Why I Teach Poetry Writing To Teen Girls
Common Ground Magazine ~ Creativity Issue May/June 2019
by Meredith Heller
Read in Common Ground Magazine
In a world that is becoming wholly dependent on technology and addicted to high speed and virtual stimulation, how do we keep our imagination fertile and our capacity for feeling, lithe? In a society that is always dictating who and how we should be to fit in, how do we hear our own voice and be true to ourselves? In a culture that is just beginning to value the opinions and wisdom of women, how do we encourage our daughters to stand up and speak their truth in a male-dominated world? When I was a teen, trying to find my way, poetry writing saved my life.
It’s a rainy spring day in Marin County, California. I’m trekking through puddles in my rain boots, looking at clouds reflected in the water, and thinking about how I will make contact with a group of kids who don’t really care about learning or poetry because life has already demanded too much of them. I walk into a classroom at juvenile hall, another at an extension high school for at-risk kids, another at a local elementary school, and finally, at a relaxed home atmosphere where I teach private poetry writing workshops for teen girls. I say, I’m not here to teach you other people’s poetry; I’m here for you to teach me your poetry. So put away your phones, take out a piece of paper, stop talking, and walk outside with me for a moment.
I ask the kids, what do you notice? What are you aware of inside and outside of you? Take in the quality of the light, the feel of the air on your skin, the water droplets on the plants, the sound of the rain, the stillness of the playground, the color of your best friend’s sneakers, the curl in your classmate’s hair, the tightness in your shoulders, the hunger in your belly, the rhythm of your breathing, your sadness, your fear, your desire.
The shift in energy is tangible. Suddenly it’s as if all the kids have gone from being pale crumpled paper bags to inflated colorful balloons. Bodies start moving, smiles break open. These kids are listening to what is true for themselves in this moment and they feel more alive. I ask them to remember five feelings or images that are the strongest as we slowly walk inside.
I explain that as poets, we notice things, feel things deeply, and have a strong need to express ourselves, and that this expression can be cathartic and empowering. I don’t really believe that we can teach creativity or poetic writing, but I do believe that we can hone our attention to notice what moves us. We can develop a love of language and the joy that comes from finding just the right word and right rhythm to convey our feelings, whether it’s hurt, anger, grief, fear, shame, sadness, love. That there is a magic that happens when we name our thoughts and feelings, commit them to paper, speak them out loud. We feel a sense of belonging to ourselves and others when we express ourselves clearly, feel understood, and see that other people resonate with our experience in a way that illuminates their own.
We write for 15 minutes, some kids ask, what should I write? Well, I say, what was alive for you out there? Grab onto what matters to you, what moves you. One girl offers shyly, the clouds and the color of the sky. The feel of rain on my skin. Is this right? Yes, I say. If it’s true for you, then it’s right. Start here. Write these down and see if you can do one of two things: either flesh them out by giving more detail or boil them down to their essence. Okay! she responds with enthusiasm. And I know she’s learning to trust herself. I know she’s learning that she has her own answers, and that what she feels and thinks matters. I suggest that their feelings, thoughts, and imaginations are some of the very few places they have total freedom to explore their own truth and to make their own rules, and that poetry is a place they can express themselves fully on their own terms.
They read their pieces, some so quiet we have to lean forward to hear them, some with dramatic flair, and some just kicking it easy like they’re talking to their best friend or singing their favorite song. We clap after each piece because we know the courage and vulnerability it takes to share your piece. I repeat their juiciest lines back to them so they know they’ve been heard and celebrated. And so the other kids learn what kind of wording brings a poem to life.
The bell rings. No one moves. They all look at me like they don’t want to leave, like they don’t want to lose this. This is my greatest moment. I believe in them and they feel it, and they begin to believe in themselves. Go on, I say, this is yours. No one can take this from you. Keep listening inside yourselves. Keep noticing what moves you in the world. Make a list. Write it down. See you next week.
Words Are Pomegranate Seeds
By Ava Carlson, age 12
sick shine of
slick red juice
that runs down your
Ode to My Mask
By Fiona McHugh, age 13
My mask was carved out of petrified oak
I found it and painted it with pastel blue galaxies
Pink and yellow flowers
And seafoam green wind
I carved notches around the eyes with elastic to secure it
My mask has dark brown veins shooting through roan wood
It has journeyed around the world
It started as a small forgotten accessory
in the hands of one of Mansa Musa’s attendants
It found its way into the hands of a caravan trader heading to France
A young girl snatched it from an herb shop in Belgium
And passed it onto her granddaughter,
who was traveling on the Mayflower
It remained in the possession of mothers and daughters, handed down,
And five generations later, a young woman buried the mask and forgot about it
I was in my backyard, planting a vegetable garden when I found it.
