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found poetry–the statue in the stone

I am not a poet.

I tell my students this as we work on poetry for half of the semester in creative writing. I am a fiction writer, but I became a better fiction writer through studying and writing poetry.

In both poetry and fiction, word choice–diction–matters. But in poetry, the challenge to say more with fewer words causes us to be more frugal.

So today, we channeled our inner Michelangelo and discovered the statue in the block of stone.

I refer to this activity as found poetry, though I’m sure there’s several names for it. Pinterest also has some amazing examples of it.

I have a book, published in 1949 with yellowed pages with that wonderful old book smell, The Heavyweight Championship, that I use for this first assignment.

foundStep 1: Select a page from a book or other (prose) publication.

I think half the class gasped as I gave the instructions, then demonstrated. “Rip a page out of the book.” Rip.

I allowed them to select any page, for that page held the poem meant for them. I think part of the success concerns what book you allow your students (or yourself) to use. The point is to make the final poem sound nothing like its source material.

Step 2:
Circle words (top to bottom, left to right) to create a new poem.

Step 3: Adorn accordingly.

(Optional) Step 4: Use this opportunity to teach line breaks and punctuation.

My original chosen words read like this: thirteen years a fortune of good time never self-confident erratic temperamental Jack lost the time it was thirteen Jack Jack avoided triumph Jack stopped

Decisions: line breaks, capitalization, and punctuation.

During the next class, we’re going to look at all 18 poems and talk about these critical decisions in poetry. Here’s how I rewrote my poem:

Thirteen years–
a fortune
of good time.
Never self-confident, erratic,
Jack lost
the time.
It was
Jack avoided triumph.
Jack stopped.

Digression: Today, I met my new creative writing students–eighteen brilliant minds eager to tell a story. I am blessed to also have five advanced CW loopers–students who excelled in creative writing last year. They will be working on independent projects and pursuing publication while still participating in weekly workshops with my first-year CW students. It’s going to be a great semester. You’ll be hearing a lot about them, I’m sure.



First Love

I never liked the expression love at first sight. As someone who always found imperfections with her looks, I always considered this an impossibly shallow concept. And yet, while efforts exist to combat the worship of (society’s slanted perspective of) physical beauty–no makeup selfies, songs about self-image–trolls everywhere still echo the darkest voices of our subconscious.

Why is it that sight is the sense we choose to associate with instantaneous love? And I’m not talking about love at first smell or love at first taste (ahem, vampires). What about love at first voice?

Wavy flashback lines to seventh grade.

Fabulously awkward me, sitting at the back lab table in biology class with a Beauty and a Jock. Daily, he verbally reminded me of my shortcomings; merely looking at her had the same effect.

But every once in a while, during the last twenty minutes of class, I was permitted to fall in love. Our teacher read aloud to us, in biology class. Not from a science textbook but from a collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury. The Illustrated Man.

Sometimes, as teachers, we admittedly do things because we sincerely believe in their value. Sometimes, it’s because we need something to fill in a lesson that somehow ran short.

I’m not sure what was our teacher’s purpose for reading a collection of science fiction short stories in a science class. We didn’t have ‘I can’ statements back then.

What I do know is that there, during seventh grade, a homely girl with mousy brown hair fell in love with the Voice of literary science fiction.

Ray Bradbury. Orson Scott Card. Ursula K. Le Guin. Frederik Pohl. Isaac Asimov. Robert A. Heinlein.

Even Mary Shelley.

Writers who didn’t just care about the hows of science fiction but the why this matters. Character-driven, emotional, whoa-let-me-go-back-and-reread-that-so-I-can-think-about-it writing.

Flash-forward to high school.

Slightly less awkward me, but fabulously flannel. (It was the 90s.)

Ray Bradbury visited my hometown, and our class went to see him. He spoke to a sea of young people, most of them probably there to get extra credit from desperate English teachers. I remember two boys with “Bradbury 3:16” written in Sharpie on plain white t-shirts, standing up and yelling from the back row.

I remember clutching my secondhand copy of Fahrenheit 451, naively thinking I could convince this god to sign it.

And though I can’t recall his exact words, I know he spoke of writing Fahrenheit 451, renting a typewriter for a dime at a time in his nearby public library. Suddenly, the Voice I had grown to love for the stories he told split into two chords, creating a wondrous harmony. The Stories, themselves, and the dogged Writer behind them.

So I ask you this: with whom did you fall in love at first voice?

Faithful Penelope

The epic hero of classic myths (like Odysseus) manages to find his way back on the big screen every couple years, reminding viewers to respect their roots and those who offer advice, learn from near-death experiences, and, if necessary, reconcile their differences with estranged fathers.  With such staying power, I have nothing but respect for old, blind Greeks who recited their stories by memory for hours on end.  However, after teaching The Odyssey for seven years, I am awaiting a postcard, hand-delivered by Hermes from my old pal Zeus with three simple words:  release her already.

Seven years is a long time for anyone and still not half as long as Odysseus’s total hiatus from Ithaca.  My scorn for him increases with every year.  One of these days I’m going to write a wicked bad poem about him.  That arrogant, back-stabbing, lying, sneaky, no-good cheating husband.  He wasn’t even that great of a leader.  Twelve ships full of men, and he came home alone?  And had the nerve to question his wife’s faithfulness when she had no hope he would ever return?  When he was unfaithful with pretty much every female he encountered?  And don’t even get me started about his son—the son he bonded with over slaying a hundred men after being gone from his life for twenty years??

