasinski’s new stay-at-home project cheered me; I hope it does the same for you.
Perhaps there is no better moment for Weird Al to reemerge than now: https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/weird-al-seriously-gives-a-talented-musician-his-due/2020/03/25/5e10c6d6-69e4-11ea-9923-57073adce27c_story.html
Here are a few of my favorite recent Weird Al sightings on the webs. First, on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon:
Then on Twitter, where he plays the accordion on a rooftop:
I mean how can anyone resist smiling at the sight of U.S.’s beloved parodist-satirist-musician-humorist?
“But wait, what about poetry, Scot?” you ask.
Fear not, fearless reader! I have you covered!
A great place to find the funny is Light, a poetry journal dedicated wit and humor with its weekly feature “Poems of the Week”, which you can check out here: https://lightpoetrymagazine.com/#potw. As a bonus, if you head on over to their Links page, you’ll see other great places to get your fix of light, humorous verse with links to awesome poetry and humor sites such as: Able Muse, The Asses of Parnassus, Lighten Up Online, Measure, Mezzo Cammin, A New Book of Verse, The New Verse News, Parody, Rattle, The Spectator (home of frequent light-verse contests), Snakeskin, and The Washington Post Style Invitational.
I hope these and more provide some levity to your day as you go about your busy lives moving from the kitchen, to the bathroom, to the bedroom, to the basement, to the kitchen to the family room to the front door, to the bathroom to the kitchen to the couch to the front door to the backyard to the front door to the bathroom to the bedroom and finally to bed…
During this pandemic, as I am increasingly practicing social distancing, I have turned to poems for comfort and connection. I realize that I have always turned to poems, ever since high school, when, alone in my dorm room, I felt isolated, as if no one in the world could possibly understand what I was going through. One poem in particular I am thinking about this morning is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s, “A Psalm of Life,”
I first read this poem in my sophomore year of high school, when my English teacher, himself a poet, introduced me to the Transcendentalists. As a teenager, it was this stanza which resonated most:
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”
Was not spoken of the soul.
Even though I lived away from home, struggled with friends, and felt alone, Longfellow’s music, its metrical regularity, buoyed my spirits. It led me to other poems, too, more complex and nuanced poems. Now in mid-life, I find myself ruminating on another part of “A Psalm of Life”:
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing
Learn to labor and to wait.
“Learn to labor and to wait.”
As I, along with many others, grapple with the new long-term reality of social distancing and potential self-quarantine due to COVID-19, these lines provide a degree of comfort, the idea that all of what I’m doing now is waiting and doing the good work of staying connected with family, supporting my kids in their education, caring for friends, family, and neighbors, and for me, reading poems, memorizing poems, and working on my own poems.
However, I’m not the only one finding comfort in poetry. Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched poetry resources proliferate the Internet, and many people I know who previously couldn’t care less about making time for poetry are finding themselves drawn to it.
There are many, many wonderful resources out there, but I thought I’d share a few of my favorites here. If you’re in need of comfort or solace and want to give poems a try, I hope the following resources can help. They surely help me feel even closer to others, even as I practice social distancing:
The Slowdown — For me, this is an old standby, a podcast by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s podcast, a collaboration between American Public Media and The Poetry Foundation offers a 4-7 minute way to slow down and reflect on the stuff of life, followed by a short poem. Click here to access the most recent episode.
Shelter in Poems — This new initiative by The Academy of American Poets asks readers to share poems that “helps to find courage, solace, and actionable energy, and a few words about how or why it does so.” Learn more by clicking the link above.
