How a poem moves – a workshop with Terrance Hayes

I had looked forward to this workshop for MONTHS. Terrance Hayes! A small, intimate workshop! I am going to learn about poetry from one of the greatest poets writing today. AND I get to attend his reading the night before? Get. Out. Of. Town. I was beside myself.

img_8863.jpgLet’s start with the reading. Charlotte Lit sponsored a weekend with Terrance Hayes for their Beautiful Truth initiative. Held in a elegant, aged auditorium and flanked by artwork by local artists, Hayes opened his reading with an explanation of Wanda Coleman’s influence on his book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. (I highly suggest reading this interview with Hayes written by Hanif Abdurraqib in Poets & Writers magazine if you are reading Hayes’s book.) The first poem he read, which also happens to be my personal favorite, was this one:


He read through a crown of sonnets, and ended with a sonnet comprised of lines from all the previous sonnets read. You can read more of his American sonnets here. Hayes answered some questions from the audience afterward, then graciously stuck around to sign every last person’s book waiting in a very long line.

At the reading, I ran into my #aplitchat friend and (somewhat local) colleague Melissa Tucker, who made the drive up from Rock Hill, SC. Some former students of mine, who are infected with the #TeachLivingPoets bug from my class last year, also came out for the reading. College students attending a poetry reading on a Friday night?! If that’s not a testament to the power of #TeachLivingPoets, I don’t know what is.

The next morning, Charlotte Lit offered a poetry workshop taught by Hayes. As a teacher of poetry, and HUGE Hayes fan, to say I was excited for the workshop would be an understatement. I got there early and was a little surprised to see the tables in the back filling up before the table with the man himself in the front. If you know me at all, you know where I sat. (That’s me under the green arrow!) IMG_8899

Hayes started off with explaining his theories on how poems move (technical aspects seen in the car illustration) and how poems are moving (the contextual “living space” of the poem seen in the house illustration).

Poets use the tools on the car in tandem with the intangible elements of the house, and we explored how this happens by reading and discussing two poems. We first listened to Henry Taylor read his poem “Landscape with Tractor.” Hayes asked us to share what we noticed in the poem, both structurally (the car), and where we “find the heat” in the poem (the house). As we shared out specific lines, techniques, and insights, he wrote notes on the board. These notes would turn into catalysts for our own poem, a list of possible prompts for us to follow.

We then did the same listening to and sharing out activity with a second poem, Toi Derricotte’s “On the Turning Up of Unidentified Black Female Corpses,” which is written in conversation to Taylor’s. At the end of our discussion, the board revealed our prompt options inspired by the moves of our two mentor texts.

We were to choose three elements from the board to incorporate into a poem of our own. After about 20 minutes of writing time, we were given the opportunity to share our drafts. Which I obviously did. I mean, go big or go home, right? To have the chance to read a poem I wrote to TERRANCE HAYES?!? You bet I did. He was so kind to all who shared. He responded to each of us individually after we read our poem with things that stuck out to him (in a good way) or that he liked. He said some things to me after I read mine, but I’m pretty sure I blacked out for a second due to the fact that he was actually saying words out of his mouth about how he liked a poem I wrote. I remember him mentioning my use of a certain image (Barbie’s bodies) but that’s about it. And I’m okay with that because I was living in the moment and just so grateful to be in that space.

He closed with encouraging us all to work on our poems and to submit them. His kind words of praise in reaction to our poems were a gift to everyone in the room, whether they shared or not. And even though I don’t consider myself a poet, I just might follow his advice!

If you have the opportunity to attend a poetry workshop, even if you are “only” a teacher of poetry and not necessarily a poet yourself, GO! Chatting with another lady at my table, who actually is a poet and has published things, I introduced myself as “just a teacher.” She told me to take out the “just.” And I was like, YES, I am totally taking out that “just,” as we ALL should. We are teachers. And we should be proud of that. Say it with me, “I. AM. A. TEACHER.”

Thank you for for reading! If you ever want to write a guest post for the TeachLivingPoets site, please email me at or DM me on Twitter at @MelAlterSmith. Sharing your story might inspire someone to try something new! We are a community of educators so the more voices we have participating, sharing, and inspiring each other, the better! Hope to hear from you soon. 


Poems to celebrate Black History Month

Today’s post is brought to you by educator extraordinaire and guest author, Cait Hutsell. Cait is a high school ELA teacher in North Central Florida. She has almost exclusively taught freshmen for seven years, but has also taught AP Lang, Yearbook, and sophomore English as well. Her superpower is reading ridiculously fast; she finished 164 books in 2018! Cait is currently vacillating between Masters programs and is a mom of one four year old, with another coming soon. Cait is involved in and supports #TeachLivingPoets, #DisruptTexts, #educolor, #ProjectLitChat, and #ClearTheAir. You can follow her on Twitter at @caitteach and see her original tweet thread with these poems; you can also check out her blog at


Southern Gothic by Rickey Laurentiis (poem link)


Source: Poetry (November 2012)

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Get your students engaged with poetry collections with this hands-on hexagon activity!

Today’s post is brought to you by guest author Tia Miller. Tia teaches AP Literature, AP Language, AP Seminar, and Dual Credit English at Chapmanville Regional High School in southern West Virginia.  She is currently working on her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from Marshall University.

