November 28, 2010

How to Teach a Poetry Workshop

Recently, grants have been available for Community Arts Learning.  This is a wonderful opportunity for artists/writers and members of the community to develop their skills.   The key to successful arts workshops is a lesson plan.    Lesson plans are simple, but they will help the artist stay focused and organize the time so that the experience is productive.  The younger and larger the group, the more essential is structured time.

Here is a sample lesson plan for poetry workshops for children.  This can be adapted for adult learners as well.    Children who are 4th grade and younger developmentally may not grasp the metaphor but they can learn to use sound patterns and the five senses.  

The Lesson Plan for a Children's Poetry Workshop

Age:   grade 4-6 (often it's been about 20+ students)
Time:  1 hour (and it could be 1:15 min)
Goal:   Students will practice poetry and learn to use the 5 senses in description and use  figurative language. 

Materials:   the workshop leader should bring good example poems.  The writing prompts that you plan should relate to these examples. 
It's helpful (preferred but not absolutely necessary) to have another adult in the classroom if you have a large group.  This person can assist with some students' needs (esp if there are special needs kids)--a little one to one coaching. 
Students should have paper and pencils

Introduction to Poetry:

I begin by asking students to tell me what poetry is.    They have interesting answers.  Praise any interesting observations.   I will talk about 5 minutes about what poems are:   they create a picture and sound for the reader.  They can be a story, a list, a letter, a blessing, or a memory.

I'll read an example poem and ask the students to tell me what they noticed about reinforce the definition of a poem.   We will also notice sound elements:  rhyme, alliteration, rhythm, etc.  I point out figurative language and define the word metaphor. 

Practice Poetry:

The goal is to teach students to use the five senses when they write description and to use figurative language.    I approach the project lightly to make it fun.  I give them rules: 1. write fast, 2. don't worry about spelling or punctuation 3. write about what is important to you and 4.  be specific.    Students are writing first drafts.  I tell them not to expect it to be perfect.  We are just going to play with words. (These rules of flow writing are adapted from Natalie Goldberg's book about generating new material, Writing Down the Bones)

Writing Prompts are then used in the classroom.  Each writing exercise is given about 5 minutes for students to write.

Prompt 1.  Metaphor:  Students will hear an example of a persona poem.  (I'll read them a poem I have by John Haines).   They will then be asked to choose an animal and write at least 3 descriptive phrases related using as many of the 5 senses as possible.    Next step:  write the poem.  Begins with "I am....."    The students will be asked to pretend that they are the animal.   They will use the phrases to help them build the poem.  We are looking for a poem of at least 8-10 lines.   

Prompt 2.   Learning how to use specific details.    Students will be asked to write a list of short phrases, specific details, about the area around where they live.    In can be a backyard or a place that they frequently go to play.    Next, students will hear an example of an autobiographical poem called "I Am From" by George Ella Lyon.  This poem is a list poem.   It begins, "I am from clothespins/ from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride./ I am from the dirt under the back porch./ I am from the forsythia bush/ the Dutch elm/ whol long gone limbs I remember/ as if they were my own."      Students will then use their own details to write an autobiographical list poem of their own.

Prompt 3.   Students will use their imagination to  write a poem that begins with one of these prompts:  (often I decide the prompt during class when I learn about their interests or other classroom projects).  I ask them to use a sound element--either rhyme or alliteration.
a journey poem that starts with "If my arms had wings..."  
OR  a list poem of excuses or reasons that starts "Because"   (they are asked to use the word because at least 3 times)
OR   a letter poem that is written from a pet or from a favorite object.

Reading Out Loud:  

After students do 3 writing exercises. I like to offer them an opportunity to read the new poem to the class.  These are all rough drafts, so nobody should expect polished work.  It's "work in progress."   I give some short instructions about posture and breath for the best projection.  Students enjoy sharing their work. I don't force anybody to read.  It should always be volunteered. 

