Poet school visit with RA Villanueva and Kaveh Akbar


RA Villanueva, Melissa Smith, Kaveh Akbar at Lake Norman Charter High School, Huntersville, NC, 2018

My white boards cried when I finally erased their notes from the day (or was that me?), and if I try hard enough, I can see a flash of Ron writing them in my memory. Another flash I can still conjure is of Kaveh’s rocking back and forth, as if possessed by language, reading from his book. I try to summon the images repeatedly, try to tap back into the energy and wonder of it all, as I write this post. I know I can never do it justice; I will never be able to explain the magic that happened just a few days ago, but I am certain that the magic I’m speaking of is out there, being carried around inside of my students. The room has lingerings of the energy created by the fusion of Ron and Kaveh and my kids – an energy I want to nurture and sustain as long as possible. I almost want to stop writing, because maybe if I write it all down, it will somehow be over. 

April 13, 2018


Alice James Books & University of Nebraska Press

A little context for this event: my students had just finished reading Reliquaria by RA Villanueva and Portrait of the Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar. Kaveh has a newer, full collection out, Calling a Wolf a Wolfbut that wasn’t out yet when I had to order my books last summer. When choosing titles and ordering books all that time ago, I had a clear mission–to get these poets to come to my classroom and talk with my students. We had Skyped last year with Ron, and I had some interaction with Kaveh on Twitter, but I thought my mission was a little insane, and probably impossible.

Good thing I like a challenge.

(Stay tuned for a How to Plan a Poet Visit post as a future post if you’re curious to know how I made it happen.)

We started the day with breakfast as a large group. I have 47 AP Literature students, plus a couple of talented writers I pulled from my Creative Writing class; we also welcomed Melissa Tucker’s class from Rock Hill, SC. Ms. Tucker and I are both members of the #aplitchat PLN, and I’m so happy I was able to share this special day with her and her brilliant students. With such a large group, we had to split into halves for the morning workshops. Half of us started off with one poet, then we switched after a short break. To open each workshop, a student who had worked closely with each respective poet’s work read an introduction about the poet. Thank you to Mary, Dominic, Janais, Genevieve, and Rhea for your beautiful introductions.

Workshop 1: RA Villanueva

Ron started off his 90-minute workshop with a collection of 14 “catalysts” – little bits of texts and quotations about writing to get our minds engaged for the day.

“A poem is an action of the mind on a page.”

— from The Paris Review’s The Art of Poetry, No. 88: an interview with Anne Carson

“I take furious notes wherever I am, recording observations and thoughts. I hoard and collect. That’s how I compose poems–getting full on everything… The poem’s energy comes from outside stimuli, allowing its own voice to be thrust up to the surface.”

— Morgan Parker, author of Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night (Switchback Books, 2015) and There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé (Tin House Books, 2017)

“There are no poets writing in caves because every poet is a human being as misshapen as any other human being… We are not alone in our particular stew of molecules and the sooner we admit, even admire the influence of this world, the freer we will be to construct new chords of thought without fear.”

from The Right to Manifest Manifesto by CA Conrad

As we read them out loud, he encouraged us to underline, circle, write notes in the margins, of words and phrases that stood out to us. Afterward, we discussed the catalysts as a collective to investigate the conversation they were having with each other, the threads running through them, and referring back to them for specific textual evidence.

Next, on a blank sheet of paper, we divided the paper into 4 boxes. One box at a time, we filled in with as many words in the two-minute time allotment for each category:


Fun fact: RA Villanueva writes in all CAPS and has an unparalleled energy when he teaches.

  1. parts of the body that give you pain (doesn’t necessarily have to be physical)
  2. bodies of water you have a relationship with and/or memories of
  3. nouns that are also verbs (i.e., eye, box, gaze, bridge)
  4. (split in half) 1st: beautiful, joyful, wondrous things, people, or phenomena. 2nd: monstrous, terrifying, unsettling things, people, or phenomena.

We then flipped our papers over and drew a self-portrait of ourselves. I was reminded during this portion of the workshop that I can’t draw. We got a good five minutes or so for this, so I actually had time to make two drawings, one more literal and one metaphorical. After drawing, we made a list of things we see in our illustrations – what did we include? Then a second list of things we left out. I included my spine, but no neck or hands? Interesting to consider why, which is what we were asked to do next.