Favorite Poem Project — Ordinary people reciting extraordinary poems. The is perhaps one of the most valuable resources out there for staying connected to one another through poems during such this challenging time. Check out this one, recorded by a students who has dreams of being a writer and teacher:
Ours Poetica — This YouTube Channel collaboration between John Green and The Poetry Foundation has quite a few episodes and is alway adding new ones. According to their channel, Ours Poetica is dedicated to “Making poetry personal, in the hands of people who love it. New episodes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.” Here’s the most recent episode:
Recently, I decided to create a new resource for educators and students who use the “iNotice Method” and the “Noticing Poetry” unit plan from The Academy of American Poets website. For years I’ve wanted to help those who could only work on a computer and not have hard copies in front of them. The outbreak of COVID-19 in China and around the world has required me to rethink my pedagogy for the purpose of distance learning, giving me the nudge I needed to address the problem of needing physical copies of poems to engage in the “Noticing Poetry” & iNotice Method pedagogies.
If you haven’t read my “A Letter to Students Before We Start to Read Poems,” I suggest you do that now so you can get an idea of just what the “iNotice Method” entails. If you’ve done that, then download the following file which is simply a Microsoft Word document with the iNotice levels so you can use Track Changes after you watch the screencast example.
So you can see how the “iNotice Method” can work with MS Word’s Track Changes, I’ve created my first ever screencast and published it to YouTube! Just like the original unit plan at The Academy of American Poets, I use Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” to model how one can go about noticing in a digital document. It’s just some basic noticing, nothing fancy or too “deep.” In fact, it’s all about noticing what’s there in order to make connections. This resource will hopefully allow you to do that even if you don’t have hard copies of poems in front of you.
Let me know if this is useful! I’d love to hear feedback from students and educators about the iNotice Method and “Noticing Poetry!”
It’s 2020, and time for a New Year’s post, a post from Vienna where the sun has been shining and the air has been crisp and cold. As I wait here in the Vienna airport, I’m reflecting on the year ahead, specifically on my writing, which has faltered for the past few years while I’ve been living and working in Shanghai, China. I could say that the demands of the job at my highly selective private school keep me from writing, and there may be some small truth in that, but the reality is that to write so is an excuse.
And making excuses about not writing reminds of Elizabeth Cooper, a wonderful former Johns Hopkins instructor of mine who gave all of her students a parting gift — mine was a book — Sonnets edited by William Baer — and she inscribed it with “Just do it!” making it clear to me that she was sick of my excuses about how busy I was teaching, rearing children, etc. I think of that gift now while waiting here, having just learned that several days ago, our family drove right by the summer home of Auden without even knowing it.
Time. Not enough of it. Never enough of it.
There was a time in my life when I would have known about Auden’s summer home far in advance, a time I would have made a literary pilgrimage a mandatory waypoint on my journey. It’s an hour to the west of where we are right now, and with my flight out of Austria looming, I won’t make it there this trip.
These days, I often feel that there is so much of Life and so little of Time, and as I sit here recalling how often I have been listening to the bells of Viennese churches ring in the New Year, I can’t help but remember the lines from Auden’s poem “As I Walked Out One Evening,”:
“But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.”
However, instead of depressing me, the recollection of these words helps me reflect on the year that was and the year yet to unfold. The poem is a reminder to me that there is an ending to all of this, even if I often don’t realize it or worse, if I choose not to realize it.
It might seem kind of strange, but Auden’s poem also brings to mind a 1996 song, “Pepper” by the band The Butthole Surfers from their album Electriclarryland. If you haven’t heard the full song, you can check out the video after the excerpt below:
“They were all in love with dyin’/
They were drinking from a fountain/
That was pouring like an avalanche/
Coming down the mountain./”
Now, the song itself and the Auden’s poem don’t necessarily mesh well overall. However, there is a relationship for me in those lines, an echo that seems relevant as I look backward and forward at the same time. Life often seems as though it is “pouring like an avalanche coming down the mountain” with far too much to take in and far too little Time to do so. At least for me it does… While Auden’s lovers are certainly not the ones “in love with dyin'” per se (or are they?), I think that the two works when recalled here in Austria act as a sort of memento mori for me. The cemeteries and churches
and the poetry of Auden and the lyrics of The Butthole Surfers remind me that Death is always so close and that each moment should be lived in mindful present awareness. We are each always doing “the work” of our Living, whatever “work” that may be. And doing the work of the Living, even when it is hard or unpleasant or sad or unbearable, is still Joy.