Whenever a student reads, observe the strengths that they have.   "That poem has wonderful vowel sounds," for example.   "That poem uses alliteration.  That poem is a vivid picture.  That poem has a strong beginning or a strong metaphor."    This is essential.  Avoid negative feedback in a short workshop, it will dampen enthusiasm and cause self consciousness.  Avoid laughing at the efforts.  If participants feed judged or self-conscious, they will withdraw their willingness to read rough drafts.  

Reading the work is a fun closure for the poetry workshop.  I help the students read if they need that, and I remind them how to be good listeners.    I often get amazing and great poems from the kids.

Feel free to use or adapt my lesson plan to your own needs.   Each writer/artist should teach from their own strengths.

November 21, 2010

Poetry & Change

Poetry comes of direction and indirection.   In order to write, I need to do a fair amount of staring out the window.  It's helpful to do some mindless tasks like cleaning and laundry.  Somehow the sound of water running into the washing machine helps me find my way to the page.   Dreams help; this morning I climbed out of bed with a phrase delivered to me in my sleep.  Some poems I've written began in just such a way.   Daydreams, reverie, and music help.   Good conversations, reading, and especially walking or yoga help me make the transition from conscious mind to subconscious.  Spending time by the lakeshore or near the river, journaling, writing letters.  In my studio, I find the process of making a fire in the woodstove very conducive.  It is a journey that leads inward.

The process of artistic submersion is similar to the process of planned change.   As a writer, I've learned to invite the meditative state that leads into artistic work.  In the field of social work, research about the process of change reveals a parallel:  a premeditative state, followed by contemplation, preparation, and action.   Now, an evidence based practice (one that has been proven to be effective) called motivational interviewing is used to support and encourage the process of change; the social worker affirms the point in the process, no matter what it is, and discusses the process of change and possible scenarios of changing, or not changing.  Amplifying ambivalence often leads to taking action.  In creative immersion and change, talking about process is so important to help you find your way, your own unique way.

Consider what you do to help you enter into contemplation and preparation.  An artist friend of mine has a strong Buddhist practice.  Meditation, silence and contemplation of the words and writing of teachers has been very helpful to her.   Another friend works in more than one medium; besides writing, she also does visual art and music. 

Writer's blocks are perhaps an earlier stage of the process and can be investigated. Perhaps more contemplation or more preparation is needed.  A block may represent fear or a resistance to change.  The social work response to these two obstacles is acknowledgment and affirmation and then a consideration of how staying stuck affects you in the short and long term.  Practicing respect of the internal and external obstacles is a skillful tactic.  The use of force doesn't work.  Controlling responses don't work.   In artistic counseling, Anne Paris, PhD, suggests three solutions; mirroring (finding somebody to reflect on your work with you), eliciting creative work in relation to a hero that you have (another writer or artist), and working with peers.  These relationships with others help us stay connected to the source of our own inspiration.   

In the action of creating something new, we must stretch and rise in ways not otherwise called for.  Consider the language we use for such experiences; we say a person is consumed by their work.   At times, I've been consumed by writing and afterwards, I was not the same.   Artists are perhaps marked by their changefulness, like Merce Cunningham.   We are willing to enter in again and again, to create something new.   And of this new beginning, the artist or writer creates an experience with a beginning, middle and end.

Each new work has a different constellation or different set of principles, in order to engage with it, an artist or writer has to let go of the past.  What has worked before might not be what works in the new project.   Adjustments are needed.   Perhaps this is also what Rilke meant in his poem, Archaic Torso of Apollo:  " must change your life." (To read this poem and poet Mark Doty's critical analysis of it, click on this link

Besides writing, I work with people who are affected by mental illness and I help facilitate recovery.   Once I had the opportunity to attend the Creativity and Madness Conference in Sante Fe, New Mexico.  It is a conference that examines the psychology of art and artists.   Many artists have transformed very difficult life experience and mental illness into astonishing artistic achievement.   (

The artistic process engages us with the process of change in a very intimate and personal way.    Not only does creative work relax and help us feel centered, it is a profound act of change in the world.  We all know you can't change anybody else; it is possible to change oneself (and that is difficult enough).  Creative work allows us to make small alterations in the patterns of the self, allows us to follow an image through to a completed work, and sets in motion a beginning that reaches farther than we realize.

