Thursday, December 6, 1990



This place we call home is much larger than just where we live. I like to use local history and heritage as a place to begin gathering information for the poetic process. To develop a sense of place, and from there, to explore our global connections. Where we live and who we are profoundly affects our culture and art. We are all immigrants; we've come from distant shores to sink roots down into the soil called California.
California has always been a multi-cultural state, if not a state of mind. It began long before California was "discovered" by the Spanish. No one is sure what the Native American names for California were, but the Coastonoan Ohlones of the San Francisco Bay region have left us one small clue. All that remains of an entire culture's mythology and culture is this fragment, Dancing on the brink of the world.   

The multitudes of Native American languages and dialects in California  number into the thousands. According to anthropologists, this phenomenon could only have happened over a long period of time—say 10,000 years or more—by infiltration of new groups coming across from the Bering Sea, and by groups so stable, their common dialects became separate languages over vast tracks of time. But there are also cultural and linguistic connections between the Pomos of Sonoma, one of the oldest groups in California and the Mixtec of Oaxaca, Mexico.

When Hernando Cortés sailed to the Americas in 1535 from Spain, he was looking for a mythological land of gold. The naming of California began long before California was "discovered." When Cortés sighted the lower tip of Baja, he named the "island" California after an amazon queen Califia, from a novella, The Adventures of Esplandian. Perhaps it was the fabulous pearls in La Paz that made him think this was mythological California, or maybe in bitter irony, he named the bleak vast desert "California" as a joke. But he wasn't so wrong, because in 1849, gold was discovered. One student wrote: Califia summoned the mountains,/She summoned the trees, the winds, the streams/And the hills as well... (1)

More and more teachers tell me their students seem to lack in self-esteem. Could I include something on self-awareness? This becomes my focal point. I like to start out with an autobiography. "Auto" means "self," "bio" means "life," and "graphy" or "graphics" means "picture." Self-life-picture. 

I ask students to write me a letter about where they were born, where they've lived, who they were named after, their nationalities, what languages their families speak, do they have any famous ancestors, any family stories, traditions, etc. I brainstorm with them. Do they have a secret place? 

What do they want to be when they grow up, what do they think they'll be instead? What places would they like to travel to? Who are they, what do they dream of?

By the year 2000, the dominant population will be the so-called "minorities" with the largest group being Latin American, followed by Asian, and Black populations. This variety of cultures becomes a fertile ground for the writing of poetry. The students' own family history can be incorporated into their writing.

Notes: this is a list of ideas, rather than a lesson plan. (See Nuts & Bolts for more details). I usually meet with a given class one hour a week for ten sessions. I cover a wide range of poetic ideas and styles, some of which are included here.

To break the ice, metaphorically speaking, I start poetry writing classes with bi- or tri-lingual decks of word-cards or phrases. Pick approximately 600 words and parts of phrases from poems, or have students help design a deck. I often have them do the translations. My word-cards are in Spanish, Russian, Chinese as well as English—students are fascinated by different languages. 

Shuffle the deck, pass out five word-cards to each student. Choose five words from their collection to do a demonstration poem on the chalk board. Ask for synonyms, homonyms and antonyms for each word and write them down. Build a poem using words from the clusters—include tense changes too. Add as many other words as needed. 

Include a comparison, a feeling (without naming it), make sure it's a image (a painting with words). Student Matt Melodia wrote: A young deer/occasionally came/and ate the rich apples./They taste like a dream. (2)

Limit the poem to 3-5 words per line. Do revisions, give it a title. Have students make their own poems. When they've used their five words (or related words) give them five more, etc. They can add onto the first poem or start a new one. Lie under a tree/Sadness/Watch it flower.  (3)   

Poems can be as serious or as silly as they want. A variation, try word-card haiku inspired by Impressionist paintings. Each line becomes a brush-stroke. Dense morning/Pulling the sky down/Clouds fighting again.  (4 )

Word-cards help students break out of predictable writing patterns, forcing them to taste words they wouldn't normally use in a poem. It stretches their vocabulary and opens new doors of expression. Look up a word sometime in a good dictionary. 