“Joy & Woe are woven fine/
A Clothing for the soul divine/
Under every grief & pine/
Runs a joy with silken twine/”
To put it another way, the artist Passenger sings in “Life’s for the Living”:
“Don’t you cry for the lost/
Smile for the living/
Get what you need and give what you’re given/
Life’s for the living so live it/
Or you’re better off dead/”
For me, Joy and Living are about poetry and writing and teaching and exercising and parenting and striving to be a better partner every day. These are most likely different for you. Or maybe not. Whatever your Joy is, keep doing it, whatever your Living entails, keep dedicating yourself to it and to kindness and to gratitude and to making the world a better place in 2020 and beyond.
May you be well,
While the “I Notice” method and the “Noticing Poetry” unit plan work well to positively impact student engagement with poems, there’s one area wherein I, and many other educators have struggled — the Ideational Level. This is because what this level requires is a noticing of each idea, noticing how they shift or turn. The problem is always the same, “How do I help students notice each idea unfolding in a poem?” Students usually rush through, thinking they’ve got the answer. What can be done?
Recently, a TED Talk by famed author Jacqueline Woodson has been circulating on social media.
Woodson is on to something here, something I alluded to in my previous article Reading Poems = The Mindful Noticing of Language:
In her talk, Woodson says, “But I learned that the deeper I went into my books, the more time I took with each sentence, the less I heard the noise of the outside world.” We teachers need students to hear the words and ideas of the poem, to sit into them with the requisite attention and mindfulness toward language, sentence by sentence, idea by idea, unit by unit of language.
For a while, I thought I needed to alter the “I Notice” method and its accompanying resources, but would this help model for students how go slowly, idea by idea, even if doing so seems painstaking at first? No. The way of noticing ideas is the issue, so what tools are available to help students go more slowly at noticing?
Here’s one idea:
- Ask students to read using their pointer finger to follow each idea’s start and stop place (basically identifying each phrase or clause). This does not mean that students are numbering each line necessarily. Look for the grammatical units of clauses first to identify each subject-verb combination.
- Number each idea as they go through the poem.
- Once students have arrived at the end of the poem, ask students to put each # into the poem level meter.
- After each idea is put in, students should ask, “What do I know now?” and respond in a brief paraphrase about what they know to be true about each individual idea. By looking at the # of ideas, students can see how they change/shift; students also don’t have to rewrite the ideas themselves. Here’s the example of the Ideational Level numbered from the “Noticing Poetry” lesson plan on poets.org:
This revisiting, paraphrasing, and exploring of each IDEA is enough to help students identify what the ideas actually are. It slows them down enough to where they think about each idea representation. This can also be done separately, or the Ideational Level can be cut into strips so students can physically connect them to the other levels’ contents. This allows students to further explore connections betweenIDEAS and SOUNDS, TYPOGRAPHY, and SENSES.
I’m looking forward to trying this out with my students this year! If you give it a go, let me know!
As I look forward to the upcoming school year, I’m thinking about the Noticing Poetry unit that our tenth grade teaching team adopted two years ago and the research that validates its use in helping students become more competent and confident readers of poetry. However, I’m also thinking that the unit doesn’t go far enough. The “I Notice” methodology should be integrated into ongoing practice throughout the year.
This is because the Noticing Poetry unit is a standalone, but it is not incorporated into the daily, weekly reading habits of students and teachers. It certainly can and should be. What I’ve been thinking about for some time is pulling out the levels/cards and using them consistently, and focusing in on the Ideational Level more fully throughout the process, since it’s what most students have the hardest time with. Several years ago, I had deliberately transformed the “I Notice” method into a unit since that is the way most teachers prefer their units of instruction unfold, but I’m thinking now that what is needed is an additional approach in order for “I Notice” to be useful to anyone, not just students. I’m tinkering with the method and the unit, adapting it to be a tool for ALL readers, not just students, allowing more and more people to engage with “the art of the language itself” a.k.a. poetry, even if they have some trepidation or anxiety about doing so.
