How a precocious group of high school poets learned to provide verse on demand
By Douglas Goetsch
In July of 2006, I received an e-mail from Richard K. Weems, who directs the creative writing division of the New Jersey Governor’s School of the Arts. He had hired me to teach poetry to a group of gifted high school students later that month, and he wanted to know if I was interested in conducting a “Drive-by poetry” field trip, which is what past teachers had done.
Drive-by poetry, as Rich described it, entails loading the students into a van, cruising around a commercial area in Trenton, and pulling over near targeted pedestrians. One of the students sticks his or her head out the passenger window and serenades—or accosts—the startled pedestrian with some passionately recited lines by Walt Whitman or Pablo Neruda. The kid pops back in, rolls up the window, and the van takes off in search of the next victim.
Drive-by poetry seemed like an exercise in bad manners and an embarrassment to all concerned, and I wanted no part of it. Rich mentioned that I was free to plan my own event, but I was never very good at organizing field trips. I was cursed with a lack of the field trip gene, along with the papier-mâché gene. My classrooms tend to be devoid of decoration, and we never leave them. As a writing teacher, I’m concerned with rearranging the mental furniture of my students—at least, that’s what I’ve always told myself. For the last five years I’ve taught juveniles in a lockdown facility, where field trips are happily—for me at least—off the table.
Nevertheless, since it was on the calendar, and the students were looking forward to it, I told Rich I would be willing to give the Governor’s School kids a field trip.
When I met the group on Monday morning, two weeks later, I proposed that we run a poetry stand, which would be like a country lemonade stand, except that people would be coming for poems. Whatever customers asked for, the students would write.
Some years ago I met a poet named Dave Johnson who donated his services at a charity event in just this way. He sat at a booth, and when people came up requesting poems, he wrote them on the spot. He told me that some of the stuff he wrote was pretty good but that he didn’t keep any of it. He had adopted a Buddhist attitude of nonattachment: giving away his good lines would open the creative faucet for his other writing. Dave’s attitude seemed right to me, and I thought student writers could gain from it.
But the kids at the Governor’s School had already gotten wind of drive-by poetry and were looking forward to it. This didn’t surprise me; as one of the judges, I had helped select the group earlier in the year, and they were an iconoclastic bunch. Elizabeth, who went by “Zebbi,” wore Goth makeup, had piercings in her nose and eyebrow, and told us in the interview about her arrest record. Barbara, a heavyset girl, wore a bed sheet wrapped around her the entire time I was there. Briana wore wings—wings—attached to her back. Chandra, a beautiful Indian girl, had five pounds of hair growing from her head and was an untouchable in her native country. Haley was a mix-raced girl who wrote interesting and disturbing pieces about her parents. Darlene had the temerity to write: “We need to separate cocksuckers and sluts. Because they’re not the same thing.” Ruby was a lovable tomboy, full of sass, with glimpses of shyness. There were only two boys in the group. Ricky, a Latino kid from Atlantic City, made sure to include homosexual sex in every assignment he wrote. Jeff came off as the boy next door and wrote with clarity and lyricism. (Out of respect for their privacy, I’ve altered the names and nicknames of all students mentioned in this article.)
Most of these teens came from public schools or families where their creative spirit hadn’t been nurtured, and they’d gotten used to feeling like outsiders. Before my arrival they had spent three weeks, eight hours a day, in the writing studio with other teachers. They lived in oppressive dorms at the College of New Jersey, ate bad cafeteria food, and were having a ball basking in their identity as artists.
Briana, with the wings, pushed the most for drive-by poetry. In a way, she was already practicing it, subjecting the group to long theatrical chants when she read from her free-write exercises—she was always first to volunteer. When I said I couldn’t involve myself in drive-by poetry, the students wanted to know why. I told them it just wasn’t me, and when they pressed, I said that too many people lost their natural love of poetry when it became something puzzling that was rammed into their heads. I thought these drive-by stunts would only give them another good reason to hate poetry.
