Teaching artists from the Poetry Center’s Writing the Community program offer ideas for using recordings from Voca to inspire K-12 students. Kristen E. Nelson discusses the benefits of using a simple, concrete parameter—such as writing about the moon—for younger students. She shares moon poems by Al Young (“Excerpt from ‘About the 22 Moon Poems’” and “Moon of No Return”) and a student at Miles Exploratory Learning Center. Lisa M. O’Neill discusses the power of using lists and other forms of everyday writing familiar to students as an entry point to help students feel comfortable with writing poetry. She introduces a list poem by US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (“For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet”) and shares two list poems written by students at the CAPE School that came out of an assignment inspired by Wang Ping’s poem “Things We Carry on the Sea.”
Listen to the full recordings of Young and Harjo reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:
Al Young (1997)
Joy Harjo (2016)
Learn more about the Poetry Center’s education programs by visiting the Poetry Center online and clicking on the “Education” tab.
Julie Swarstad Johnson: 0:03
Welcome back for this bonus episode of Poetry Centered, featuring recordings of poets from Voca, the University of Arizona Poetry Center's online audiovisual archive. In this bonus episode, we're featuring poems for and by K through 12 students, brought to you by teaching artists from the Poetry Center's Writing the Community program. Writing the Community is the Poetry Center education department's writers in the schools program.
This project is facilitated by professional writers from the Tucson community. And it serves over 30 K through 12 classrooms each school year. Every May, the program publishes a city-wide anthology of student writing. In this episode, you'll hear from teaching artists Kristen Nelson and Lisa O'Neill, who will each share a track from Voca and discuss how it might be used in the classroom. They'll also share student poems that came out of their residencies.
Kristen Nelson: 1:04
Hello. My name is Kristen Nelson. And I'm recording this podcast at home in Tucson, Arizona. I'm interested in talking about Al Young's "22 Moon Poems," in particular, his poem "Moon of No Return," which he read as a guest of the Poetry Center on April 23, 1997. I chose this poem to discuss because I think it's a great example of the kind of poem I like to share to inspire the students who I work with through the Writing the Community program.
For about a year now, I've been working with students, grades first through third. And I found that with this age group, a simple concrete parameter and a writing prompt can help them to get started on a poem. Once they get started, their creativity is unleashed. And I encourage them to head in any direction they want to. When you offer a simple, grounded prompt to these students, such as write a poem about the moon, the sun, or something else in the sky, they take it in all sorts of wonderful, creative directions.
When you give students an example of a poem that uses a concrete image, like the moon, so masterfully, it expands their own perspective. In Al Young's introductory remarks, he explains that he gave himself a similar parameter while writing his "22 Moon Poems." He was traveling and wanting something familiar to focus on.
Al Young: 2:29
I bought a notebook in Viareggio in a part of Italy. And I wrote on the title page of the notebook "22 Moon Poems." And it was a strange thing to do. Alison said "why 22?" I said, "well, it's a magical number, you know, 22." And she said "you did this?" I said, "yes, certainly."
What happened? Well, the moon became sort of this presence that saved me from being afraid of what I was about to do. I was about to go into Eastern Europe. I had fears about it. I had fear about places that you've heard so much about. You haven't been there, and so go by everybody else's story. For example, about 10 days ago, I was in Israel in Jerusalem, just a few kilometers from Hebron.
And I was sitting at the Jerusalem Sheraton looking at CNN News, and they were showing what was happening. And I got scared, because media coverage is a very different thing than actually being there. But the conceit of these poems was that the moon would be someone that I would address as I've traveled through Italy and Yugoslavia. And it would be something that you're familiar with from home, that you can see from all over the world. So it was a little device for keeping track of travels and also writing poetry.
"Moon of No Return" never the same, got you on like a silver shawl making the train whistle squeal, Yma Sumac hitting all her ranges at once in the white flash of night. I love you, moon, more than mere sea light or the fuzzy feel of clouds rippling playfully like whiskers across your unshaven 5 o'clock shadow of a face nicked and bumped clean into the 21st century. I know nothing ever turns back into what it used to be, except soul dissolving into pure spirit. This light, this light, light is.
Kristen Nelson: 5:02
The student poem we will hear today also uses the moon as inspiration. It was written during a residency I led at Miles Exploratory Learning Center. I had the pleasure of working with Ms. Rosalie's class in spring 2020. One of the lessons that I taught was centered around Shakespeare and the freedom he allowed himself to invent new words.
I invited students to invent their own words by brainstorming a list of one-syllable words, combining two short words into one new word, defining that word, and finally, writing a poem inspired by their word invention. One of my students, Charlotte Walbank, wrote a beautiful poem from her invented word "Moon Cat."
Charlotte Walbank: 5:43
Hello. My name is Charlotte Walbank. I wrote this poem in February 2020. The title is "Moon Cat." A cat that lives on the moon-- you can use the term moon cat if someone lives far away, like on the moon.
Kristen Nelson: 6:02
Charlotte's poem, with its implied nostalgia, makes me think of the line towards the end of Al Young's "Moon of No Return" when he says "nothing ever turns back into what it used to be except the soul." I love Charlotte's poem because it reflects the creativity of her thought process, her creativity and non-linear thinking, or what I was hoping the lesson would encourage of my students. She draws on the moon as a faraway object and connects that to a beloved, a cat, in this instance.
Then she connects the two into a new word invention to explain a concept that is important to her. Charlotte is a young poet in a long lineage of poets like Al Young, who draw inspiration from the moon and other parts of our natural world to help explain concepts outside of our individual control.
