Last week, following the annual AWP conference, poets L.A. Johnson and Kate Partridge visited my class on their way up the east coast for readings and book tour events. L.A. Johnson is author is Little Climates (2017) published by Bull City Press; Kate Partridge’s book Ends of the Earth (2017) published by University of Alaska Press.
My class had read some of their poems earlier in the week, so each poet started off with a mini-reading. Kate started us off with reading “Say When” and “I Like the Muscles on That One,” which we spent some time discussing in class prior, and students had some questions about. Students especially wanted to know about the fly in the bottom of the vase in “Say When.”
After hearing students’ interpretations, Kate shared her thought process behind the poem. She was exploring what happens when someone tells a story but then no one repeats it–how it just ends or stops. And how that then connected in her mind to thoughts about death and mortality. She explained that her short line length mirrors what she was thinking about as she wrote it. About the fly, she said, that there was actually a fly at the bottom of a vase sitting on her writing desk, and thought the image fit with the poem. She wanted a poem as tight and restricted as a flower vase (notice its skinny structure on the page). Her enjambment shows breaks between a thing being and NOT being–a life of a story in existence versus stopped.
She followed with a reading of “I Like the Muscles on That One” and explained that this poem, which uses Walt Whitman as an imagined character, has quotes pulled from Walt Whitman poems, and described how it was inspired by taking online personality quizzes, which oftentimes result in stereotypical heteronormative, sexist outcomes.
Before Liz Johnson read, she spoke about poetic structure, specifically in regards to couplets and tercets, and why a poet would choose to write using either. She explained that couplets create a sense of unity in a poem; being that they are in neat pairs, they allow for a balance and an opportunity to play between them. Tercets, on the other hand, create a lack of unity and an off-balance odd feeling. Liz mentioned she lives out west so she often uses Californian and seasonal imagery, along with dream-like states. She read “Forecast,” “Provenance” (she explained she likes to take unusual terms and apply them in her poems people may find easier to relate to, like poems about interpersonal relationships), “Transmutation,” and “Evaporation,” which was inspired by a missing person story she saw in her local newspaper.
They both agreed that part of poetry is
making the everyday, familiar thing
STRANGE and NEW.
We transitioned into a mini-lesson on the poetic line with reading “Party Ship” by Kay Ryan written in paragraph form. With a small group, we tried to figure out where Ryan put her line breaks. This activity was challenging because the poem has several rhyming words, but also punctuation that doesn’t always come after the rhyming words, so the line breaks could occur after either. Or both. Or neither. It certainly offered interesting discussion on structure and we were all dying to see the actual poem.
The last part of class was spent on a prompt to write a 6-line poem in either couplets or tercets using words from a provided word bank written on the board. I wish I had written down all of the words, but some of them were: green, hand, music, skin, sing, sleep, bridge, stars, face, wave, darkness (I think).
There was just enough time for students to volunteer to share their poems out loud, and they were brilliant! I was super proud of my students, who are mostly 9th and 10th graders, and how invested they were in everything Kate and Liz had to say.
Thank you so much to Liz and Kate who left me with enough copies of their books to pass out to my students the next day in class. Students were so appreciative to receive this wonderful gift!
Stay tuned! Upcoming blog posts: Abecedarian and letter-inspired poems, reflections on Skyping with Victoria Chang, poet visit with Kaveh Akbar and RA Villanueva, & erasure poems
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