We then watched this rehearsal excerpt from “Untitled America” featuring choreography by Kyle Abraham.

Ghrai DeVore, Chalvar Monteiro and Jamar Roberts, members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, rehearse “Untitled America” in the company’s studio in Manhattan in October. (Music: “Father Father” by Laura Mvula)

With plenty of inspiration, language, images, and ideas at the ready, it was time to start writing a poem. Our constraints were as follows:


Title must be “Self-Portrait as _____” or “Self-Portrait with ____”, use words from all 4 lists, the last word of the poem must rhyme with star. After writing for a while and wrapping up our poems, Ron informed us that this isn’t the end of our poem, but instead a shift. Our next line had to signal the shift with using a transitional word (see #6 in the pic above). In this last section of the poem, he wanted us to consider the relationship between the video we watched, performance, dance, and music with our self-portraits.

To end the workshop, we went around the room and shared something out loud about our experience, whether it be our thoughts about the process of writing, sharing some of our poem, or stating something we learned in our time spent together.

For me personally, the 90-minutes flew by. Ron kept us at a swift pace, moving seamlessly from one activity to the next, but I never felt rushed. His energy was incredible, he kept us engaged the entire time, and we all walked out with a draft of a poem we felt proud of. In talking with my students afterward, they were surprised at how easy it was to write a poem in such a short amount of time, and how inspired and creative we felt heading into our next session.

Workshop 2: Kaveh Akbar


Fun fact: Kaveh is filled with wonder by photosynthesis and laughter.

After a short break, we headed into Kaveh’s session and started off with introductions, which included our name, preferred pronouns, and something that fills us with wonder. This was a brilliant way to start off the workshop because, not only did I learn new things about my students and their interests, but we very quickly created a community of inspired thinkers. Kaveh responded to each student’s individual sense of wonder and followed up with a question or a comment, building bridges between himself and the students, as well as among the group by weaving our wonders together. It was basically a spider web of magic and awe by the time we got to the last person, which was me. Hi, Melissa Smith, she/her, the miracle of childbirth and the fact that I built a little skeleton inside me and a miniature human came out of me (twice) fills me with wonder. 

Kaveh explained how the best poems orbit around a sense of amazement or marvel, and how “language orbits the nucleus of wonder.” Poets use specific objects and images, a “cloud of particulars,” to orbit the center of the poem, and it is “through these that we can shape or ascertain the nucleus.” In other words, we don’t just say “I am so sad my dog died” in a poem, but we use concrete images to shape a sadness.

large booksIn order to collect our own arsenal of images, we passed around books from my classroom collection of living poets’ books. Students took a random book, opened to a random page, and wrote down the first word they saw. We spent a good amount of time with the book before we traded books with someone next to us; we traded 3 times. At first, it was a flurry of page turning and writing spurts, but as time went on, the page turning slowed down and we started reading more, spending more time on each page with each poem. It felt like a very organic process.

Once we had our papers filled with words and phrases (by connecting words together), it was time to draft a poem. We could add in words as we felt needed, and in comparison to Ron’s workshop, there weren’t really any constraints at all. Talking to students afterward, some of them preferred the more open nature of crafting a poem using Kaveh’s method, while others preferred to have more structure using Ron’s method.

IMG_6123After some time spent writing, our next activity had us in groups of 3. We listened to an audio of Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer creating an improvisational poem (one word at a time and taking turns) titled “Laundromat of the Cosmos.” As we listened, Kaveh transcribed the poem (our mentor text) on the board, modeling the role of the third person in group. Two of us took turns playing the poets, while the third assigned the topic for the poem and transcribed.

When crafting the poem, the two poets had to make choices on the spot:

  1. say a single word
  2. add on a suffix to the previous word
  3. say “end of sentence”
  4. say “end of title” or “end of poem”

What was great about these poems, which I found to be very challenging to write but also turbo fun, was the surprising twists they would take mid-line. There was time for some volunteers to share at the end of the workshop, and the span of topics and tones was immense. Which reminded me of one of Ron’s catalysts:

“What validates us as human beings validates us as writers… No topic is too trivial.”