Lisa O'Neill: 6:59
This is Lisa O'Neill. And I'm recording from my home in New Orleans, Louisiana. I have found in my years of teaching poetry that one great way to get students writing, especially when they are intimidated by the idea of capital P poetry, is to show them how poetic forms can model forms they already know.
One example of a form they know is a list. We begin by brainstorming together what we use lists for-- to organize our thoughts, to remember what we need at the grocery store, to make decisions, to plan for the future. Then, we look at a list poem together. In her poem "For Calling the Spirit Back From Wandering the Earth in its Human Feet," poet laureate Joy Harjo uses a list form as an invocation.
She gives a list of instructions for what to do when our spirits have been lost to us. In her poem, Harjo gives the reader instructions that are both literal and metaphorical, tangible and intangible. Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control. Cut the ties you have to failure and shame. Another tool Harjo employs in this poem is repetition-- both her repetition of commands, one after another, and also the repetition of language.
Let your moccasin feet take you. Let the earth stabilize your postcolonial insecure jitters. Let go the pain you're holding in your mind, your shoulders, your heart, all the way to your feet. Let go the pain of your ancestors to make way for those who are heading in our direction. I love her poem, because who among us doesn't, at some point, need to call our spirit back to ourselves, and because of all the possibilities it offers to students in writing lists of their own.
Joy Harjo: 9:31
This poem is called "For Calling the Spirit Back From Wandering the Earth in its Human Feet." In times of shock-- we've all been through a little bit of shock lately.
Our spirit sometimes jumps and we might lose it for a little bit. Or we lose a little part of ourselves. And sometimes we have to go back and claim it.
Put down that bag of potato chips, that white bread, that bottle of pop. Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control. Open the door, then close it behind you. Take a breath offered by friendly winds. They travel the Earth, gathering essences of plants to clean.
Give it back with gratitude. If you sing, it will give your spirit lift to fly to the stars ears and back. Acknowledge this Earth, who has cared for you since you were a dream planting itself precisely within your parents' desire.
Let your moccasin feet take you to the encampment of the guardians who have known you since before time, who will be there after time. They sit before the fire that has been there without time. Let the Earth stabilize your post-colonial insecure jitters.
Be respectful of the small insects, birds, and animal people who accompany you. Ask their forgiveness for the harm we humans have brought down upon them. Don't worry, the heart knows the way through, though there may be high rises, interstates, checkpoints, armed soldiers, massacres, wars, and those who despise you because they despise themselves. The journey might take you a few hours, a year, a day, a year, a few years, 100, 1000, or even more.
Watch your mind. Without training, it might run away and leave your heart for the immense human feast set by the thieves of time. Do not hold regrets. When you find your way to the circle, to the fire kept burning by the keepers of your soul, you will be welcomed. You must clean yourself with cedar, sage, or other healing plant.
Cut the ties you have to failure and shame. Let go the pain you are holding in your mind, your shoulders, your heart, all the way to your feet. Let go the pain of your ancestors to make way for those who are heading in our direction.
Ask for forgiveness. Call upon the help of those who love you. These helpers take many forms. Call your spirit back. It may be cutting corners, increases of shame, judgment and human abuse.
You must call in a way that your spirit will want to return. Speak to it as you would to a beloved child. Welcome your spirit back from its wandering.
It may return in pieces, in tatters. Gather them together. They will be happy to be found after being lost for so long. Your spirit will need to sleep a while after it is bathed and given clean clothes.
Now you can have a party. Invite everyone you know who loves and support you. Keep room for those who have no place else to go. Make a giveaway. And remember, keep the speeches short.
Then, you must do this-- help the next person find their way through the dark.
Lisa O'Neill: 13:29
In addition to Joy Harjo's poem, I like working with another poem which employs listing and repetition by Wang Ping entitled "Things We Carry on the Sea." Her poem is a litany of what it means for someone to say goodbye to their homeland, to set sail for an uncertain future.
Like Harjo, she evokes both intangible and tangible things. We carry soil in small bags. May home never fade in our hearts. We carry our islands, sinking under the sea.
My students at the CAPE School in Pima County juvenile detention are well acquainted with lists. Their days are structured by them. For this assignment, students wrote their own litanies of what they carry, rooted in their experiences.
I thought they did a beautiful job of employing anaphora, or a repetition, at the beginning of a line in writing about the specifics of their lives, as well as about their emotional landscapes. They wrote about the physical objects they must carry while being in detention. And they wrote about their burdens and their dreams. I want to share two of their poems with you.
Brianna Q., "Untitled." We are in juvie. We carry our hair up because it can't be down. We carry ourself with our hands behind our backs.
We carry our sheet only at night. We carry pencils only when given. We carry sandals, polos, sweaters. We carry silence unless spoken to.
Christian R., "The Juvenile Group." We carry shower rolls. We carry the guilt and remorse of our past mistakes. We carry memories of the outside world. We carry the taste buds craving food beyond these walls. We carry our submissive hands behind our backs.
We carry the shame and sadness we bring to our families. We carry the letters that remind us of the people that are waiting for us. We carry thoughts of change. We carry the plans and ideas to make sure we never come back.
Julie Swarstad Johnson: 16:11
Thank you so much, Lisa and Kristen. And special thanks and congratulations to their students for their outstanding work. In November, Poetry Centered will be back with a second season. So we hope you'll join us again soon.
Poetry Centered is a project at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a world-class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English and English translation. Located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Poetry Center library and buildings are housed on the indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham people. This bonus episode of Poetry Centered was supported by the work of--
Wren Awry: 16:56
Gema Ornelas: 16:57
Julie Swarstad Johnson: 16:59
And I'm your producer, Julie Swarstad Johnson. Explore Voca, the Center's audiovisual archive, online at voca.arizona.edu.