So stay tuned! An even more useful tool is on the way that can help all readers!
I woke up this morning to a wonderful article in Scientific American entitled, “How Poetry Can Help Communicate Science,” written by Sam Illingworth. According to his bio, “Sam Illingworth, PhD, is a senior lecturer in science communication at Manchester Metropolitan University, in the U.K., where his research involves using poetry to enhance dialogue between scientists and nonscientists.”
It’s a wonderful article, and it reminds me that infusing poetry across disciplines is natural. Language art is limitless in its capacity to communicate!
As a U.S. poet living overseas in China and teaching at a private international school, I’m always on the lookout for ways to integrate multiple disciplines with poems or vice versa, which is why Illingworth’s post reminded me of this sonnet I wrote a while ago:
The overall struggle for existence of living beings is […] a struggle
for entropy [more accurately: negative entropy]…—Ludwig Boltzmann
The mounds of dirty clothes wait on the floor;
the piled-up Matchbox cars, a lonely doll
and Weeble Wobbles loiter near the drawer
where they belong. A “Gibbs” pre-printed football
rests on the kitchen floor. The plate-filled sink—
drowned sippy cups turned upside down, some forks
and spoons akimbo, Oh! The garbage stinks
like Brussels sprouts. This wont of ours won’t work.
It matters that disorder’s all around:
my dappled tie, the flowered skirt you bought,
the scattered bills, the diapers on the couch,
the puzzle piece of Noah’s ark—my God!
We kneel. We pray: redeem us, send a maid.
We’ll need one since we’ll procreate again.
I recently revised the last line (above) from the version of the sonnet which originally appeared in the now defunct literary magazine, Verse Wisconsin. You can still read that version here.
“Every day is filled with poems, it’s just whether you want to turn your head and look at them, or give them a little time on the page or in your mind,” she says in an interview. “I think it helps us to know that.” — Naomi Shiahb Nye qtd. by Henry Gass in his article “This writer’s job: Get young people to see poetry everywhere” published yesterday in The Christian Science Monitor.
As a writer who teaches, all I have to say is, “Yes yes yes!” There is so much that is wonderful about this article in the Christian Science Monitor about U.S. Young People’s Poet Laureate Naomi Shihab Nye and her work. It reinforces what I’ve said before not only here in my post that “Reading Poems = The Mindful Noticing of Language”, but elsewhere as well! Check out the article!
This is one of my favorite months of the year, the month when my three other colleagues and I introduce a modified version of the Academy of American Poets unit plan, “Noticing Poetry” with all 108 of our students, the month when students begin to understand what it means to notice poems for what they are — the art of language itself.
This post was written about Day 1, January 10, 2019, the first day of the Noticing Poetry unit, during which students explored Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:
I start off class asking students to read the first slide of the PowerPoint in their cheesiest infomercial voice imaginable. One student, two students, three students, each take turns at one sentence after another. “I really need to make this into a real infomercial video,” I say. A number of students love this idea — a cheesy infomercial for a method to read poetry. They know me, and it very well may happen before the academic year is over, with their help, of course. So stay tuned! 🙂
After this levity and one particularly talented student reading, I explain the concept of looking at levels, only four things in any poem they come across: ideas, images, sounds, visuals (typography).
I pass out the iNotice cards, and ask them play “nose goes” to determine who the speaker for their level groups will be — one group, the Ideational one, is down to two boys who don’t quite understand the game.
“Okay, hands on the table, you two,” I say. “Ready? Don’t injure yourself… first one to touch their nose is exempt. Get set…. go!”
It’s clear who the loser is, the boy who was the most prepared, the one who thought he had his pal beat. After a good laugh and some redirection, I raise my hand for their attention.