This past semester, inspired by Melissa Smith and other awesome teachers in my PLN and encouraged by some extra money to spend on books for my classroom, I decided to teach my first poetry collection. Mind you, the very notion of reading a poetry collection, personally, was a rather exceptional idea for me, much less the attempt to teach one, but I took the leap anyway and found an exciting new addition for my curriculum. Continue reading

#TeachLivingPoets Gallery Walk

Today’s blog post comes from Carrie Mattern, a high school ELA teacher in Flint, MI who has taught in Flint for the last eleven years and in Brown City, MI for her first four years of teaching. At Flint Carman-Ainsworth, Carrie greets students as freshmen in English 9 and sends them out into the real world after completing English 12. She loves to read, write, and do what most teachers do on their snow days—watch cooking shows in sweats while dreaming of becoming a travel writer.

After finding Clint Smith’s work last year on Twitter, and finally becoming a member of #TeachLivingPoets last spring, I decided that this year my weekly writing (more on that another day) would be based on all living poets with my English 12 seniors. Last year I dabbled with mostly living poets, but this year I wanted to disrupt the canon and allow students more depth with their connections and more relevance to their world. So with that stated, #TeachLivingPoets is a part of my daily classroom lessons and I have never, ever had someone is class yell, “Yay! FInally!” when I announced this philosophy to the class this fall. Continue reading

“If They Should Come For Us” by Fatimah Asghar – #TeachLivingPoets chat archive & ideas for teaching

9780525509783Teachers from all over the country gathered together virtually to discuss Fatimah Asghar’s poemIf They Should Come For Usfrom her collection If They Come For Us (Penguin Random House, 2018). I taught this poem to my on-level American Lit juniors and AP Literature seniors the week prior to the chat, and found it to be an extremely successful poem with my students, offering them opportunities for rich conversation and deep analysis. This post will provide you with an archive of the chat, and an explanation of how I went about teaching the poem in my classes. Continue reading

Finding the Perfect Match: Poetry Blind Dating

Today’s #TeachLivingPoets post is brought to you by guest writers, Kristin Dreyer and Nikki Lehman, co-teachers at Chantilly High School in Chantilly, Virginia. They have been teaching at Chantilly for the past 18 years and have co-taught together three years throughout the course of their careers; this year they are embarking on an English 10 journey for the first time. They enjoy collaborating and taking risks in their teaching— challenging each other to move beyond their comfort zones! You can follow them on Twitter @CHS_writer and @kdreyer12.

black logoWhen our 10th graders walked into class last week, they were confused—and intrigued— by the tablecloths, electric candlelight and mints at their tables.

“Are we having a fancy dinner?” one of them asked.

“Sort of.” We smiled knowing we had piqued their interest before we had even begun to read a line together. Continue reading

Highlights reel of #THEBOOKCHAT & #TeachLivingPoets chat on José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal

cit ill#THEBOOKCHAT #TeachLivingPoets #aplitchat UNITE!

Last week, several Twitter chat groups united to discuss José Olivarez’s new book Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Press, 2018). The chat was moderated by Adrian Nester, Scott Bayer, Joel Garza, and me, and educators and poetry readers from all over the country participated. This post will attempt to curate our chat and share some of the highlights that are useful if you are considering teaching Citizen Illegal in your class.  Continue reading


Teach Living Poets LogoWant to #TeachLivingPoets but feel like you don’t know where to start? Or where to find good poems? Then this post is for you. Here, you will find all kinds of resources to help you feel more knowledgeable and comfortable with teaching contemporary poetry in your classroom. 

How to find poets

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Line breaks, featuring poems by Gwendolyn Brooks & Terrance Hayes

This lesson of mine was originally posted on Wakelet, curated by Kristin Runyon for National Poetry Month in April 2017. Click here for more poem pairings by other teachers across the country.

Teach Living Poets LogoThis is my favorite poem pairing of all time for several reasons. First, I LOVE both of these poets’ work. Second, Hayes INVENTED a new form of poetry and how many people can say they did that?!? Third, I love seeing my students’ reactions when they realize… well, you’ll see. 

I pass out a handout with Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool” written in paragraph form without the line breaks–just a continuous line across the page, punctuation included. With a partner, students rewrite it as a poem and how they think Brooks wrote it. They discuss where she would break lines; most go for after the periods.  Continue reading

Teaching a poetry collection with Clint Smith’s Counting Descent


Today’s #TeachLivingPoets post comes from Adrian Nester, educator extraordinaire with 17 years’ experience in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. She is passionate about equity in rural education and the power of Twitter. She currently teaches AP Literature, English 11, and Journalism. She is also a T-ball coach, Interact sponsor, and Sunday school teacher in her spare time. She enjoys traveling, spending time with her family, reading, and playing sports. Read more about Adrian’s journey on her blog The Learning Curve.


After studying Clint Smith’s Counting Descent with #thebookchat, I knew that I had found the first poetry collection that I was going to teach. Teaching an entire collection of poetry was something that I had considered, but did not see the full benefits from until reading and working through Smith’s Counting Descent from start to finish.

How to get started Continue reading