Gloria E. Anzaldua, from “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to 3rd World Women Writers” in This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color 

Anyone can write. About anything. 

–Lunch break–

Afternoon Schedule: Reading, Q & A, Book Signing

After lunch and taking a group pic, we headed back as one big group for a reading. Ron went first, and I am kicking myself now for not recording the titles of all of the poems they read, but I’ll do my best to remember. Ron started with “Fish Heads,” then “You Will Drown for Poems, lead us is a choral reading of “Mass,” and also read a new poemDamnatio Memoriaewhich was just featured in The Rumpus for National Poetry Month. Ron read one of Kaveh’s poems, too.

Kaveh also read one of Ron’s poems, and from his own book, “Some Boys Aren’t Born They Bubble,” “Desunt Nonnulla,” “Portrait of the Alcoholic Floating in Space with Severed Umbilicus,” and “Do You Speak Persian?”

Each poet read for about 20 minutes, then we moved right into the Q & A. We got through several questions, but I’m pretty sure everyone wishes we had more time because it was a special opportunity to be able to ask them our questions in such an intimate setting, and after we had shared the day together. I say share because that’s how it felt – Ron and Kaveh are so down-to-earth, humble, and kind – they worked with us, shared the space of poetry, and treated us as equals.

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They both agreed that our Q & A was better than most they’ve been in – our questions were original, creative, and not the typical questions they already have stock answers for. They “actually had to think about” their answers. We finished the day off with book signings, and walked away with a word that encapsulates the day:


We had moments of vulnerability, experimentation, wonder, laughter, and friendship. Turbo squishy.


Here’s what some of my students had to say about the day:

During the workshops, I learned a lot about myself. Their workshops allowed me to stop, take a second, and reflect on my past experiences and emotions. It was therapeutic to write out and acknowledge these thoughts that often bounce off the sides of my skull. –Ashley T.

Hearing RA read his own poetry out loud brought some perspective and emotion to it that I couldn’t find easily through reading the poems on paper. Poems I couldn’t understand suddenly made sense, and poems that didn’t previously stand out hit me with a huge wall of emotion. Kaveh’s reading was a spiritual experience in all honesty. The way he read his own poetry was completely raw. Every poem that was supposed to make me uncomfortable did so tenfold in person. Every poem that was as powerful as a punch on paper knocked me out in person. Raw is exactly the word to use here – the entire classroom was laden with emotional vulnerability as soon as he spoke the first word of each poem. I also got to hear him read the poem I analyzed for my poetry project! This was, without a doubt, the pinnacle of my day. I was sat down in the audience pretty much trying not to cry. Hearing him read my favorite work of art in-person is an invaluable experience that I’m never going to forget. – Janais P

I am glad that R.A presented the Catalysts packet and activity because they go hand-in-hand into developing each other. R.A’s activity let us be open to write whatever with some conditions of little aspects to include. The poem and self-portrait activities were open ended yet structured to self-interpretation. He did not disregard anyone’s idea and was accepting to all. In fact, he stated that it was “OK” to not want to present our poems to the whole group. Some poems are allowed to be personal and not open to the public. I appreciate everything about him, his personality, openness, patience, and sense of humor. –Andrea A

Kaveh was very nice and amiable.  We went around the class saying what makes us fill with wonder, and I learned a lot about my classmates that I didn’t know before, and I felt like Kaveh wanted to create a personal space where we all felt comfortable.  This method also gave me a lot of inspiration to write a poem, and I used topics and subjects I thought I would never use before.  We also collaborated in Kaveh’s workshop, in which we would create poems with our classmates.  I had a great time and Kaveh is such a positive and inspirational person to be around!  They were really down-to-earth in saying that they still have struggles in their writing, and it shows that even published authors are still students of poetry.  –Ezri F

I came home and talked to my mom about it for an hour and she was super jealous because she is somewhat of a poetry nerd herself. Honestly the whole workshop was awesome and it will stick with me for a SUPER long time. I felt like a real poet.  –Sophia G

It was definitely one of the best experiences that I’ve had at Lake Norman Charter and I know everyone including the poets had a great time. It definitely exceeded my already high expectations. The poets were both so nice and genuine and it seemed like they truly wanted to be there as much as we did. –Emily R

