Today was the eighth of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.
It was a good day. I expected it would be. It happens in all the residencies I teach in detention facilities – a really bad day gets a few kids in trouble and then the next time I come in they do pretty well. I have four sessions left and the last three, I just found out, will be with a substitute in the class. That makes things really tough. Substitutes usually bring out the worst in them.
One girl got out yesterday so we had a new girl today. Pretty low key though she participated right off the bat. That doesn’t usually happen. It’s so hard to look at these kids and not know their stories, what brought them to such a place.
The word for the day was TRUST. Here’s their group poem:
Trust Feels like an unbreakable bond, like someone catching you when you fall.
Trust looks like two lovers holding hands and it sounds like best friends gossiping on the phone.
It smells like incense in church.
Trust tastes like leftovers your mom made and tears.
They wrote individual poems about trust and a few of them shared their writing. We did another group poem, a sort of mad lib.
This is the poem
that goes in the place where you have to stay on your toes
that flows because it runs through our veins
because we said so
and when thugs cry at night
happy, alone, solid,
this is the poem
that runs from the ground up to our soul.
Another warm-up we did was envelope poems. I have a stack of envelopes, some have cards in them, some have paper folded up. Some just have a postcard. The envelopes are sealed and they are all different. Different colors, shapes, sizes. Some have stamps. Some don’t. Some look like they’ve been folded in someone’s pocket for a long time and some have words written on the outside. The idea was for them to have written a poem that is inside the envelope. Some of them did pretty well with this. Those that didn’t, well, I think I need to do a better set-up to invite them to write.
I handed out copies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s How Do I Love Thee? I tried to get a discussion going about what they thought meant but that fell flat. I ended up just reading them the analysis. Then we brainstormed various ways you could let someone know you loved them without actually saying the words, “I love you.” They were slow to get started but eventually filled the board. From there I had them write their love poems that never used the words love. Again, only a few girls shared.
I handed out a copy of the poem You Learn (which I have attributed to Jorge Luis Borges) and this poem they felt more able and willing to discuss. They liked it a lot, especially the last line, “with every goodbye you learn.” Then they wrote their own versions of what they had learned and they wrote some marvelous poems. Really good stuff.
I read them the last pages of Hugging the Rock which then lead to a discussion about how come writers don’t make very much money. As I gathered up the folders one I asked one girl if she was doing okay because she didn’t share anything today and she usually does. She said, “I’m okay. But I don’t know what wrong me lately. All of the sudden my poems getting personal and stuck under my skin.”
I told her good. That means you’re a writer now.