The students had the savvy to question the role of artists: Were artists supposed to placate the public or challenge and provoke it? I said provoking was all well and good when it served a decent purpose. The guerrilla tactics of drive-by poetry seemed designed to annoy the audience just so the performers could revel in their status as outsiders. It was, to put it another way, a waste of poetry’s stock
I reminded them of the privilege of being at the Governor’s School, a program funded by the tax dollars of those they were intending to victimize. Wouldn’t it feel better to serve them at a poetry stand? And wouldn’t a poetry stand be as daring and challenging—although in a different way—as drive-by poetry?
The group was willing to go with my idea, though some only grudgingly. And they had questions: Would we collect money at the poetry stand? No. What if there were no customers? It’s part of the risk. Could we keep what we wrote if it was good? I told them about Dave Johnson and the virtue of giving away your best lines. What if we had nothing to say on the topic they gave us? You will, I’ll train you. What if they want rhymed poetry—I can’t rhyme! Sure you can; we’ll all train together.
I had three days to find a place for our poetry stand. A few of the students familiar with the area recommended Princeton, 12 miles up the road, for its heavily trafficked public squares. So I made a call to the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce and was told to call back and speak with Kristin Appelget, the president. She wanted to know just what in the world a poetry stand is and whether we planned on making money from it. Before issuing us a permit she wanted a faxed list of the teenagers involved, the chaperones, etc. One thing neither Appelget, nor anyone else I spoke with, had questions about was the Governor’s School of the Arts, which was a source of civic pride to New Jerseyans.
A few times a day, whenever we had a little extra time in the writing studio, I asked my students to turn to a clean sheet of paper and I gave them a hypothetical poetry-stand poem request. The requests went something like this:
A high school freshman who keeps stats for the basketball team wants a poem to help him get with Francine, captain of the cheerleaders, and a senior. He’d like it to rhyme. You’ve got two minutes.
A young woman wants a poem for her cousin in Iraq. His tour of duty will end in three months, and she wants him to stay safe and come home.
A man has come up to the poetry stand needing a poem to help him apologize to his new wife for criticizing her cooking. It’s their first marital spat.
I tried to get the students into the habit of asking for specifics. What street does Francine live on? What’s the name of the soldier? What dish did the newlywed burn? Getting down the details, always a good idea, would be essential in giving their poetry-stand poems the feel of authenticity, and it would be especially useful when they needed hooks for their rhymes.
The students had trouble responding to the first few exercises. Some found the time limit constricting, and many just felt stumped. No one wrote anything that was likely to help the statistician score points with the cheerleader, and some wound up ridiculing their subjects. Zebbi, in the course of wishing that cousin home from Iraq, couldn’t resist taking a few shots at the Bush administration. Briana wrote operatic rants that were inappropriate. Ricky waxed graphic and sexual. Barbara, sitting next to him wrapped in her bed sheet, scolded him like a big sister, and Ricky admitted he was just goofing around. They had this need—though maybe it had become more of an instinct—to insert conflict and “edge” into their writing, no matter what the subject. Edge is what got them into the Governor’s School. Edge is what they’d spent a good part of their adolescent years developing over and against the complacency of their suburban New Jersey peers.
But I felt that their style and attitude issues were masking the real difficulty, which had to do with craft. These were young writers—16 and 17 years old—with plenty of talent but little or no serious training. A few could boast of excellent high school writing teachers, but they were all still early in their development as artists. How could they be expected to play more than just a few notes on their instrument? So many of their heroes—often rap and spoken-word artists—are so flatly identifiable with one pervasive, unmodulated attitude. Too many contemporary poets, for that matter, have been writing essentially the same poem, book after book, with little emotional range. If “finding your voice” is the essence of becoming an artist, which is what most new writers are taught to believe, my exercises probably felt like detours on the road to their self-discovery.
