Poetically Speaking with Sarah Jamila Stevenson

poeticallyspeaking2Sarah Jamila Stevenson is the author of The Latte Rebellion, Underneath and her latest novel The Truth Against the World. Sarah is also an artist, graphic designer and blogger at Finding Wonderland. Sarah has also been involved with the Cybils Awards since they began in 2009.

Sarah is here today to talk about the surprises of poetry.

The Surprises of Poetry

What do Bigfoot and the chupacabra have to do with poetry?

You might well ask.

As it turns out, when you do a poetry workshop with 7th– and 8th-grade girls, you’re likely to get surprise cameo appearances from all kinds of interesting characters. Even if you start with a serious prompt; even if you require them to use actual poetic devices like alliteration and simile.

On March 7th, I led three groups of middle-school girls at the Soroptimist Live Your Dreams conference in a whirlwind exercise called One Line at a Time: Poetry With Friends. The exercise was devised by my friend Gillian Wegener (whose lovely essay about poetry in our town is available here and deserves a read). It was my first time leading a poetry workshop, even though I’ve been involved in the Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center as a board member for the past two years. You see, I don’t consider myself a poet. But poetry just keeps sneaking up on me, finding its way into the cracks and crevices of my life, insisting on snatching my attention away from the prose that is my usual modus operandi.

Anyway, when I was asked to conduct the poetry workshops, I said yes. YES to poetry, YES to showing these young women that poetry can be fun, playful, collaborative, active. You DO poetry. You chase an idea; you stretch your imagination; you capture a line on paper; you fire up the thoughts of your reader. And, line by line, with plenty of laughter, my groups of poets did just that.

The Poetry With Friends exercise is based on the Dadaist game called Exquisite Corpse, and it’s something we’ve probably all done in some form, written or visual. When I was around the same age as the girls in the workshops, my cousin and I would take turns writing collaborative stories. On long car rides and hot summer days, one of us would write the first three or four lines of a story on a piece of paper, then fold over everything except the last line. If I started the story, I would then pass it to Janet, who would write the next few lines, and then fold over her contribution. We’d go back and forth several times and then unfold and read our creation, cracking up the entire time.

Poetry With Friends operates on the same general principle. I provided a first line as a prompt: “At the mountaintop, I paused and…” Each student started from the same first line, adding their own and then folding over the page until only their newly written line showed. The papers were passed along to the right. I gave them slightly different instructions this time: include an animal in your line of poetry. And so on, with the occasional interruption for folding and passing, and frequent bursts of laughter.

By the time the 20 minutes was over, I could hardly wait to hear what they’d come up with. I wasn’t disappointed. The poems they shared veered from surreal to silly, from hilariously incongruous to incredibly profound—usually all within the same poem. Deepest darkest fears? Check. Bigfoot? Check. Fried baloney sandwiches? Check. I only wish I could have kept them all, but another fantastic thing about this particular exercise is that everyone gets to go home with a poem. Fortunately for me (though perhaps not for the poem’s owner) one inimitable creation was left behind, and I now share with you this action- and drama-packed celebration of the simile:

At the mountaintop, I paused and
looked down and I start to shake a little bit.
I am afraid of heights
I got even more afraid when I saw a bear
So I skipped sadly
With a sad thought in my mind
My heart beating like a clash of drums, or a thunderstorm.
Beating like the booming voice of a god.
But the god I hear is the master of fire and ruler of darkness.
this god controls the storm in my heart.
the moon shines brighter than the stars
It was like chupacabra screaming

– written by 12 wonderfully creative middle-school girls from Modesto, California

I’ll leave you on that rather mystifying note, which brings home the idea that you never know what you’ll find in a poem. You may end up looking at everyday life in new and unexpected ways. So if poetry comes knocking, let it in, and get ready for a fun ride. Possibly on the back of a chupacabra.

Thank you to Emma for this opportunity to share!

Thank you again to Sarah for this excellent post.

If you’d like to learn more about Sarah and her books, be sure to visit her website: http://www.sarahjamilastevenson.com

You can also find Sarah at her blog: http://writingya.blogspot.com

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