By Raney Wolfers, age 12
Midnight strands of silk blowing in the soft breeze.
Shining like a thousand raven’s feathers twisting and fluttering.
Thin braids speckle the hair winding it like a river.
Nestled among the strands, two feathers.
One long and slender striped with cream and oak,
it speckles and flashes, tattered and frayed, almost singed,
the other, a brilliant crimson with a wide plume.
This slender feather, one of the many tail feathers of a young, speckled Ladycrow.
Her eyes bright and curious, her sleek and soft feathers neatly arranged and flattened.
Her creamy, delicate head speckled with dark stars of night and a flat arrowhead beak.
And her tail.
Four of the famous feathers,
giving her the regal air of an eagle and the daintiness of a chickadee.
She is a bird of power and destiny.
Only the girls with the deepest of souls and the brightest of spirits
are awarded her feather.
The largest of four is shed in late July
when strawberries burst and streams run clear.
This feather, my feather, one of the largest,
a 16inch arrow of air and wind
floated from the oldest of oak trees.
Collected by the girls of the trees and skies.
They hang for months until a girl is chosen.
A girl with fierce love and a kindling power within.
The feather is bestowed to her, a medallion hair piece woven and knotted,
until she too, is one with the skies and the streams,
the damp soil between her toes, the ocean of grasses and soft new shoots.
She rises with her creamy glowing face and striped feather,
hair glimmering like 1000 crow feathers.
This Girl is Made Of
By Anais Bitton-Williams, age 10
This girl is made of
Yellow, orange, and red like the sunset.
Joy, happiness, sadness, and kindness
Like dark red tomatoes.
A giraffe eating leaves in the desert.
A forest of butterflies.
Like unicorns and hummingbirds.
Swimming with turtles and dolphins in Hawaii.
Dancing like a wobbly tooth.
A sweet, sassy fashionista
A rough caterpillar on a meadow tree.
A sleepy green spinach monster.
Shiny and sparkly as an earring in a glass box
In my aunt’s store.
Glowing like a firefly on Mars.
You Are Not Delicate
By Mikayla Gounard, age 10
You are not delicate.
You are the moonlight of unique iridescence.
You are nothing but love drifting away on a summer day.
You are like a rough teddy bear nobody wants to cuddle.
You are a dog that got lost in the riverbed and got found by a loving one.
You are a beautiful monster who drifted off to sleep like a baby.
You are a bucket of sequins shining bright.
You are a screw whirling in the wind like a butterfly nobody wants to tame.
You are my sunshine.
I see through a mirror not knowing where you are.
You are a bunch of carrots getting sold, getting transferred.
Home by Home. Mouth by mouth.
You are safe by my side, like a precious diamond shining bright.
You are not delicate.
By Serena Hodgkinson, age 17
Lying under the sky,
the sun tickling her skin.
Her eyes closed gently,
dreaming of wondrous things.
The girl’s hands,
painted with red
spread open to the sky above her
inviting the light.
She sees the golden ball slowly rolling away.
The sand and water dance between her toes,
numbing her feet.
On the rocks she spots a woman,
with a smile so sweet.
She starts to fly over so they can meet.
She takes her hands and helps her glide high.
For her, time on earth has stopped.
She is not able to say goodbye.
By Clairrissa James, age 17
He lives in the darkest corner of my brain.
Next to his very best friend,
He wears a black hoodie & red socks.
Wherever I go,
He makes me quiet.
When he’s around
I feel like a lost child.
He keeps me up all night.
In the morning,
I’m a peace.
Ode to a Pear
By Ava Carlson, age 12
Sometimes she wants to clothe herself in a strong skin
carved out of soft, speckled jade.
She wants to wear it like an armor
built of lacquered plates, strung together.
She wants her words to have a crisp bite
she can sink her teeth into
feel the ivory bone dive into a juicy core.
She wants to taste the fresh, green whiff
of growing when she speaks.
She wants to keep her pearlescent heart
with its streaming seeds safe.
So she does.