Twenty years ago, when William Stafford came to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the staff was emphasizing this concept. When it was time to give his lecture on craft, Stafford began, “I don’t agree with anything that was said here this week. You already have a voice and don’t need to find one.” He was never invited back. I agree with Stafford, though if I had to give the lecture on finding your voice I’d probably ask the question, “Which one?” I wanted the Governor’s School poets to develop what Keats famously called negative capability: the capacity to dwell, and write, in the midst of doubt and uncertainty. Shakespeare, as Keats pointed out, had enormous negative capability, and I think of Shakespeare’s open-mindedness, his ability to move between all those different voices with such aptitude. The poetry stand would require some of that: acceptance of a task no matter what, the assumption of capability, and tremendous empathy.
One of my studio assignments involved a Web site called PostSecret, where anonymous people send in postcard-sized collages with captions revealing their secrets: “I have been bulimic for over 20 years. Today was my last time” (picture: a jagged-toothed mouth drawn in lipstick around the rim of a toilet seat); “I am a worthless piece of shit. But I won” (picture: a solemn child with a blue ribbon pinned to her dress); “We could have saved each other” (picture: an empty apartment with a patch torn out of the carpet). There were dozens of postcard collages as you scrolled down—intimate, lurid, wholesome, funny, arresting. I asked each student to pick a postcard and write from the point of view of the author, fleshing out the details. It was an assignment that appealed to the students’ fondness for “edge,” but it also exercised voice, imagination, and empathy.
Many of the challenges involved craft. I had the students do rhymed sonnets, quatrains, ballads, odes, villanelles, haiku, even limericks. I drilled them on scansion and poetic feet, masculine and feminine rhyme, turns and conceits. In general, tolerance among poets for the nuts and bolts of craft is widely varying, especially when it comes to iambs and trochees. This group was impressive; all they asked was how much time they had, and they got to work.
I noticed a difference in attitude between when we worked on the studio assignments and when we did poetry-stand hypotheticals, which were seen as little ditties not to be taken seriously. The students were, of course, unaware of the long tradition of occasional poetry, written for hire in previous centuries and still the duty of England’s poet laureate. Occasional poetry—literally, poems commissioned for specific occasions, such as Robert Frost’s inaugural poem for President Kennedy, or Maya Angelou’s for Clinton’s—was the “genre” that came closest to what they would be asked to do at the poetry stand. Because of obvious constraints in time, subject, and audience, a good occasional poem is hard to pull off (Frost’s was pretty good; Maya Angelou’s—the one about a rock, a river, and a tree—stunk the place up). In the students’ nonchalance I saw discomfort, and maybe fear, more than any aesthetic stance.
While occasional poetry may be the height of artifice, there was something organic about what was happening at the Governor’s School. The poetry stand, looming before us on Thursday, would be manned by poets capable of providing poems on demand, and the preparation of the poets drove the education in a way that nobody, including me, quite expected. My methods, instead of being derived from any philosophy of teaching, were designed to prepare the students for what they might face.
On Thursday morning, the day of the poetry stand, I gave this assignment: An old widow has just moved to Bloomfield. She plans to make an embroidery or needlepoint and would like a rhymed couplet blessing her house.
To some in the room, this was the last straw. They had come to an exclusive arts program, to write eight hours a day for four weeks, and they were being asked to do this? I asked if they thought I had suddenly become some kind of conservative. They knew better. I asked if they thought the prompt itself was too conservative, or just silly, and they said, “Hell yes: a housewarming poem for an old lady’s needlepoint?”
“It’s just writing,” I said. “An old lady wants a poem.”
“No she doesn’t. You made her up.”
“You don’t think there’s old ladies doing needlepoint out there in deep dark New Jersey?”
“Okay, but what’s that got to do with real poetry?”
We went back and forth for a while. I finally said that I didn’t ever want them to write crap, but neither did I think we were there to educate the public about poetry. The challenge was for them to write things that both they and their customers could feel good about.
