#sol17 Sestina

“The secret of good writing is to say an old thing in a new way or to say a new thing in an old way.” ~ Richard Harding Davis

Last week I assigned a form poem to my students: they could write a poem on any topic of their choice, but it had to be in the traditional structures of a sonnet, sestina, villanelle, haiku (5+), limerick (3+) or arun (an awesome new form I learned thanks to GirlGriot!).

The kids were a bit intimidated, looking at these forms, and understandably so: it’s not easy working within such structures. I could show them my own sonnets, haikus, and limericks, but when they asked about the complex sestina and the villanelle, I had nothing. “I tried to write a sestina in college once,” I unhelpfully volunteered.

So I decided to return to that unfinished sestina and give it the old teacher try. Here goes.

Sestina, Winter

I wake in the morning to the sound of my alarm. A light
dusting of snow has covered my car during the night.
I long to return to bed, to drift in sleep
and restfully dream. But my bed must remain empty.
I shower, eat, dress. I rush for the bus, never on time
but always just barely making it. Outside is cold:

it’s winter – a fact I don’t wish to acknowledge, but the cold
broaches no argument, freezing my lungs, my breath. The light
is less now; more moon, more darkness, more time
in the dark, alone. I have always preferred the day to the night –
day seems more full, bringing energy and life. Nighttime is empty,
long hours spent in bed, loud silent thoughts preventing sleep.

The bus bumps over frost heaves, preventing me from trying to sleep
before class. My mind is sluggish this early, the cold
working it like the joints of my fingers, unable to quickly search empty
pockets. No gloves. Instead, I hope for warmth from the light
of the sun, but in winter this is a foolish wish. Last night
I left my gloves on my table. I remember now – I didn’t grab them in time.

That’s something I never seem to have enough of these days – time.
I wake, I go to class, I eat alone, I read, I sleep
and the world carries me words. So many words that at night
I turn them over, spin them through my brain, muse in cold
silence, until I stumble back into the light
and the words escape me, leave me empty.

These are my days – full of activities but empty
of meaning – a black hole sucking away my life and time
and replacing it with shortened hours of day light
and a desire to forever retreat into my bed and sleep.
I’m searching for something, but what? I have discovered nothing but cold
shoulders and words that linger at the edges of the night.

And when it returns on day’s heels, that night
is filled with silent words, an empty
room and curtained windows that let in a cold
draft – my only visitors. No one else seems to have the time.
How I wish it were easy to fall into bed and sleep
and in dreams linger blissfully until I wake at light.

Because I wouldn’t mind the cold all of the time –
if I had someone else there at night. To sleep
in a warm, not-empty bed; to see reflected in someone’s eyes the morning light.

slice of life


#sol17 Place Poem

In 2009 I traveled to Israel on a free trip called “Birthright Israel” for young Jewish Americans. A few years later, I turned my experience into a narrative nonfiction essay about travel, identity, and what it means to have a homeland, which was published in this travel anthology

Today, I turned that essay into a poem. My homework prompt for my Creative Writing students is to write a place poem – a poem about the narrative or emotional or sensory experience of a place. Right now, most of them are simply free-writing their poems. With this poem, I modeled for them how to use free-writing and prose writing to brainstorm ideas, phrases, and imagery that they can then shape and manipulate into a poem. 

The Kotel*

As if in a dream
between sun and stone
I move forward to the Wall
suffocating upon prayers
clutching my own inadequate offering
to nest between crevices in the rock
more solid and solemn than history
a motionless wave of hope and mourning
in the fervent buzz of a language I have forgotten

Then begin to shuffle backward
in reverent silent supplication
a pattern unfamiliar that moves my bones
and suddenly I remember why I am here
halfway around the world, crying tears
that fall upon the sand beneath my feet– no
beneath the feet of my ancestors
in this homeland that has never been my home
my heart begins to beat in tune with the stone

* The Kotel is the Hebrew name for the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, arguably the single most important Jewish site in all of Israel. Once part of the main synagogue in Jerusalem, it was all but destroyed by the Romans and shortly thereafter the Jews were expelled from the city. Thousands of years later, it is the holiest place for Jews from all over the world to visit, to pray, to mourn, and to leave small slips of prayer between its stones.

slice of life

#sol17 First


First beckons
with the suggestion of shore,
a wave of potential.
A long road ahead. A beginning. An entrance.
First is springtime, bloom and bud and blossom.
First is blessing from fresh unbreath.
First is full, not hollow, not scraped and worn raw,
not down the the quick.
First is first, it is not last.

First does not last. First is promises
between barbed wire,
crossed lines and boundaries,
slippery like electric eels
through your lips,
off your tongue without
the buzz of foresight.

First is a mistook step off an unseen cliff,
blood and burn, thinking
that the thing you wanted was wanted,
that the thing you got was deserved,
that there was a reason for the new moon
turning its face away from you tonight.
You cannot undo first.

slice of life

#sol17 Poetry Day!

Today I started my poetry unit with my Creative Writing class! It’s always one of my favorite days, because although I write nonfiction, poetry is my first love.

I also love this day because I get to spend most of a period breaking down students’ conceptions of what poetry is and isn’t.