Arts learning is so important.  The wisdom we gain from working artistically is valuable.  Artists can help others learn how to overcome obstacles, especially the difficult obstacles that one's own self can erect during the process of change.  Music programs, theater departments, art departments, and creative writing classes not only help students improve their math scores; they give an individual an important tool that might save him or her, and maybe the world.

If you are interested in artistic process, check out this book by Anne Paris, PhD: Standing at Water's Edge: Moving Past Fear, Blocks, and Pitfalls to Discover the Power of Creative Immersion (New World Library, c2008)  If you want to know about the change process and motivational interviewing, read Miller, William R. & Rollnick, Stephen. (2 edition) Motivational Interviewing:  Preparing People For Change . New York:  Guildford Press (2002).

November 9, 2010

How to Revise Poems

Re-vision is an opportunity to come to the emerging work with attention and deliberation.   The rough draft will reveal things to the attentive writer about how to best develop and hone the poem.  No rules are hard and fast; these are simply guidelines.   The goal at the end of revision is to have every element of the poem (the voice, the images, the metaphor, the word choice, the punctuation, the line and stanza breaks) all choices that have been made for the best possible effect.

Paul Valery wrote that the language of prose is meant to fall away once the meaning is delivered.  In a poem, the language is a physiological device that recreates the breath of the writer in the reader.   Each time the poem is read, the experience is created anew and can reveal new meanings.   

1.  Begin with a strong line.   A sense detail or an action is best.   It must be arresting in some way:  either make it musical or sensual or surprising or make it an action. 

2.  Poems are a pattern language.  Sound patterns or visual patterns are pleasing.  Look for ways to enhance the emerging patterns of a first draft.  Pay attention to vowel sounds, consonant sounds, almost rhyme, rhyme and rhythm and repetition.  The best way to hear this is to read it aloud.  Consider the overall shape of the poem.   Repeating words greatly emphasizes those words.   (So make sure you aren't overusing the pronoun "I" or the word "the.")

3.  Focus.  If you begin with a metaphor, continue to stay in the metaphor throughout the poem.    Avoid simile. It just isn’t as effective.   Writing persona poems is good practice for staying inside a metaphor.   

4.  Make sure that you have employed the five senses.  Good poems are rooted in the body.   Write from your heart, and write about what is really important to you.   You are creating an emotional experience.   Longing belongs in a poem, but not preaching.

5.   Consider context, juxtapositions, simultaneous occurrences, the landscape.  Consider some storytelling conventions, like journey or the rule of 3 or circular forms.   Consider mythology and Biblical story.  Is your poem somehow similar to a wider cultural story?   

6.   Use active verbs and SPECIFIC, concrete detail.   Vivid description.  Avoid the use of the words "is, are, was, were, has, had, have, been, seem, being."   In words, create a vivid picture in active voice.  Like Mary Oliver says, nouns and verbs are worth 50 cents, adjectives and adverbs are worth far less.   They can clutter up the poem, deaden it.   Try to build tension into the lines (maybe by the use of opposites or juxtapositions or by the use of an antagonist; consider what the poem is up against or irresistibly drawn to).  Evoke a feeling, but don’t tell the reader how to feel.  

7.    Stanzas are like paragraphs.   Stanza breaks offer an opportunity to cross time and space, to free-associate or free-fall, surprise the reader.  

8.   Line breaks offer an opportunity to make the poem more evocative.   See if you can increase the meanings.  Sometimes ambiguities enhance the poem.   The end word of a line, a stanza, and the entire poem is important. 

9.   Value the resonating image.   Sometimes an image lingers or resonates for a writer.   Use
this and keep it central to the poem.  Let the poem lead you.  Listen to the work.   Allow yourself to work intuitively.   

10.  Often beginning poets can be heavy-handed with the conclusion. Do not summarize what you just said in the poem.  Don't tell the reader what to feel.  End strong.  Think of your last line as a phrase of music.