Confession:  I know my interpretation of this is all wrong.  My modern slightly-jaded married female perspective wouldn’t amount to anything in the ancient Greek world, but one thing I understand better than my students is that I likely wouldn’t have questioned it then.  So many times I hear, “Well, if I was there, I would have rebelled in some way…”  But women were portrayed as indifferent, nefarious, beautiful, and ignored.  Those who didn’t accept their lots were turned into monsters, forced to go into hiding, crazy and vengeful, or killed.

Homer reminded his audience several times of the iniquity of Clytemnestra, the unfaithful wife of Agamemnon, who, with the help of her lover Aegisthus, murdered her husband and his war prize Cassandra when they returned home from the Trojan War.  Homer repeated this story as a warning for Odysseus:  would his wife—a relative of Clytemnestra—also be disloyal and slaughter him at his return?  (Must be a genuine concern since there is a monogamy gene, apparently.)  Honestly, he probably suspected it.  Although he revealed his true identity to his son, Telemachus, Odysseus warned him not to tell Penelope of his return until after he had conquered all of her suitors.  But back to Clytemnestra:  did no one question her motive?  After lying to his wife, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigeneia to ensure safe, easy travel to Troy.  He brought home Cassandra with full intent to keep her as a concubine in his house.  Some myths also mention that Agamemnon had forced Clytemnestra to marry him after he murdered her first husband.

But Penelope wasn’t vengeful or murderous.  She was committed.  During her twenty-year wait, she dealt with 108 suitors, often questioning her ability to stay true—not because she longed for the suitors—but because of the inevitability of time.  She managed to stall them for several years until finally, Odysseus returned home in rags to question her fidelity.  While he was gone, he fathered several children by Calypso and Circe, and after defeating the suitors, he went on another voyage and took a second wife, stayed away for several years, and fathered a son.

I can only imagine their late-night conversations.

O:  “Hi, honey.”
P:  “Are you at the hotel?”
O:  “Yes, still here.”
P:  “How was your business meeting?”
O:  “Business-y as usual.  Listen, honey.  Now’s not a very good time.”
P:  “Is that a baby crying in the background?”
O:  “Yes, it’s the tv.  How’s Telemachus?”
P:  “He misses you.  Wants to know when you’ll be home.”
O:  “Tell him we’ll go fishing when I get there.”
P:  “I’m sure you will.”
O:  “Don’t patronize me.”
P:  “Give it up, Odysseus.  You may think your tricks work on everyone else.  Not me.”
O:  “What are you talking about?!”
P:  “I’ve got GPS on your phone, moron.”

In my mind, I need Penelope to feel vindicated.  I need her to walk away from that horrible relationship which stole the best twenty years from her life.  I need her to pick out the most handsome suitor and start new.  I need her to not feel guilty for leaving an unfaithful man.  But every year that I teach The Odyssey, she endures the same heartache, the same frustrations, and the same lousy denouement.  And The Odyssey continues to be named after its epic hero, the cunning, crafty, versatile, much-suffering Odysseus.

And I just received that long-awaited postcard from Zeus.  My schedule has changed:  I will not teach The Odyssey next year.  But it’s a possibility I will teach The Iliad.  But I’ll save Achilles’ story for a later day.

Icarus and Daedalus

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Teaching students about Greek myths is a double-edged sword.  Science and technology explain away the mysteries of life we used to allocate to the gods such as forces of nature, disfigurement, or even a sudden stroke of good luck.  Students get so hung up on the details (incest, bestiality, shape-shifting) it’s difficult for them to see the timeless messages, morals, and themes which still hold truth for us today.

I love teaching about Daedalus and Icarus for this reason.  There’s nothing to confuse the mind.  A son fails to heed his father’s warning.  Shame, hope, failure—it’s all there.  But I don’t start with the myth.  I start with a photo.

While training for my job in Toronto, I was overwhelmed by the number of homeless openly living, begging, surviving on the streets.  Living in a small town all of my life, I had never seen anything like it.  My idea of homelessness consisted of men with cardboard signs on the corner of the expressway, later exposed by local news stations as the same men who walked to their BMWs and drove home to their nice houses in the suburbs after a day of panhandling.  But most of the men and women in Toronto didn’t have signs.  If they had cardboard, they used it as a bed cushion.  They sat on the dirty ground and watched the world walk by without a blink in their direction.

During one of our training sessions, we discussed Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Breugel as well as the poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden.  “What do you see?” brought the usual responses:  a man with his sheep; a boat; a fisherman; a man with a plow; the sea; the sky.  I knew this painting and responded last:  “I see a man drowning and no one offering to help.”

That evening, I snapped a series of photographs of a homeless man and the people walking past him.  No one acknowledged him except for one girl with a critical, nauseous expression.

“I found Icarus,” I told the instructor the next day, showing him the photos.

When I returned home, I added the photos to my lesson plan along with the poem “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams.

So a simple lesson about a man and his son trying to escape the tyranny of an evil king became an intense discussion about the bystander effect and why we feel so compelled to ignore suffering.  Why we have become a world “concerned with itself,” and if the splash was indeed “quite unnoticed.”

“Do you think these people knew this man was here?” I ask my students.  Some say no.  People sometimes are just off in their own little worlds, they say.  Others are honest.  I can see it as they shift uncomfortably in their seats but nod their heads in agreement.  Yes, they say.  The people knew he was there.