“The Road Not Taken”? Yes, universally agreed. (Although we do talk about what the poem actually means, not what everyone thinks it means.)

Then I move into the land of free verse, acrostic poetry, and some really out-there experimental poems, like this one:


Or “Night Practice” by May Swenson, “The Murder of Two Men by a Kid Wearing Yellow-colored Gloves” by Kenneth Patchen, any of Mary Ellen Solt‘s concrete poetry, Alan Riddell’s “The Affair“:

My students, who have been carefully led to believe that all poetry looks and sounds the same and has Important Meaning, have never seen poems like these.

Poetry is as much about form and play and creativity and emotion as it is meaning; I tell them. As a poet myself, I’m rather horrified to think that a reader must only respond to my work with detached intellectual curiosity. (So was this poet.) That isn’t the point of art. And that shouldn’t be the point of our teaching of it, from the readers’ or the writers’ perspective.

Unfortunately, due to state testing, we don’t have class tomorrow, World Poetry Day.  But as they left class today, I reminded them as they went home and wrote their first poems tomorrow, they should remember: poetry isn’t something to fear or stress about or feel like you’re going to “get wrong.” It lives in us. It’s our heartbeat. It just takes a little coaxing to get it to emerge.

#sol17 Creation

From nothing comes something
Or rather, from many somethings
Comes one something:

Carrots + celery + water + chicken + rice = soup
Wood + screws + paint = a table
Bananas + egg + flour + sugar = bread

Mother + father + love + time = a child

Transformed like magic, like chemistry,
Like the world’s most complicated algebra problem
This creation that is infinitely more
Than the sum of its parts

slice of life

#sol17 Villages

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
― Dorothy Day

My days are basically the same: Wake up. Commute to work. Teach. Go home. Family time. Sleep. Rinse, repeat.

venn7This is why on the days when I have the chance to engage with communities which break this monotony, or provide me with a sense of refuge within it, I feel so grateful. Like some super-complicated Venn diagram of my life, these various groups allow me to more fully be my best series of selves.

My teaching community

So much of teaching is in isolation. A teacher is surrounded by students all day long – and don’t get me wrong, when my classes are really great, those groups of students become true communities – but aside from specific structures such as staff meetings or shared lunch periods, we do not necessarily spend our time with other adults. Grading is often solitary. Planning is often solitary.

Luckily, we can find ways to carve our time into something meaningful. My school has built-in common planning periods for teachers who are on the same grade-level team. Lucky for me, this includes Tanya. We have taught together for a decade now, and in that time she has become a mentor, constant collaborator, and “big sister.” I rely on the days that we can enjoy a leisurely lunch, share student work, co-plan lessons, collaborate on curriculum, discuss pedagogy and TV and politics. Tanya and the rest of my circle of work friends, people who are like-minded in how they approach teaching and social justice and teens, support and sustain the professional me.

My writing community

This year I’m running a professional development workshop called Teachers as Writers. It’s basically a writing group for and of teachers – some from my school, others from across the district – who come together once a month and workshop each others’ writing. When we enter my classroom for 75 minutes on afternoons such as today, we don’t do it in service of improving pedagogy or assessment of student writing- we do it for ourselves, to hone our own work, to honor our own craft. It is freeing, and it has already made me a better teacher of writing for my students as well.

This community – some of whom I knew well before this began, others I have met for the first time in this course – has become a way for me to nourish that part of myself that craves feedback for my work, that acknowledges the poet and writer within. I leave each session buoyed by my hope for and belief in my own voice.

My parenting community

When K was born, I was a little adrift. In those first couple of months of his life, we moved apartments, my husband changed jobs, and my sister and close friend each got married. I had a lot on my plate. When J went back to work in the fall, I needed something to fill the remaining six weeks of my maternity leave, so I joined Stroller Strides, checked out a free drop-in music class at a local community center, and finally attended a local toy store’s new parents’ coffee hour. This last group eventually led me to my Mom Community  (MoC). Although there are many online op-eds denigrating these spaces as judgmental, catty, basic, I have found an enormous amount of strength and love from MoC.

Although we often get together IRL (in real life), it’s hard to find babysitters, juggle schedules, and deal with myriad illnesses, family visits, etc. So we rely a lot on our Facebook group to share links, get advice, vent about kids/partners/family, find many shoulders to cry on. Our children span an 18-month period in their ages, so some of us can offer advice about where we’ve been; others get to look ahead to see what’s ahead in our journeys. Across our homes, across our families, MoC is a web of support connected by milk and motherhood, here to make sure that no mom is left behind.

It takes many villages

When I was younger, I would watch shows like Friends and silently bemoan the fact that I didn’t have a single close-knit group of friends to share my every waking moment. Although I know that some people’s lives do resemble sitcom television, mine has not been one of them.

Instead, I have many intersecting and individual communities: friends from college; friends from grad school; work friends; mom friends; family members who are also true friends; professional groups with whom I engage in pedagogical and ideological discourse; my large and wild extended family; my own family unit of J, K, and me.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” the saying goes. Maybe sometimes, it takes multiple villages. Like an intricate net of solidarity, each of these communities strengthens the various facets of my life, each a small village in the countryside of Me.

slice of life