With Literary Arts Lead Teacher Josette Kurey.
It can be intimidating to write and prepare a poem for workshopping. The first step to find your ground and your voice as a writer is to freewrite every day. This is a major component of any writing class, including the ones at Westinghouse Arts Academy. To freewrite, you just write about whatever comes to your mind for 15 minutes. Try to write non stop. Even if you can’t think of what to write, write “I don’t know what to write” over and over until something comes to mind. I usually give my students a topic to start with in case they don't have any ideas. We'll try out a few as part of this lesson.
What you need:
Materials: Pencil or pen, paper or notebook, timer
How to do it:
Step 1: Go outside!
Turn on your timer and write for 15 minutes. Done? Great. Now turn that page. Do not look at it right now. Usually its best that you don't look for it for at least a day, but I may have you go back to this later.
Step 2: Introducing our poet and poem
I’m going to talk a bit about Emily Dickinson today, but please see suggestions at the end of this lesson for ways to learn more about her. You may have already been introduced to Emily Dickinson. She is a very approachable poet for young writers, but upon further study her work is quite deep, interesting, and worth further study.
You may have heard that later in her life, Dickinson was a recluse who dressed all in white. This is usually what draws readers to her. Everyone loves a mystery.
What is important to note about Dickinson is that she wrote about topics (spirituality, nature, art) that interested her contemporaries, and the structure of her poems often imitates common hymn meter, used frequently in both religious and non-religious music. However, Dickinson’s treatment of these subjects and her vast vocabulary resulted in poems that are more concise, less sentimental, and more layered than that of her contemporaries.
Today, I’d like you to take a look at this poem:
Bee! I’m expecting you!
Was saying Yesterday
To Somebody you know
That you were due—
The Frogs got Home last Week—
Are settled, and at work—
Birds, mostly back—
The Clover warm and thick—
You’ll get my Letter by
The seventeenth; Reply
Or better, be with me—
What do you notice about this poem? I hope that you see that it is a letter. This type of poem is called an epistolary. This type of poem is especially good for when you have writer’s block. They do not always need to say “Dear, ‘Blank’” or “Yours, ‘Blank’” but can. I hope you also notice Dickinson’s signature use of the dash as punctuation. This allows a reader to pause a moment and listen. Dashes can be very effective at helping to mimic a speech pattern. I hope, finally, that you notice that it is about nature and that there is personification throughout.
Step 3: Writing Prompt
I’d like you to try to emulate what Dickinson has done here. Write a poem in the form of a letter to an element of nature that includes personification. If you want to push yourself, try to also mimic the use of dashes. Place them where, if you read the poem aloud, you’d take a breath. If you are having trouble thinking of what to write about, go back to the freewrite you did at the beginning of this lesson and “mine” it for an image. That is, look to see what you wrote about “outside” and choose one of those items to be the focus of the piece.
Give yourself about 30 minutes to write this poem. Turn on your timer and begin!
Step 4: Come Back Tomorrow!
All Done? Great. Now, typically I’d tell you to close your book and not look at this poem for a day or so. It is my belief that we are too close to a poem at the moment we write it to actually edit it or prepare it for workshopping. But because this is a different lesson, I am going to go ahead and tell you how to prepare for workshop. If you have the time, maybe wait a day or two to do part 4.
Step 5: Preparing for a Workshop
Before workshopping a poem, you must reread it. Make sure you have practiced word economy (using only the words you absolutely need). Check your grammar and spelling - these do matter! Check to make sure you followed the prompt. Finally, decide whether or not you wish your piece to be workshopped anonymously. Most beginning writers choose this option, but I find that in class, students pick up pretty quickly on who has written what piece. Once you are sure that all of the above are the best they can be, think of a question or two you might have about the piece. Consider: “How can I make this image better” or “Is it clear what I was trying to say in line ‘blank’” Then turn in your piece, If you wish to send me what you have done for this lesson, I’d love to see it. You can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
More on Emily Dickinson:
The Emily Dickinson Museum: https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/
The Emily Dickinson Archive: https://www.edickinson.org/
Emily Dickinson Poetry Society: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/emily-dickinson
Emily Dickinson AAP: https://poets.org/poet/emily-dickinsonMore on Reading: pick up an anthology of poetry or fiction and read, read, read. Open to any page and read for pleasure and interest. Don't try to "study" the works; just respond to them on an emotional level. Consider the following:
- Identify subjects that move you or engage you.
- Are there certain themes you respond to? Are there certain writers you like? List them and read more by them.
- Are there certain types or styles of you enjoy? What do they seem to have in common?
- Are there images or lines you love? Keep a record of some of your favorites.
Make this a time to develop a personal taste for literature. Use this random approach to experience a broad range of form and content.
More on Writing: Write every day. There are many many websites with writing prompts, but here are some of my favorites:
Poets and Writers: https://www.pw.org/writing-prompts-exercises
Writer’s Digest: https://www.writersdigest.com/prompts
NaPoWriMo (updates every APril but has an archive): http://www.napowrimo.net/
Writing Down the Bones (Book) https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Down-Bones-Freeing-Writer/dp/1590302613