Writing Moves: how poets communicate with their reader

Today’s #TeachLivingPoets post is brought to you by guest writer, Matt Brisbin. Mr. Brisbin teaches English at McMinnville High School in McMinnville, Oregon, and has been a high school English instructor for 12 years. Aside from reading and writing, his passions in life include spending time with his family and cheering on various sports teams at the high school, college, and professional levels. You can follow him on Twitter @Mbrisbin11.

Last week, a comment by one of my students, spoken with a smile on the way out the door, really made me think about the way my students tend to read poetry.

“You know something, Mr. Brisbin, I’ve never really liked poetry, but I’ve really enjoyed the spoken word poems you’ve shared with us this year.”

Teach Living Poets LogoIt made me wonder what it is about the spoken word form that tends to resonate with these inexperienced readers of poetry compared to the written form. So the next day when I asked, their answer wasn’t super surprising. “Mr. B, it’s so much easier to understand the meaning of a poem when the poet just reads it. We don’t have to guess about how a word should sound or where I should pause or anything else, I just get to enjoy the performance.” I thought about it for a second, and replied with, “So is the meaning created by the writer, or is it formed in the head of the reader? And if your answer is the writer, why do all of you have so many different opinions about the books we read?”

Of course, the answer is that both parties are responsible, which the class finally realized after a bit of debate. It’s an interaction between reader and writer, but it can lead to many different conclusions. This is the context that inspired the following lesson using José Olivarez’s poem, “(Citizen) (Illegal).


I started with what they were already comfortable with: a spoken word poem. Specifically, we watched this video of Joshua Bennett reading his poem, “Tamara’s Opusand asked them to discuss the following questions:

  1. What does Bennett do during his performance that helps the audience understand the meaning?
  2. As a writer, how could you emphasize those same things on the page rather than through a performance?

The discussion led to many student realizations about all the tools that writers, and specifically poets, have at their disposal, and how often they overlook those little details when they read a poem on a page. Tools like enjambment and caesura (though they may not know these terms yet) start to become apparent. They talk about how they can emphasize certain words, or how to signal the reader when to speed up or slow down. They talked about syntactical choices like using long, run on sentences followed by short, choppy fragments. They brought up how changing the font or using italics or all capital letters will change how someone reads the poem.

Working with the poem

Building on these insights, I gave them a copy of Olivarez’s poem, the title poem from his new collection Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books, 2018), and told them that, as a group, they had 10 minutes to read and analyze the poem, and to prepare their own dramatic reading, performed for the class, that would emphasize their insights about the text. After each performance, students would explain why they made the choices they did.

(Citizen) (Illegal)

Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal) have
a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen).
Is the baby more Mexican or American?
Place the baby in the arms of the mother (illegal).
If the mother holds the baby (citizen)
too long, does the baby become illegal?

The baby is a boy (citizen). He goes to school (citizen).
His classmates are American (citizen). He is outcast (illegal).
His “Hellos” are in the wrong language (illegal).
He takes the hyphen separating loneliness (Mexican)
from friendship (American) and jabs it at the culprit (illegal).
Himself (illegal). His own traitorous tongue (illegal).
His name (illegal). His mom (illegal). His dad (illegal).

Take a Mexican woman (illegal) and a Mexican man (illegal).
If they have a baby and the baby looks white enough to pass (citizen).
If the baby grows up singing Selena songs to his reflection (illegal).
If the baby hides from el cucuy and la migra (illegal).
If the baby (illegal) (citizen) grows up to speak broken Spanish (illegal)
and perfect English (citizen). If the boy’s nickname is Güerito (citizen).
If the boy attends college (citizen). If the boy only dates women (illegal)
of color (illegal). If the boy (illegal) uses phrases like Women of Color (citizen).
If the boy (illegal) (citizen) writes (illegal) poems (illegal).

If the boy (citizen) (illegal) grows up (illegal) and can only write (illegal)
this story in English (citizen), does that make him more
American (citizen) or Mexican (illegal)?

As I walked around the room, I heard students having wonderful conversations about the poem and which parts should be spotlighted during their reading. They wrestled with the parenthetical interruptions and how those should be read. As a reader, they argued, we have a choice in reading what is inside the parentheses, and they debated how not reading them would change the poem. They discussed how important all thecit ill statements outside the parentheses were to helping them understand the speaker, and how the (Citizen) and (Illegal) kept distracting them from what was most important. They talked about how these disruptions in the poem are mini representations of what the speaker must feel while trying to better understand his identity. And finally, they questioned if these interrupters were coming from outside the speaker, or if they represented the confusion happening inside the speaker’s own mind. Ultimately, the way they decided to read it said a lot about how they interpreted the text itself.

When it was time for each group to read, it was amazing to see how many different ways there were to interpret, and to read aloud, the same text. One group stood in a circle with their backs turned to the reader in the middle. Each time the poem came to an “(illegal)” the group angrily turned and shouted at the speaker, but when they got to a “(citizen)” the group barely looked up and spoke in an approving tone and a slight head nod.

Another group, wanting to emphasize the internal struggle for the speaker, decided to have all the participants who would read “(citizen)” stand on the right side of the reader, while those who read “(illegal)” stood to the left. As the reader made her way through the poem, the students on the left would all whisper “Illegal” while shaking their head back and forth, and the students on the right whispered “citizen” while nodding their heads up and down. They also explained that they wanted to highlight how society forces conformity by labeling certain characteristics like having lighter skin, going to school, or using English as the traits of a “citizen” while speaking Spanish, hiding from el cucuy, and singing Selena songs are all considered “illegal.”

This group (watch the video) read it straight through, but chose to emphasize a tone shift in the last stanza to represent the self doubt that has been caused by the societal labels interrupting the speaker’s life.

And this group chose to emphasize the silencing that is caused by placing these labels on the speaker.

Wrap up

What I liked most about this lesson, is that it requires close reading of a text, without a lot of the teacher direction that I sometimes feel is necessary during a close reading of a poem. It’s also a lesson that can be done with lots of different poems. It rewards students for having their own interpretations, and helps to point out that meaning is created in the mind of the reader, not a singular message from the writer that they have to try to uncover.     

Thank you, Matt Brisbin, for sharing your experience with #TeachLivingPoets! 

And thank you, reader! If you would ever like to write a guest post, please DM on Twitter. 

You can follow Mr. Brisbin on Twitter @MBrisbin11 and me (Melissa Smith) @MelAlterSmith to catch more innovative #TeachLivingPoets lessons for your classroom.  


3 thoughts on “Writing Moves: how poets communicate with their reader

  1. Pingback: Highlights reel of #THEBOOKCHAT & #TeachLivingPoets chat on José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal | #TeachLivingPoets

  2. Pingback: Building a Classroom Community Through Narrative Poetry | #TeachLivingPoets

  3. Pingback: Teaching Citizen Illegal: One teacher’s approach | #TeachLivingPoets

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