“Look for as many instances of these things as you can,” I say. “It’s about volume. Quantity right now over quality. How much do you notice?” Then they go off into their group work.
I walk over to the Ideational group. “Remember, start with the title; what is it that you know?” I ask. “Write this down next to the title. Then go through each phrase or clause, asking, ‘What do I know now?’ Your job is only to look at what is there, to notice what it literally states.”
I leave them, checking in on each of the other groups.
The Visual/Typography group has two students in it. “You’re small, but mighty,” I say. “How does the poem look on the page? Leave no visual aspect unturned! Everything on the card and that you notice in the poem counts! It’s about the amount you notice!” The poem is a small one, and as two quieter students, they are quite happy to work diligently together.
Noticing some silence from a usually spirited trio of boys, I head to the back of the room. Making a techno-club sound in the back of my throat to get their attention, I shift over to where the three boys slouch in their chairs staring ahead at the words in front of them. “You’re the Sonic level; remember your job is to find as many sounds as you can! How many so far?”
“Two,” says one boy.
“Two?” I ask.
“Hmm. Look again, please. Read it out loud. Go ahead. Any repetition of sound.” He begins reading aloud. Another boy from his group mouths “black bough. Alliteration.”
Score! I think.
“Keep going! Notice more!” I say.
As I walk away, the third boy adds, “What about wet and petals?”
Lastly, I go to my Sensory level group, the images/”word pictures” group. I’m expecting them to have many, many images. They’re doing well, noticing at least five images. Still, some of the images are lumped together.
“Remember, each picture counts,” I say. “Each and every image, even if it conveys a slightly different sense should be counted separately.”
“Okay, now we’re going to see just how much have you noticed,” I say. “Let’s start with the Ideational Level. What did you find?” Each speaker (a.k.a. loser of the “nose goes” game) tells me, and I write their responses on the board, on an “iNotice Poem Level Meter” I’ve projected. Other groups can add or question as we go, and we collaboratively fill in one master chart from the bottom up with their “noticings”:
What results is a kind of boombox spectrum analyzer of the poem’s levels of language (see below). They then accurately identify that the Sensory level, images dominate this little poem by Ezra Pound.
“Now, what connections do you see across levels?” I ask them. “Describe what’s connected and how different details connect to the ideas.”
I draw the connections they describe, and as they start talking about what they notice, I listen. Anytime someone says, “It could be,” or “maybe”, or “perhaps”, or approaches “being deep,” I redirect.
“Remember, just focus on what’s there. What relates to one another?” After making several connections, then it’s time to ask a new kind of question.
I ask, “Well, who cares about what’s there? What do you have to say about what we just did?”
Whatever meaning-making occurs from here on out, occurs organically and is rooted in the language of the page. One student says that the colon acts a as connecting device between the two ideas present in the poem. Another student comments on how the poem is not just pretty but a little sad in places, moving from an image that isn’t very pleasing to one that is more so.
While I want to do more with this poem, to lead them through it, I know that if I do, I’ll kill whatever has occurred organically. Some students will feel less competent if we reduce this experience to “look to the teacher.” I want them to feel competent in their abilities, that they (or anyone) can notice what is present in poems. To know what’s present in poems, one must be present with the language of poems. This is what they’re learning how to do.
They are beginning their journey as readers of poetry; they are noticing language and are beginning to make connections that are interesting and surprising. And they are all rooted in the language itself to do so.
The majority leave happy. I leave happy. A successful day one.
I walk out of my room into the hallway, energized by the learning that’s taken place, by their recent immersion in a small, beautiful poem on their own terms. I know this is setting them up for more of this good stuff of poetry that is to come. I know they’ll advance to larger and more complex poems. I know that we’ll have to get to analysis and all the ways one must learn to write about literature. However, today they slowed down and noticed what was there. Today they felt what it was like to really be present with poetry.
