It was never my intention to make two of the girls in the class cry. All I’d asked was that they write and share a poem. But there we were, sitting in a circle on the auditorium stage and listening to them choke up as they struggled to get through stories of pain, anger, and fear. We’d spent the last couple of weeks working on reciting others’ poetry, performing for the national Poetry Out Loud competition, and I had thought that it would be a good idea for students to share their own voices, as they had just shared someone else’s. There, of course, was the potential for a couple of problems: tell a teenager you want them to write poetry and they flinch; and I’m the world’s worst poet.
Now, I solved the first problem right away. Despite having been exposed to free verse much earlier than high school, many students still have this tendency to think that poetry has to rhyme. I made a point to read, analyze, and discuss a ton of free verse poetry during the previous three weeks so that I could remove the “Does it have to rhyme?” question from the room and hopefully tamper down some of their trepidation toward writing poetry*. Then, I dug up a bad poem I wrote in high school and read it, promising that on the day when we would all read our poetry to one another, I’d read the worst poem I had ever written. After all, I told them, you may think your poem isn’t great, but it’s nothing compared to what I will unleash upon you. The second problem–my being pretty terrible at writing poetry–was a little tougher to solve because it drove to the heart of my actually being qualified to teach. If I am horrible at writing poetry, then how could I evaluate it? Am I completely wrong for trying to cover it or even assessing it? After all, poetry, like any other form of writing, is subjective, and therefore if I have no true expertise on the matter my opinion has no leg to stand on. Or is this one of those perfect cases of those who can’t, teach?
As terrible as that expression is, it might actually be right. If I suck at writing poetry, that doesn’t mean I still can’t appreciate it and that also means I can assess students’ poems with no pretense. I am sure that if I were teaching creative writing, I could develop a rubric for free verse, but in the case of this assignment on this day, I found my inability to write poetry that was too bad to be called crap made me comfortable in giving my students a simple completion grade and sitting back and listening. Oh yeah, and contributing said crappy poetry.
I set it up earlier and therefore I must deliver, so just to show you I wasn’t kidding, here is “Porcelain,” a poem I wrote in my senior year of high school after being dumped by a girl I had dated for all of two weeks:
I induced it
caused you to vomit
green and orange chunks
and all the yellow-brown mucus
that was an old time
You completed it
wiped your mouth
toilet paper tainted with residue
once having a white color and freshness
that was once you
drained it all
and swept away everything
that was an old time
When I wrote this in my creative writing class, it was an expression of all of my pain, of all of the raw emotion that came from being dumped by someone. Had I read it to my peers at the time, I would have done it in a way that conveyed all of that emotion, wrought with the open wounds of someone who is just trying to survive. And if I recall correctly, the girl whom the poem is about didn’t like how nasty this poem was (which was my point) and the girl I dated after her hated it so much that she actually burned it and gave me the ashes in a Ziploc bag (yeah, don’t ask).
But something funny happened when I read it nearly twenty years later in my advanced English class. Now, I don’t know if it was my delivery or the fact that it’s been so long since this poem meant anything to me other than it being crappy, but it went from a raw wound to a work of self-satire. About one stanza in, the class started laughing and I started chuckling with them, hoping I wouldn’t “break” as I read the poem. Because I’m not afraid to laugh at myself. No matter what the reason, it proved to be a great way to connect. Every writer is a work in progress and I think by showing that I have no qualms about the fact that I am terrible, I wound up easing the tension among all of them and allowed those sophomores to feel comfortable writing their poems, no matter how personal they may have gotten. I still feel bad about making those two girls cry, though.
*I’ve got nothing against meter or rhyme. It’s just that both seem to be stumbling blocks to students and free verse helps them let their guard down.