Sometimes it’s the simplest prompts that get my students writing. From the beginning that’s my goal, just to get them writing and often not even realizing that they’ve written a poem until they’ve been doing it for a while. I use a lot of my index card writing games because it feels more like a game to them and less like homework. And because it allows them to stay in a safer place until they are ready to go deep. Because of course that’s what I’m hoping poetry will do for them, invite them to go deeply into who they are, the choices they have made, what matters to them, and where they want to go with their life. But I can’t dig at their hearts right away so I do a lot of easy prompts and exercises to get them in the mood.
Building on the idea of a list poem I like to use the prompt “I remember.”
Students are usually confused ask me, “I remember what?”
And I say yes. Tell me what you remember. Tell me everything you remember about yesterday. About the last time you saw your family. (My students are usually incarcerated.) Tell me what your bedroom looks like. Tell me how you feel about green beans. Pick a single thing or a single person and just make a list. Start every sentence with “I remember.” Then later you can go back and, if you want, rework the sentences. To see how this prompt worked in one of my classes you can read about this experience I had with a very reluctant student.
Okay, let’s write. I decided to write about a day 15 years or so ago when I was living in New Orleans and sprained my ankle.
First, my brainstorm starting each line with I REMEMBER:
I remember working late and being in a bad mood when I got home because there wasn’t anything good left in the house for dinner and I was too broke to go out to eat.
I remember climbing the two flights of stairs to apartment and hearing my dog barking on the other side of the door.
I remember thinking about how I didn’t want to go take the dog for a walk because it was looking like it was going to rain and besides I was really hungry and worrying about what I was going to eat.
I remember the cat got out the front door and for a minute I worried about him taking off except by then it was raining and I knew if he got wet he’d come back.
I remember the cat racing back into the apartment out of the rain.
I remember walking the dog for several laps around the apt complex, trying not to let her roll in the big puddles of water.
I remember how I couldn’t stop her from rolling in the water and she was a dirty, stinky, wet mess of dog by the time we headed home.
I remember being so angry about everything I didn’t like in my life, about living along, about being poor, about living in a town that didn’t want me, that I didn’t watch where I was going.
I remember the big tree, so close to my apartment, the tree whose roots were tearing up the sidewalk.
I remember tripping over the roots of that tree.
I remember falling and letting go of the leash and feeling something horrible happen to my ankle.
I remember pain. A lot of pain.
I remember hopping to stairs of my apartment, my dog barking and dancing like it was some kind of a game.
I remember crawling up the stairs on my hands and knees.
I remember collapsing, just inside the door,
I remember the way my ankle looked, swollen about 5 times its normal size.
I remember holding on to my wet and stinky dog and crying because I was so alone
And here’s my first draft of a quick poem. It needs something else but I’m going to go ahead and post it now.
Walking in the rain
a dancing dog by my side
I am suddenly sideswiped
by a sidewalk split open
by ancient roots seeking sun
by my own obsession with my anger
my ankle should not hit the sidewalk first
but it does
my will is broken
my foot is not
and I crawl up the stairs
on my hands and knees
like a three-legged dog.
Inside safe but alone
my ankle swells
my world shrinks
and I can do
–Susan Taylor Brown, all rights reserved
Your turn, if you choose to play along. Write an “I remember” poem