Reflecting back on 2018, I can’t help but also reflect on my writing, its highs and lows, and its associated writerly events/activities. I was fortunate to participate in the Beijing Bookworm International Literary Festival for the second time in the past three years, but as far as other events/ activities, my teaching life has kept my writing life at bay. However, no longer! I remain optimistic and committed to a more productive writing life in 2019!
To that end, I’ll be blogging twice a month here as part of the Poetry Blogging Network, set up by Kelli Russell Agodon over at https://ofkells.blogspot.com/. You should check out the list of Poetry Bloggers she already has lined up — a truly amazing list of talented writers!
Onward into 2019, and if you’re already there, I’ll be there soon!
Spend a few minutes listening to this podcast about CAConrad’s self-created rituals. While some are bizarre, I completely agree that just “getting up early” will not help you commit to writing. You need to integrate it into your life, and what better way than to “ritualize” the act?
While it’s on my Twitter feed at right, you can also check it out here:
You can check out Arcana: The Tarot Poetry Anthology where both CA and I appear here:
How happy I was to recently come across The Library of Congress Magazine‘s back to school issue and U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s piece “How Do I Read a Poem?” What struck me was her admission that “Along the way, I take stock of what I notice.”
Smith details many of the same levels as those found in the “I Notice” method and the “Noticing Poetry” unit plan published on The Academy of American Poets website. She wrote that she tries to “listen to the music,” “look at the images,” look to where the “turn” (of ideas) takes place, and wonder at the “visual shape” of the poem. These align with the four levels of language used by the “I Notice” method and “Noticing Poetry” unit plan — sounds (sonic), images (sensory), ideas (ideational), and visual and shape (typographical).
I encourage you to read her post and compare the concepts for yourself. You can check out the full issue of magazine here.
One of the most powerful ways to explore poetry is in conjunction with other disciplines.
Case in point: I once gave a reading at Johns Hopkins University to a small audience of academics and other guests. At this event, I read my poem, “Entropy”, a poem about the struggle that parents face with small child rearing and the sense of exhaustion and disorder that can emerge at such times. After the event, a man came up to me and introduced himself as a professor or physics, wanting to know if the poem were published anywhere. At that time, it hadn’t been. He told me that he would have liked to explore it further because he found it interesting what I chose to do with language and the allusions I made in the poem (since he happened to be a teacher of physics). I told him that he should look out for the poem, that it was being considered at online journal. A year later, it appeared in Verse Wisconsin, in their issue on poetic form. Here is the link to it, if you’re interested to hear the audio as well.
The physics professor’s interest in poetry reminded me that there are lovers of poetry from all walks of life and from all professions. Over the years I’ve counseled teachers from many subject areas on selecting contemporary poems that they could use in their classes to augment their instruction. I’m always more than happy to do some sleuthing, pairing poems with subject areas/lessons like wines with dinner entrees. Why? Well, when teachers in disciplines other than English expound in front of their students about how the language directly makes use of scientific principles, history, art, etc., students can better notice poetry for what it is and teachers can help increase student engagement in whatever it is that they’re learning. In fact, reading and discussing how one poem’s language relates to a subject area/lesson is not only wonderful introduction to a concept or subject; it can also deepen the understanding about the applicability of that learning across disciplines and help with what we call trans-disciplinary transfer, wherein students can take the knowledge from one area of study and apply it autonomously to another. Basically, poetry’s richness of language nurtures learning across all disciplines.
Poetry as a genre is well-suited to the roles of increasing engagement, deepening understanding, and promoting transfer across all disciplines, since poetry’s concern is the language itself. Where teachers go from using one contemporary poem is up to them. But why not give it a try? I’m happy to play a small part in suggesting contemporary poetry pairings to enhance students’ experiences not only with poetry, but with all subjects areas.
