Monday, October 29, 2007

Fried Shoes

My university creative writing teacher, George Venn, once had a student ask him, What is poetry? I remember George going to the board and writing the words Fried Shoes. He allowed a suitable length of time to pass during which he waited to see if anyone would take him up on this gambit. Everyone waited, knowing of course that George was indeed ready and willing to enlarge upon his answer. I always liked the fact that he waited as long as he did, and a part of me always wished that he had simply let it go at that and let us try to make sense of his answer. I've never been able to disassociate the word poetry from Venn's fried shoes.
Which leads me (you'll have to take my word for it) to the subject of teaching poetry to high school freshmen. They remind me often of the dog in the Far Side cartoon who is sitting quietly facing an empty corner of a room. The thought bubble over his head reveals an empty corner identical to the one he is staring at. For me it all starts with seeing, with how one looks at things, and with the proposition that seeing is to a significant degree a creative act or at least the result of a collaboration between the eyes and the mind.
One of my personal goals with kids is to furnish them with reasons and opportunities to see things in different combinations, to experiment with notions of focus and foreground and background, with connection and juxtaposition. I consider it a major event if a kid writes something and then says, Hey, where did that come from?
Creating the classroom conditions where such exclamations are likely to occur is part of what I spend my spare time thinking about.
My most recent idea was inspired by Langston Hughs' verses on dreams... hold fast to dreams for when dreams die/life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.
I wanted kids to practice swinging from abstract ideas to concrete images and metaphors in a way that would allow them to perhaps discover interesting connections ideas and things. So I asked them to generate a list of very concrete details visible typically at home or in their neighborhood. I fed them a few ezamples: sharp, dry crumbs on the linoleum floor; small dark bird on a wire, empty cardboard boxes stacked in the basement.... ordinary stuff like that.
After they had all come up with a healthy list of details, I then gave them a sheet with phrases openers like: my past, my dreams, my passion, my worries.... Their task: experiment with different ways of completing the phrases using the concrete details they had already assembled. The more surprising the results the better.
Here are a few of the results:

This school is an overfilled dumpster.

My dreams are dead grass in the front yard.

My friends are a flock of birds.

My passion is like a single sock in the dryer.

My worries are a pink stuffed pig on a bed.

My hopes are bread in a toaster.

My heart is the last piece of gum in the packet.

My worries are orange and yellow leaves scattered on the grass.

My past is the brown house hiding behind the trees.

My friends are an assortment of different colored flip flops.

My future is an empty water dish

My hopes are like the glint of the sun off a shiny new quarter.

My future is a foreign language.

My life is a pink lazy-boy.

My past is a black dog pulling on its chain.

My future is like mail scattered on the counter.

My life is a large glass window covered with finger prints.

My heart is a big red truck.

My heart is like green grass that turning brown along the sidewalks.

My heart is like an empty fridge.

My future is like a red dog toy in the yard.

While doing this exercise several of my students seemed to be genuinely tickled by what emerged. One girl even went so far as to claim that it was the best poem she had ever written. I looked at her wondering if she appreciated the conceptual leap she had made by viewing her "list" as a poem. It struck me as a claim that was both audacious and plausible, but mostly it reflected an exuberance that may fuel her jets in future writing efforts.

On the other hand, T, one of my smartest and most able students is temperamentally resistant to any mental process that tends to produce more questions than it does answers. She is unremittingly focused and rational, qualities I prize as much as any other. I don't like it when things don't make sense, she says to me whenever I set her to work on some sort of exercise in poetry writing. She systematically sets about ironing out inconsistencies and anomalies in her list of expressions...more or less the opposite approach I'm encouraging. I chide her playfully, encouraging her to be a bit more adventurous. She is good humored about it but stubborn.

The next day I give them another exercise. Everyone has to write a poem entitled "Timeless". There are two simple rules.

1. the only letters that can be used in the poem are the ones that can be found in the title.

2. you have to feature a theme word that poses as the central motif of your poem by being repeated several times.

Here's what T came up with:

Timeless

time lies
it sets limits

time seems timeless
lest I test it

is time slim
it emits mist

see little sis
time seems less

tilt time
list sites

Else I see
it slits miles

time it is
it melts

I miss smiles
I miss time

T

I enjoyed the smile on T's face when she shared this with me.

If you always have to know the sense of things before you write it down, you'll usually end up writing less than you know; whereas if you allow yourself to write things whose sense is not yet apparent to you, you may surprise yourself be writing more than you know. In other words, sometimes we write to report what we know; sometimes we write to find out what we know. If one can't surprise oneself once in awhile, it's hard for me to see where the pleasure in writing comes from.

It's hard to explain Fried Shoes.

K

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