Again, I suspected that much of their attitude stemmed from fear of what might happen that afternoon (and maybe discomfort about empathizing with an old lady). But I was pleased with how the kids’ writing progressed over those four days. What their poetry-stand exercises lacked in finesse, they made up for in vigor. On a given assignment, I’d say that nine or 10 out of 13 students could now come up with a poem artful and relevant enough to do the poetry stand justice, and several of those poems might contain some small gem, which made the kids inquire again about keeping copies of what they wrote. This brought us back to the notion of giving your best lines to strangers. And it also produced the grudging reminder that there might not be any strangers wanting poems in the first place. “That would totally suck,” observed Ruby.
To deal with the possibility of the poetry stand dying of loneliness, we decided to appoint scouts, who would venture into the surrounding blocks to drum up clients. We also thought of having greeters at the stand to welcome customers and help them think of subjects for their poems.
Ricky, who was weaning himself off gay-sex poems, was worried about his sloppy handwriting: even if he should write poems suitable for use by others, they might not be legible. So we thought of having a designated a scribe, someone with neat handwriting who would rewrite what the sloppier poets scribbled down in their moments of inspiration. This would also yield copies of some poems.
At 10 o’clock our permit from the Chamber of Commerce arrived by e-mail. It was time to get art supplies and make signs for the poetry stand. The papier-mâché crowd took over, while our teaching assistants arrived with two vans and folding tables. Rich Weems, the director, also joined us. We ate lunch, piled into the vans, and headed for Princeton.
Palmer Square is a lively area of shops and restaurants with tasteful façades, sprawled for several blocks between Nassau Street and a town green in the heart of Princeton. The site of our permit was a paved plaza in front of a bank, across the street from the gates of Princeton University. We set up the tables and chairs to the left of a busy news kiosk, between some benches and shrubbery. My plan was to take a seat on a bench with Rich and watch.
The afternoon was hot and sunny. Briana, who wasn’t wearing shoes, headed out to scout clientele. Zebbi, who was arranging the tables in a chevron pointed toward the street, had ditched the Goth makeup and put on an elegant print dress and strappy sandals—she looked like a runway model. Kate taped the signs for the Governor’s School and the Poetry Stand onto the front of the tables. Jeff and Ruby, our greeters, approached some of the people already in the plaza to ask if they would like a free poem. There were some old men with bloodshot eyes who looked as if they had been residing on the benches of Palmer Square since winter. They didn’t want poems.
The foot traffic to and fro was a sight that might have pleased Walt Whitman: people of all ages and races, men in suits with briefcases, teenagers in headbands with basketballs under their arms, women toting shopping bags and children, old ladies out for a stroll. A Hispanic man in a baseball cap waiting for a bus turned to stare periodically at the kids behind the tables.
People slowed tentatively at the sign offering free poetry. A woman wheeling a stroller stopped, took off her sunglasses, and became our first customer, agreeing to have someone write a sonnet for her toddler on the subject of candy. An Asian woman asked if the poets could do haiku, and Jeff, walking her over to the tables, said, “No problem. We do haiku.” A short man with woolly red hair, who later said he was a Princeton doctoral candidate in plasma theory, came up asking for a love poem, though he wouldn’t specify who or what he wanted the love poem for. “Just love,” he said. Someone wanted a wedding poem for Wesley, an engineer, and Lisa, a patent examiner from Hawaii. A poem for an old sick cat, an ode to Albert Einstein.
And so, in the most natural way, people drifted over to the poetry stand to get their free poems. The kids delegated the assignments among themselves based on a batting order we drew up on the ride over, but they made exceptions if a particular request played to one of their strengths. A girl in jeans and a bandana wanted a love poem for Dick Cheney. “Dick Cheney? I got this,” said Zebbi. A woman asked Jeff for a poem about her three sons and their career goals, and he wrote:
. . . And Sean, my youngest, my baby of sorts
You are becoming a grownup now too.
In time, your teaching will become the source
For second grade kids who don’t have a clue.