“My conference is all about trying to figure things out, to consider how to integrate our responsibilities with our ideals, to deal forthrightly with our own longing to create emotionally and intellectually satisfying work even as we support others’ longing to do the same.” — from Dawn Potter’s July 10, 2018 blog post, “Negotiating the Poet-Teacher Balance”
Fabulous poet and educator Dawn Potter’s recent post about directing The Frost Place’s Conference on Poetry and Teaching and nurturing her writing has recently helped me reflect on my own writing and teaching life. Potter is doing admirable work for all teachers who yearn to nurture their writer-ly selves, and I sincerely appreciate her work. I, like many teachers who are also writers, had struggled with this idea of “balance”, of nurturing my literary ambitions and my desire to give my all to my students. However, after reading Matthew Kelly’s Off Balance: Getting Beyond the Work-Life Balance Myth to Personal and Professional Satisfaction, and after years of thinking of my teaching and my writing as a great balancing act, I’ve moved in a different direction — I’m constantly asking myself, “What do I need to feel personally and professionally satisfied as both a teacher and a writer?” The good news is that anyone who is struggling with the question of writer vs. teacher (or of work/life balance in general), can reframe their struggle.
Here’s what I mean: the whole teacher-writer balance for me was more of a myth that I relied on to avoid doing the difficult work of committing myself fully to both teaching and writing. It felt like a constant balancing act. Why? Because giving to myself was difficult, especially when I gave so much of my time and energy to my students. Because living as both a writer and teacher is difficult. But because a thing is difficult is one more reason to do it, right?
So I challenge any teacher-writer to do three things that I did for myself:
- Read Matthew Kelly’s book. It deals with personal and professional satisfaction in general,. And then ask yourself two questions:
- What will it take for me to feel satisfied in my teaching life?
- What will it take for me to feel satisfied in my writing life?
I do this routinely, and it works well for me. There are times when I prioritize my teaching. There are times when i prioritize my writing (from the increased posts you can see that this takes place in the summer…). If you’re interested, you can read this short prose work below, too, just so you know that you’re not alone. If you choose to share it elsewhere, I only ask that you attribute it appropriately. Same goes for this post. If you find it meaningful and beneficial, share away!
Teacher? Writer? A Manifesto
Teacher. Writer. I am both. Sometimes, I am the Writer before I am the Teacher. And sometimes (most times) I am the Teacher before I am the Writer. For me, these two identities don’t always mesh, but they are omnipresent.
I work at leading a life in literary circles. I work at leading a life in teaching circles. I am always going in circles. Recently, I have come to think of this as one circle.
This is a metaphor, a necessary one for me; it is a reconciling of two halves, the creative and the pedagogical. I remind myself: I am always more than one, but always only one.
For this, the tajitu emerges — I cannot be the Teacher without being the Writer; I cannot be the Writer without being the Teacher.
At various times I have tried to convince myself that I am more one than the other. I do not write daily. I teach far more than I write. What kind of a Writer am I then? I look around, lamenting I am not the Writer that so-and-so is, that I do not create work that vaults me to the top of Writer-ly circles and the literary establishment, that I do not create as often as I should. This guilt persists. It keeps me guessing – am I just faking being a Writer?
I have two chapbooks out. One won a national contest. I am proud of each of them. However, in the years since their publication, what have I written? Will I write again?
So I push myself in my Teaching. I infrequently use my own writing as a pedagogical springboard for my students (if I can do it, you can, too – rah, rah, rah!). However, what I am also doing is also shaming myself (my conscience says, “If you call yourself a Writer in front of them, then you better write”). I trick myself into writing, but what comes of it is always inauthentic. I blame the Teacher. If only I had more time to be the Writer I want to be (blah blah blah…).
Confess and reflect. Write it! This is not the Teacher’s fault.
A colleague who himself struggled with his own Teacher and Writer selves once said that I, like him, must make a choice, “Are you a Teacher, or are you a Writer? You need to decide.” Agony. No. I choose otherwise.
Living the question “Am I more of a Writer or more of a Teacher?” an answer — I am both. Teacher-Writer. Writer-Teacher. There is only me, only my path, what I will live with and what will satisfy me, and, as Mary Oliver wrote in “The Summer Day”, what I will do with “my one, wild, precious life.”