Why Poetry?

I have two reasons for poetry in honor of National Poetry Month:

Slow Down

Reading poetry forces us to slow down, pay attention, and connect with our world. To read poetry well, we have to listen carefully, submerse ourselves in the words, swim awhile in the emotion, and step into the speaker’s shoes for a minute. Dr. Salma Jayyusi, said, “If we read one another, we won’t kill one another.” Listening is rare in our shouting culture. I read poetry with my students to help them hear and appreciate voices different from their own.

Grow as a Writer

Reading poetry aloud is one of the BEST ways to develop as a writer. Poets rely on precise word choices, strong images, gripping emotion—all crammed into a few lines. Students can read or listen to a poem in a few minutes, even if they don’t read much outside of class. Voracious readers tend to stick to certain genres or authors, which limits exposure to language. Poetry opens up a world of words to the writer.

But Poetry Isn’t For Me…

One of my favorite teaching memories happened the year I taught remedial English to fifth year seniors who were tired, disinterested, and mostly absent due to suspensions or hangovers. We read poetry that spring—almost every day. No dissection, we just let the words wash over us. Students’ attendance improved. Fewer spent time suspended. Students would stop in my room after lunch and sit on the sofas scouring every poetry book I had, reading poems aloud to each other. I don’t know if it was the poetry or just a fluke, but all my poetry books were stolen that year. I’ve never been so pleased.

The next time you are in a library—check out the poetry section (usually in the 800’s). If you have a Bible, take a look at the big book in the middle—Psalms. Read a few aloud this week. Read silly poems with your kids or read Psalms over breakfast, and see if you don’t notice a few new things around you today.

Why We Gotta? Here’s Why:

I’m reposting here from my school blog in case anyone else ever wonders “What is the point of sticking with _(insert difficult thing)_?”

Every year it comes up. I’m waiting for it. Excited to hear it asked.

Mrs. Weems, why we gotta learn words we’ll never use or read hard texts or (or insert whatever you think you won’t use later)?

I get excited, because here’s the answer:

How do you know?

You have no idea what you are capable of accomplishing, and therefore you have no idea what you might need. Why limit yourself? If I had limited myself to what my seventeen-year-old self thought I would need for the future, well, I’d have an impressive collection of Aqua Net hairspray and Michael Jackson albums to go with my jams and jellies (which are not food by the way- super-bonus-points-that-don’t-exist if you can come show me a picture).

You are taking challenging classes. You may not see all the applications. You are tired and working and overwhelmed. You don’t see how this is something you will need. But learning to work through challenges is EXACTLY what you will need.

You’ll also need compassion and the ability to ask questions.

You will need to face words, people, and situations you find foreign.

You’ll need to understand multiple perspectives, especially those different from your own, so you can make empathetic, educated decisions about your family, community, and world.

You will need to continue to learn how to learn, because you will create jobs that do not even exist today, and for those, you’ll have to teach yourself.

Growth is never easy– the moment when things are hard is the moment you are on the threshold of something new.

When you think you cannot learn one more vocabulary word? Don’t give up.

When you are sure you can’t study ten more minutes for your history test? Don’t give up.

When you have split three pencils trying to work that equation for math or physics? Don’t give up.

(Side note: Snapchat streaks? I give you permission to give up on those.)

Otherwise…don’t give up. Astonish yourself and us with your hard work. Do it.

P.S. for my fellow parents: Allow me to give myself a public pep talk and feel free to hum along:  If I have to hear my son or daughter gripe about Spanish or Geometry (or insert the whining flavor of the day) just one more time I feel like my eye sockets might burst. What I want to do is tell them how to do it right. What I want to do is jump in and help. But what I need to do? Take a deep breath. Tell him he has what it takes. Tell her I love seeing her stick with something difficult. Tell them I’m proud when they work hard and don’t give up. In short, I need to let them own their learning. (WARNING: THIS IS NOT MY DEFAULT SETTING.)

Parents, we’re doing great, and our kids are nearing the finish line for this chapter of their lives (*cue tissues please*). Let’s run alongside them as their biggest fans. We’ve got this. Don’t give up.

road-dawn-mountains-sky

January Prompt: Interruptions

This post is part of the Weems Fiction Monthly Prompt series. My goal this year is to send out a prompt and an original short essay or fiction piece to my email list. Subscribe in the box to the right, or just check back each month under the tab “Prompts” to read the prompts only. If you write to the prompt, I hope you will share your writing in the comments below and be encouraged!