A man with a thick Russian accent was so thrilled that these young people had written a poem for him, he wrote one back:
POETICAL BROTHERHOOD IN PRINCETON
Hail to Poetical Brotherhood in Princeton,
For golden opinions it has won
From American people poor and rich,
Who live from Seattle to Miami Beach
A young man in horn-rimmed glasses who said he majored in English at Princeton challenged someone to write a villanelle. “On what subject?” asked Kate. He thought it over a bit and said, “Monkeys.” It seemed to me he was trying to stump them—requesting an intricate and difficult form on an inconsequential topic—though I couldn’t tell if it was out of whimsy or smarminess. Either way, the guy was astonished when, a couple of minutes later, Kate handed him a villanelle—which we’d practiced in the studio, but only once—that was as flawless as it was instant:
Monkeys swinging in the trees
small and brown with lots of hair,
staring strangely down at me.
I watch their tails wave with the breeze
while I sweat in the jungle air,
monkeys swinging in the trees.
Evil monkeys from what I see,
grabbing coconuts from their lairs,
staring strangely down at me.
Scarier than killer bees,
malicious apes without a care,
monkeys swinging in the trees.
Throwing stinky poop at me!
I’ve got to run, I don’t know where.
They’re staring strangely down at me.
I run, but before I leave,
I give them a threatening glare
monkeys swinging in the trees
staring strangely down at me.
From our bench Rich and I watched the greeters intercept people and enjoyed hearing reports of how far the scouts had ventured to send back customers. We tried to predict who would approach the poetry stand on their own and who wouldn’t. A stout guy in a Yankees cap veered toward the tables, then stopped. “C’mon, c’mon,” we rooted. He passed by, then looped back again. It was first-rate people-watching, and it made me wonder about the place of poetry in the lives of ordinary Americans. I thought of the public faces of people; and I thought of the pure emotion that wells up from reading poetry. Who “looks” like they’d be into poetry? Nobody—with the possible exception of those walking around barefoot in wings or a bed sheet. Who loves poetry? Given the right context, everyone who loves music.
Rich waved to Jeff, one of our greeters, and told him to solicit the man at the bus stop. The man had been standing there for most of an hour, gazing back intermittently at the poetry stand. The man told Jeff he only spoke Spanish, so Jeff brought Ricky, who found out that the man loved poetry but didn’t want to leave the curb and risk missing his bus. Ricky took his order and returned with a poem in Spanish just as the bus was arriving. The man couldn’t contain his smile.
A woman Briana had met in a supermarket came over for a poem. She was neck-deep in errands, so Briana took her order—a wedding poem—and the woman came by later to pick it up. The kids were pleased that the poetry stand had made it onto her to-do list, right up there with the florist and the dry cleaners.
Every so often one of the students came back to the bench to report on recent customers. They were amazed by the resemblance of the studio hypotheticals to the actual requests they were getting. “How did you know?” Zebbi asked. “I thought you were just being ridiculous.”
By 4:30, when it was time to leave, the stand had become a hive of activity, with customers standing in line, wanting to know when we would be returning. A man, looking out for the kids’ interests, took them aside and advised them to charge for their services.
There’s a Japanese film I love called After Life. In the movie, people who have recently died reside for a week in an institutional building, where they must choose one moment from their lives in which to dwell for eternity. The hard-working staff of the afterlife must then create a short film of each person’s moment, which the newly dead view at the end of the week, before departing. What I love most is how unpolished these films are—the budget is low, the production time is short, and the staff members are not really filmmakers—and yet how effectively they do the job of evoking the joy people associate with their chosen memories. One man’s happiest moment comes while riding in a plane. In his film, the clouds are obviously fabric dangling from fat strings beside the windowless fuselage. But it works—it triggers the memory for the man, who sheds tears of joy as he heads into eternity.
I think those 13 teenagers were doing something similar at the poetry stand that afternoon in Princeton: dutifully listening to their customers, noting specifics, and trying their best to fashion a poem to memorialize a part of a life. I wish you could have seen a middle-aged woman who had recently lost her son asking Haley for something to comfort her widowed daughter-in-law. How hard Haley worked on that poem while the woman stood waiting.
Douglas Goetsch is the author of six collections of poems, the most recent of which is Your Whole Life. He is on the faculty of Oklahoma City University’s low residency MFA program.
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