Writing with Teens

I want to give a shout out to the fine folks at the Osterhout Library for letting me teach a poetry workshop for teens last week, in honor of National Poetry Month. The workshop was just what I needed, as the semester winds down and I, like my college students, start to feel the burnout that comes with a waning school year. At first, I was unsure if the workshop would be successful, since every teen wrinkled their noses confessed to me that they dislike poetry and don’t want to write it.

However, I first wanted to share with them contemporary poets and ideas that I thought they could relate to. I handed them a packet containing poems about teen/parent relationships and poems about place/location. We launched into Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem “Betrays.”  After I read the poem out loud, I was surprised by the number of comments. In fact, their comments were on the same level as some of my college literature courses. We probably could have spent the entire workshop discussing their poems and their reaction, but I wanted them to write. I wanted them to overcome that hurdle and their disdain for the genre. I gave them a simple prompt, in response to Maria’s poem. Write about your parents or a specific childhood memory.


At first, 20 minutes passed, and then 30. They barely looked up from their paper. By the end of the block of time, they each had a solid draft. One teen told me that he never tried writing before, but now he wants to start a writing group! Another teen mined his memory to address the day his dad left. Heavy stuff! We went over one more poem and did one more prompt. By the end, their minds opened to poetry, and I committed to doing another poetry workshop with them at some point, most likely over the summer. This is what National Poetry Month should be all about, not worrying so much about publication credits, but reaching communities that need poetry as a means of expression and communities that may not be that exposed to the art form.

What’s Behind a Poem?

Recently, I got in a conversation with a friend about Donald Hall’s life and long career. This occurred after I blurbed her forthcoming book and drew some resemblance to her collection and Hall’s poetry, at least in her treatment of everyday subject matter and rural scenes. My friend then noted that Donald Hall, now 86, has stopped writing poetry and is only writing prose. In fact, his latest book is a prose collection, Essays After 80.

I had already known that Hall stopped writing poetry. Prior to the release of his latest book, he gave a lengthy interview in Poets & Writers in which he confessedthat he has stopped writing poetry and joked that it’s because he no loner has enough testosterone. Hall, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, did admit, however, that he keeps revising old poems. I still wonder to what end.

In an interview with NPR, Hall was more specific regarding his inability to write new poems. He confessed, “Prose is not so dependent on sound. The line of poetry, with the breaking of the line — to me sound is the kind of doorway into poetry. And my sense of sound, or my ability to control it, lapsed or grew less. I still use it in prose, but the unit is the paragraph.”

My writing process is similar, in that, for me, poetry often begins with sound and rhythm. I may have an image, but the structure of the poem is dependent on sound, especially the breaking of the line and the progression of the image or extended metaphor. I write and rewrite to stretch the language of a line and to play words off of each other for rhythmic effects.

In the same interview, however, Hall admits that he didn’t see the essays coming, but they did come. We can hope that new poems will come, too, but his statements regarding his inability to write new poems raises questions about what composes a poem and what is needed. Is it possible to still compose once the senses start to dull? Poetry is so dependent upon the senses and the structure is so reliant on sound that it seems inevitable the process will become more difficult with old age.

From Poetry to Fiction

This summer, I’m teaching English 211: Intro to Creative Writing, a class I’ve taught a few times in the past. I split the course into two genres, poetry and fiction. The more times I teach this class, the more I realize there is a lot prose writers can learn from writing poetry, and I tell my students that, especially when some of them groan about having to write poetry. The genre teaches writers compression, to cut out all of the fat. During workshop sessions, I tell my students to ensure that ever word in their lines counts, and to remove what they don’t need, especially conjunctions and prepositions. This skill of careful editing  is useful in fiction because you don’t want your short story or novel to get bogged down by unnecessary details and extraneous sentences. Poetry teaches a writer to make every word matter, to capture a reader’s attention from the first line.

There are other techniques paramount to poetry that are useful in fiction, especially extended metaphors, similes, and concrete imagery.  In fact, image/metaphor/simile/sensory detail are the first techniques I cover in the poetry section. These tools energize the language and imagination, and they do the same things when employed in prose.

Right now, my class just started the fiction unit, and as someone who writes poetry and thinks about it daily, it’s nice to step away from my familiar genre. Meanwhile, the students now have some techniques they learned from writing poetry that they can use in their fiction.