Poetry Residency at Wells Junior High School

I recently finished leading a 12-class poetry residency for the Telling Room at the Junior High School in Wells, ME. I can’t show you any pictures of the students themselves, because of protection rules, so the image is a teaser from the cover the chapbook that their poems will appear in. It has to do with eggs…

This was actually the first time I’ve led a long residency in a school. I’ve done many shorter visits, and I’ve run my own year-long creative writing group while teaching high school English, but I’ve never had the chance to come in as a visiting writer and work repeatedly with the same students. It was, of course, wonderful to get to know the students well and see them growing as poets.

My main goal for this residency was for the students to learn how poems are not prose: chiefly, how they are built of lines, rather than sentences. I focused on this because I’ve seen a lot of writing from aspiring poets that looks and sounds like prose chopped into lines. I’d also just had similar advice from Charlie Simic in the final stages of my MFA thesis for UNH, when he said I was thinking too much about the sentence, and not enough about the line. Which was true, and when I corrected it the poems got better.

So from the outset, I had the students working with lines rather than sentences; and fragmentation rather than completeness. We began with a cut-up exercise where they built single lines out of words from magazines, then progressed to looking at how to juxtapose isolated phrases from a freewrite to make a first draft of a poem. The students, who were phenomenally engaged and smart, got it right away, and never lost their sense of the line all through the remaining sessions.

Of course every benefit also brings problems (or as David Rivard likes to say, In your strength is your weakness), and as we progressed with drafting I realized that many students had strayed too far towards omission and ellipsis, and had poems that were evocative but didn’t convey enough basic context for the experience to make sense. But with the help of my many wonderful Telling Room volunteers, and the class teacher Julie, we worked on filling in those details.

The result was a really great book. I was supposed to select 3 poems for consideration for the Telling Room’s annual best-of anthology, but I couldn’t choose fewer than 8. And that missed out the most fun poem about a knight facing death-by-dragon that you’re ever likely to read…

Many thanks to everyone who made it possible: Julie the teacher, Telling Room volunteers Clare, Elizabeth, and Patty, and of course all the Telling Room staff. Next up for me is another Telling Room residency in Shapleigh School, Kittery ME, this time on personal narratives. I’m looking forward to another extended teaching opportunity.


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