RA’s workshop was definitely my favorite part of the day. It was the most structured thing we did and I think he really enabled us to write more and active poetry by kind of guiding us through it. It was as if he was teaching us how to swim, and rather than just pushing us in the pool, he walked down the steps and got in with us. His lesson on the catalyst and how everyone could be a poet or writer gave me insight on how poetry could impact and be a part of everyone’s lives regardless of profession. Overall I think RA’s workshop was the most beneficial to me and my world view. –Joe F

Kaveh’s workshop was my personal favorite. I felt he was so respectful and genuinely cared about each of the students that entered the room, even though he knew that we would only get to know each other for a little while. As we went from poetry book to poetry book, I could definitely catch on to the certain themes and motifs of some collections. My brain connected the ideas and, out of the books I read from, I could have written five poems with different topics because of all the places the words brought me. I personally loved the poem I wrote. –Chandler S

Kaveh signed my book and getting to actually talk to him one-on-one was a cool experience. Then he sang happy birthday to me which will forever be the best thing that has happened to me on any of my birthdays.  –Caroline L

Meeting Kaveh was an amazing experience in itself. He seemed just like a beam of light, energy, and happiness. Legitimately, he lit up the room. I thought it was very interesting how he went around and had everyone introduce themselves and share a little about themselves, especially with the discussion of what fills us with wonder. Thinking about all of those wondrous things that people shared really gave some good starting points for writing poetry. I thought the concept of writing poetry about the things that fill you with wonder was particularly profound, and that it was very good advice. It was something that really calmed me down and made me more at peace. It was something I really needed to hear on that day particularly because lately I’ve been kind of down about things, but remembering that concept of gratitude revealed to me how lucky I am to be alive in this world filled with wonder. This realization was extremely inspiring to me and helped me begin to think about what kind of things I could write about. I found it very refreshing when we flipped through books to find new words. Looking at all of these words and constructing a poem based off of them really helped me break out of my usual writing habits and stretch myself in my writing. This exercise showed me that you really can write poetry anywhere, at any time, about any subject. Poetry is simply so versatile. It is so many things that can be crafted in so many ways. Knowing these things, I really do want to write more poetry in the future. –Lindsey J

It allowed me to write about an event that I had struggled to put into words for a while. This was also the first real attempt I took in writing a legitimate poem. Therefore, this workshop will always hold a special place within me.  –Joshua P

For me, this workshop was very emotional for a reason I am not sure. I think writing in silence with nothing but my thoughts to distract me surfaced a lot of feelings that I never really acknowledge. I love writing and I scribble little journal entries most every day, but this 50 minutes was a completely different thing. My poetry was the most genuine thing that I think I have ever put on a page, and I am thankful for RA for providing us with time, as well as inspiration to be able to create. Being able to acknowledge my emotions truthfully was something that I never really do. I know writing is a way of helping me deal with these, but up until Friday I was never completely transparent when I wrote them. The space that RA created stirred something inside of me and allowed me to open up, something that I am very grateful for and that I hope to continue in my own writing. –Laruen G

I learned more about myself as I wrote my poem. I did not realize the impact that certain things in my life have over my thinking and other areas of my life until I started thinking about them in more depth. The activity showed me that writing a poem can give you more insight to your inner thoughts, be it conscious or unconscious. Although my poem could definitely be revised, I am more confident in my skills as a creative writer and poet. It was the first time in a long time that I have enjoyed writing and did not have to stress about any particular part of it. –Julia W

They forced me to think more introspectively and face insecurities. The insecurity that I ended up writing about is one that I often try to ignore, but writing about it was unbelievably healing for me. While I don’t have much time to write on my own, they made me want to find the time because I felt like the emotional effect it had on me was valuable. –Johannah P

I loved hearing from the poets. Both poets were also so genuinely kind and payed attention to everything that everyone said, no matter how unimportant!! They are so similar to us, I had no idea that they would get nervous before workshops and readings too because they seem to exude confidence. The way they both interacted with each other was really entertaining, and they were both so supportive of each other. For the book signing, I was surprised that they both took the time to sign each person’s book differently.  –Kylie C