English has collected a portmanteau of words from most languages of the world, not just from the Indo-European tree. The Oxford English or the American Heritage dictionaries include the meaning and origin of words. "Conspiracy," to breathe together, is related to inspiration which means to breathe life/creativity into; as from the godhead. And other words: perspire, respire, respite are related. We are a conspiracy of poets breathing together as we write.

Another lesson idea might include the tracking down of a family history, looking up the origin of your names and writing about them. This is a good place to introduce narrative poetry that tells a story. Who were you named after? What's in a name? An entire thumbnail sketch of history. 

I make copies of several baby name books and pass them out. Sometimes students can find their last names too. Harrison is Harry's or Harold, the army ruler's son. Aguilar is of the eagles. Don't forget nick-names and baby names. Memory, history and origin combined.

Use information from your birth sign, stones, flowers, etc. What element are you? Air, earth, fire or water? Write a poem from that perspective. Gary Snyder's "As For Poets" is a good model poem. Are you a mind or a space poet?  

How about giving yourself another name, a totem or clan name, a secret name: place, season, animal, direction, color, etc. The naming of people, places, animals, and things goes back to our ancestral beginnings. The cave paintings of Lascaux, France and Altamira (to "look up" in Spanish), Spain, whether the art work of Cro-Magnon or Neanderthal man, invoke the animals of the hunt. A naming.

One of the oldest European poems 2,000 to 3000 years old, an Irish fragment attributed to the bard Amergín (also the Welsh Taliesin) is a mnemonic naming of knowledge, coding of information. It is also an incantation. The metaphoric naming of things and ideas. I am the salmon of the seven leaps.  Who but I...  (Robert Graves, The White Goddess).


I am a wonder among flowers
running on a hill where poets walk.
The feel of fresh grass under my feet
where tears of the sun are falling,
where every head is guarded by a shield,
I am a young flower blooming,
but I am free to do anything; to go anywhere.
If I am free; am I the blaze on the hill?

     Roxanne Nelson (5)
You could bury an acrostic message spelled down the page—your name, your secret animal, place or thing name... Or bury a code word associated with your name as a skeleton by which to hang a poem from. Take the letters of your full name. How many other words can you compose from it? Make a list and use as many of them as you can in a poem.

Bring in mirrors and write about yourselves and family. The past, the present, the future, an aspect of time. Read selections from David Meltzer's Two Way Mirror. David said: Poetry is a two-way mirror. The outside looking in; the inside looking out. A reflection is a reverse image of yourself. No one knows what they really look like as others see them. The camera unveils us as the rest of the world sees us; face-forward. 

What does it mean to see yourself backwards and not as others view you? How about when you look into multiple mirrors and infinity stretches out like a green lake—what happens when you enter into that world? Follow up with improvisational mirror exercises, where students pair off and slowly mirror each other's movements. 

Have them write about the process. Have them do a contour drawing of their partner without looking at the paper, then write a poem about looking into their partner's eyes. What do they see? What else?

Writing comes from pictures. The Phoenician seafarers (modern-day Lebanon) invented modern "Roman" writing to keep track of goods. A was aleph, the ox. Aleph See its two ears and horns? B was beth, house or temple,   Beth   C was gimel, the ship of the desert (can you guess it by its shape?),  Gimeland D was daleth, or door. Daleth  The Greeks came along and borrowed the alphabet, renaming the letters, alpha, beta, etc. Hence the word Alphabet comes from ox and house. Another naming.

Write a fragment of a lost epic poem. "Translate" the inscriptions of Minoan Linear B, the story boards of Easter Island or an Aleutian skin story from Technicians of the Sacred, by Jerome Rothenberg. Decode the message while listening to the song of a humpback whale. Do fake translations, or transliterations from poems in Russian, Japanese, Chinese, etc. However the poem is deciphered is correct.

"The painter Gauguin, exploring his own French/Peruvian roots, and disturbed by the destruction of the Polynesian concept of paradise wrote on his most famous painting, Who are we and where are we going?   

