I’ve been teaching poetry for fourteen years. Last month, I launched onebillionpoets.com, a social networking site for teenagers all over the planet to post, share, and discuss their inner lives, deepest sorrows, and quirkiest moments. Whether teens live in Detroit, Moscow or Mexico City, they all have something salient, humorous, and beautiful to say.
One of the greatest things about writing poetry myself and teaching it to both children and adults is that you are never too young or too old to express your truth. Whether you are experiencing the wild highs and lows of high school dating or marriage, whether you are a child or parent coping with divorce, or whether you are a child or a grandparent eating sticky popsicles in the summertime, through poetry you can capture what it means to love, feel fully alive, and be human.
HOW TO BECOME A POET
Recipe for a poet: one blank notebook, an open heart, an observant eye, an appreciative soul. There’s no fancy ingredients mentioned above– it’s knowing that life’s unpredictable and it’s about imprinting the small moments first in our senses and then onto the page.
1) Buy yourself a camera
Great poetry often captures the simplest moments: the patterns of raindrops on a window; the soft tread of a child’s feet after a bath; the cat warming itself in a sunbeam. In your poetry notebook under the chapter: “Capturing a Moment,” write down the shapes, lines, color, shadows as well as the memories, emotions, and ideas stirred by the photos you take. What captured, thrilled, and arrested you about the photos?
2) Give cooking a try
Great poetry evokes and uses the five senses. To get in touch with these smells, what better place than the kitchen? In your poet’s notebook under the chapter “Cooking a Poem,” jot down every spice, odor, and texture you love. You should list all verbs associated with your cooking which will help whisk up memorable poetry, e.g., baste (baste an idea), slice (slice the sky with rain), broil (broil a memory), knead (knead a friendship) and marinate (marinate a poem), etc.
3) Visit iTunes
Great poetry often has a musicality and cadence to it. Listen to music (preferably) WITHOUT WORDS and see where it takes you. In your poet’s notebook under the chapter: “Catching the Flow”, write down not only the sounds of the music and the beats, but also the locations you are swept away to– describe in detail. One time in class, I played techno music for my students. When asked where they imagined themselves to be, a couple students stated, “I’m in a nightclub with booming bass.” But another kid dove into the music and said, “I am neuron on a brain pulsing quest captured in the folds of the big gray cerebrum.”
4) Do some modeling
As Emerson said, “’Tis the good reader that makes the good book,” beginning poets must read and emulate the best poets’ work to internalize voice, rhythm, and structure. Just like an amateur athlete models the big league player’s swing or jump shot, an inexperienced poet needs to learn from the best.
5) Be a tour guide
Be an emotional tour guide – for yourselves and your family. Tell your back-story. Revisit your mementos, photos, yearbooks, and your old love letters. In addition, by sharing your deepest selves, you are giving your children permission to tell their own most sacred stories. Take a walk through your old neighborhoods (or current ones as well) and write down what you see and feel in a chapter called: “ The Long and Winding Road.”
6) Read and listen to Pablo Neruda’s poems (Il Postino cd is terrific)
Lie down on the floor and read (listen to a reading if you can) to this great master poet’s word play, humor, and love of the seemingly simple things of life: socks, tomatoes, lemons. Write your own odes to whatever is in your purse, car, closet, etc. and put them in a chapter called: “Ode to Odes.”
7) Read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried
Great poetry balances the tangible with the tangible. You only need to read the first three pages of this classic book to see a master at work; now while it’s prose and not poetry, it begs the question: what tangible and intangible things do you carry? What hopes, burdens, and dreams do you bear? In your notebook in a chapter called “Baggage”, you should jot down a continuous list of what you “carry”—pressure from spouse? Responsibilities? Secret crushes? New ideas? Memories of a parent? etc.
8) Dust off some old magazines
One of the hallmark features of poetry is the focus on the line. Great poets play with line breaks to create word play, enjambment, visual drama, and emotional tension. Scour through fun, colorful magazine writing and find the best nuggets of writing. Then reorganize them through line breaking into your own poems that you keep in a chapter called, “Unearthed.”
9) “Do a Thoreau”
Many great poets spend lots of times outdoors. Take a walk daily like the great poet Mary Oliver does. Clear your head in one sense, but at the same time fill your mind with the poetry of nature and life. Get outside and into the woods, mountains, beaches, or trails. In your notebooks in a chapter called “Nature Calls,” write down names of birds, trees, and plants (specificity is key). Observe how the light filters through the leaves, the textures and patterns of the bark. Maybe leaves swirling on the ground are actually “breakdancing.”
10) Have a MIXED UP DAY: See things differently
Great poets see the world differently, through different lenses, angles, and filters. Generate as many possible uses for basic household things. Example: A toothpick could be a javelin for a grasshopper or a giant splinter. In your notebook, list numerous everyday objects and then write down the uses—in a chapter called: “Mix it up”
And, finally, share and publish your work. Nothing will excite any writer to write deeply and thoughtfully than to know his words might touch, inspire, and make a difference to others.