I felt so intellectually nourished, and for two hours, I felt like a poet. When I went home that day, I actually kept working on the poem I wrote during his class because I couldn’t leave it alone; I wanted to write more, and it’s been a long time since I felt inclined to write by my own accord. –Evelyn G

RA’s style of thinking and teaching intrigued me and convinced me that poetry is truly for everyone. The use of sources for the catalyst portion was inspiring for me and created this sort of even level with R.A.; he’s not some higher figure after all, just someone like us. The time he gave us to write our poem allowed me to search deep inside myself for something that mattered and he made all of the lists something about us so that was great for setting the notion that poetry comes from within ourselves. His workshop made me appreciate poetry even more than I already did, as well as gave me some insight into how they (pros) write their work. His attitude was positive and he was always smiling, making me feel welcomed. I am thankful that I had this experience and hope future students will be able to have the same.  –Dominic T

I never would have thought that I would be able to fan girl over poets, but when they walked into breakfast, I was star struck. It was crazy to see the faces of the people who wrote the poems we so meticulously analyzed during class and had debates about, and I was so excited to see what their true personalities were like and what the workshops would be like. I thoroughly enjoyed the readings by both Kaveh and RA. It was so important to see how they pictured the poems to be read, and the type of emotion they conveyed when saying each different line. Through them reading it out loud, as well as the context of the poems allowed me to understand and appreciate their poems so much more. Also, I was mesmerized and transfixed by Kaveh through the way he spoke. He almost turned into another person through his poems, and it was so impactful for me. –Rachel S

The poets were so open with us, and I definitely feel like I learned a lot about how to find inspiration for writing, and gained a new appreciation for my own writing style. –Erica D

In truth, I have never been exposed to as much poetry as I have been this year, never thought to immerse myself in the world of verse. I always just assumed I did not have the capacity to write meaningful poetry or make sense of poetry other people write. However, this visit by R.A. Villanueva and Kaveh Akbar proved me wrong. However, amazing and intimidating Kaveh and R.A. seem because of their reputations, in person they are no more two normal guys with the intellect, bravery, and drive to pursue their passions. It made these amazing poets seem more human, and by extension made pursuing my own passions seem a more realistic goal. –Elizabeth S

I have to admit, before R.A’s workshop I knew that poets used poetry as a form of self-expression but I didn’t think that the experiences that they wrote about were very personal or emotional until R.A showed us how he received inspiration, or what he wrote his poems about. I remember R.A discussing how he created the Wryneck poetry form to express an unresolved fear or emotion that is inescapable in the end. After he said this, I couldn’t help but think, about my own experiences, my own fears about life about myself or my family and I realized that the poets of today aren’t writing about themselves in particular, but rather the human experience and all the emotions that are associated with it. –Jelani S

Their workshops showed me that there is no orthodox way to write poetry. I also loved how open Kaveh was with his mistakes and quirky characteristics. It made me feel like I wasn’t that much different from a world-renown poet. –Olivia M

I honestly think I will remember this experience for a long time to come. It’s one thing to read poetry on your own or for class, but it’s another thing to actually meet real, live poets in person and to interact with them. I think this visit truly opened up my eyes to the world of poetry. They really inspired me and made me realize that poetry is for anyone, that it doesn’t have to be this grand event or piece of literature, that it can be inspired by something simple, a list of words picked from books, a list of body parts that hurt, a list of bodies of water. I truly have a newfound appreciation for both poetry and poets after this visit, and respect poets and their work so much more. I feel all English students should get this experience to find out how relatable and down-to-Earth these poets are, and how accessible poetry truly is to anyone.  –Tyler K

Special thank you to Kaveh Akbar, Ron Villanueva, Tabia Yapp of Beotis Creative (Kaveh’s manager), and all the people at my school who helped make this special day happen: Valerie Norris, Warren Colby, Leslie McFarland, Shannon Stein, Craig Smith, the parent volunteers who brought in items, and especially those who helped set up breakfast and lunch: Ms. Chapman, Ms. Young, and Ms. Husak.

And thank YOU for reading!

You can follow me on Twitter & IG at @MelAlterSmith and please check out the hashtag #TeachLivingPoets.

6 thoughts on “Poet school visit with RA Villanueva and Kaveh Akbar

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