You could explore environmental and ecological issues which reach across racial boundaries. Writing from pictures; a before and after. Many students are concerned for the future welfare of the earth. Look for patterns to emulate, moving from the smaller picture of self, to the larger issues of the world.

Cycles and systems—why it's important to preserve the place where we live. Building on prime farmland, waste management, air pollution, and recycling are issues that affect us all. Minnesota poet Thomas McGrath wrote in Letter to an Imaginary Friend, Write letters to the earth, the sky, the ground, the sea, a tree, the ozone layer, the rain forest, endangered species, etc. Show the interconnectedness of things.

The environmentalist John Muir who was responsible for founding and preserving our national parks, (Yosemite, Yellowstone, etc.), said everything is connected to everything else in the universe. A prime example of habitat destruction are the feral non-native Russian boars in Sonoma County. In 1811, the Russians who colonized Fort Ross had no idea the pigs would plow whole hillsides devouring everything in their path including rare wildflowers and small animals and ground nesting birds.

Build writing ideas on curriculum already developed. Science, social studies, geography, sociology, etc. Since fourth grade focuses on California history and the missions, one could write about a day in the life of a Pomo or Coast Miwok sighting the first ship...A white bird filled with pale ghosts rose from the belly of the sea,  or life at the mission, or Vallejo's adobe. 

Try to paint a vivid picture of how life was lived. Visual and tactile stimuli are often a good place to write from. If Califia were here now, what would she say?

Bring in role models from other cultures. Not just poems, but people who can share their heritage with students will invoke interesting writing, especially if you already have students writing poetry about themselves. Remember a poem is an image with rich comparisons and feelings. Think of the fragment, Dancing on the brink of the world as part of a letter to an unknown friend. The possibilities are endless.

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Nuts & Bolts—We each our own methods of teaching poetry—we've all gotten ideas from each other and refined and modulated them to fit our styles. Every time I teach the improvisational process may change but the philosophy doesn't. I encourage teachers to write in the hopes that they will invent their own teaching form, and not take mine into the classroom Monday morning. But I've included a basic teaching format that works well for me.

I divide my one-hour block roughly into four 15 minute segments: The first 15 min. we read typed poems (about 1/3 of the class) from the week before, review last week's lesson, make in-class corrections, typos, delete words, etc. As a warm-up exercise, students may underline five words from the typed poems and use them during the five minute freewrite, or they may revise a typed poem. They must write non-stop for five minutes about anything. Often they have a poem they've been wanting to write, or classmate's typed poems generate new ideas.

The second 15 min. segment is a lecture. I introduce new poetry idea, sample adult poems, and do a group poem on the board if there's time. I write on the board what I want them to cover: image, metaphor/comparison, & feeling/emotion, etc. Most students finish up in 15-20 minutes, but this format gives students about 30 minutes to write. I circulate around the room and read work in progress, make suggestions, etc. If they finish one poem, they should add onto it or write another. About 10 to 15 minutes before class is over, we read aloud poems from the lesson or from freewrite.

Students use bound Classmate journals for the poetry workshop and  date each day's work. I read the journals and write comments after each workshop. I type up the best poems (about 1/3 the class) as role models which inspires new student work. At the end of the residency, they'll each have a large collection of writing to choose from for the anthology. I give them a computer print-out of all their typed poems (at least two or more per student). We meet individually and in small groups to edit and review possible poems and make final revisions for the book.

1. Matthew Keough, 4th grade, from Still Writing on Rocks, Matanzas School, Santa Rosa. 2. Matt Melodia, 6th grade, 3, 4 ,5.  Gabe Silva, 3rd grade, Brandi Gordonoff, 3rd grade, Roxanne Nelson, 5th grade, from The Power of the Reckless Sleeper, Mark West School, Santa Rosa. Edited by Maureen Hurley.
Probably originally written in the mid-1980s for a CPITS anthology, (I was working with John Oliver Simon at the Oakland Museum during that time). My oldest file is dated 1990. (It's a dead Unix executable fire box...I finally figured out that executable means to kill your file, not that it's functional.)I will post this in December of 1990 so I can easily find it.