The first time I led a Poetry Workshop

Last month, I led my first poetry workshop.  The focus was neither revision nor editing.  The focus was on beginning and writing a poem, specifically the genesis of a poem with the use of a source text—a generation I managed to explore with a group of children.

I was welcomed to engage with the upper elementary of a local Montessori school.   I decided I would introduce them to constraint-based erasures (without, admittedly, using that term).  I gathered eighteen juvenile books (enough for each child to have a book) on varied subjects, ranging from arctic exploration to Odysseus, forests to pharaohs, pirates to Carnaval—whatever could give way to interesting language.

I prepared a handout that said:

Make a poem by picking out words from a chosen book or books.

For example: you could do this by making a rule, such as: I will pick out five words from each page, and these five words can be a line in my poem.  I can then move on to the next page and pick words for another line and so on.  Feel free to be creative!

The rest of the handout was lined.  After making copies, I showed one of the handouts to someone.  He was concerned that the children might not understand this use of the word “rule.”  (Here’s a spoiler: the word choice posed no apparent challenge, as the children did not ask about it and successfully wrote poems; if I were asked about the word, I would have explained it as a “method,” a “way of doing something.”)

A few hours before the workshop, I decided to compose an example poem from one of the books, a book about inventions (The Usborne Book of Inventors: From DaVinci to Biro).  I decided that each page would contribute a word (or two at most), and each line would consist of words from two pages.  I went through each page of the book (except the front and back matter).  Here is the poem:

continuous wheel
writing clocks

pressure telescope
contact steam-driven
robots horseless

carburetor rocket
underground sea
hairdryer balloon
pilot shave

canned paperclips
ballpoint cranes
toilets lowered

pulses of message
satellite camera
settle spinning
Hi-tech tinfoil

soundtracks jumping
ejector seat listening

picture of chemists
hydrogen cog

six wishful

During the beginning of the workshop, we all sat on the floor in a circle.  I asked the children about what a poem is and what the characteristics of poetry are.  I worked toward encouraging broad notions, showing them some poems from an anthology (which I found in the juvenile section of the library) so they could see that a poem’s form can vary.  I also read a few poems so they could hear that poems do not need to rhyme.

Next, I showed them an erasure with fine art techniques so they could get a visualization of the concept I wanted them to explore.  I showed them Tom Phillip’s A Humument.  Specifically, I showed them the fifth edition.  The effect was the result I desired: the children were intrigued.

I told them, “While we won’t be drawing on the books today, we can do something similar.  We can pick words and write them on a handout.”  I transitioned into sharing the poem I wrote earlier (again, shown above), which I had written on a handout.  I showed them what the poem looked like and showed how I made the first few lines by picking words from each page (I pointed out the word on the page).  I did not read the whole poem to them, but I read enough for them to get the idea that silliness is welcome.  “It doesn’t have to make sense,” I explained.  “It can be more fun for it to be strange.”

At this point, the students were ready, eager.  I told them they could work individually or in groups—whatever they were comfortable with (I think they all worked individually).  After selecting books and spreading out across the classroom, the next thirty-five minutes were spent writing their poems.

We spent the last ten minutes of the workshop sharing poems (all of the poems had something delightful in them—most of them understood that sense of playful word combination, which I am so glad they were happy to play with!).  The children, one by one, voluntarily expressed their thanks to me as I packed up to go.

My experimental workshop was a success, and I am glad to share it with you, as constraint-based erasures can be done at any (literate) age.