How do you feel about interruptions? I read a book a number of years ago about seeing interruptions as opportunities. I tried really hard to put that mindset into practice, but nothing shortens my fuse quicker than interruptions piling up on me. (This is coincidentally why I struggled as a preschool mom— which can best be described as one long season of interruptions, some delightful, others not so much.) Sometimes interruptions are valuable though because they alert us to something new, perhaps something we miss when our heads are down and buried in our own work.

The prompt: The next time you are interrupted, take that complication and use it as the heart of a story. Interruptions can help a character see something with new eyes, leading to change. And change is always at the heart of story.

If you decide to write to the prompt, I hope you’ll share your writing with me in the post comments here. Encourage each other!

One Simple Truth That Will Get You Writing Today

Think you need just a little more preparation to be the writer you want to be?

I’m over at The Write Practice today, with a quick post on how to know you are ready. Don’t skip the the quick practice at the end!

Click here to read One Simple Truth That Will Get You Writing Today

Writer friends, The Write Practice is a terrific place to begin to build and nurture a writing community. I hope you’ll check it out.  A huge thanks to Joe Bunting and his team for this opportunity.

Remember This When You Feel Like You’re Failing

While many people set resolutions and goals this time of year, very few make a plan for the frustration and failure that inevitably follow learning. If you want to truly begin something new this year, remember this: new learning, new skills, and new habits always sit just beyond frustration. So often we give up when things get frustrating, instead of recognizing that we are actually on the right path and closer to our goal.

No one likes to be frustrated. No one likes to fail. So how do we push past frustration and failure to get what we want?

Change our minds.

I’m serious. We have to reframe frustration in our minds. We have to talk differently to ourselves about it if we want to get past it.

As I began sending out my fiction writing for critique and editing a couple years ago, my work came back with questions I didn’t know the answers to. I felt like a failure. What I had polished into my best at that time, was woefully inadequate and it hurt. I stuffed the pages in a drawer, whined and cried, and threw up my hands in disgust at myself.

Fortunately, I’m addicted to writing and words, so I eventually brought my work back into the light and started working through the questions. They were good questions. They forced me to think, revise, and ultimately grow.

Around the same time, I had a couple kids in middle school who were forever stuck on homework at the kitchen table. Pre-Algebra wasn’t fun the first time I took it, so imagine how fun it is when I’m looking at it for the third time. “It’s too hard! I can’t do it!” (Make sure you read that with a nasally whine and draw out the vowels for a few seconds each for full effect).

Was it hard? Yes.

Could she do it? Yes.

Why was it hard then? Because it was new.

image: Creative Commons CC0

I started using a phrase with my own kids, and later with my students to change the way they talk about their frustration. Instead of “This is too hard!” I challenge them to say, “This is new to me.” Just because it is new doesn’t mean we can’t do it. It just means we need a little more time. We can stick with hard things and they will get easier.

Why do we expect to master a new skill the first time we try it? The first twenty times we try it? The first hundred times?

Have we removed all obstacles for ourselves and our kids to avoid the frustration that comes with failure? If so, we have robbed ourselves and them of countless opportunities to learn and become resilient.

Like a muscle that is stretched and becomes sore, our lives and learning require a bit of discomfort to acquire new learning, skills, and habits. When you get frustrated this month and feel like giving up, ditch the negative thoughts and remember this: It’s hard because it’s new, but it’s worth pushing though the frustration to the learning on the other side.

On a Father Going Home

Losing my grandfather and father-in-law in the same year feels like a kind of carelessness…as if I had any control, as if there would ever be enough time. Grief is always a shock, a denial, an anger that makes way for a softening if I let it. As we remember my husband’s father today, it is a comfort to know they are doing what they have always done: leading the way.

On A Father Going Home

The wind swept across the cemetery
Drying tears as fast as they fell
My preacher husband shouted grace over the wind
I don’t know which one spoke louder

I wanted to say, “That hole’s far too small
to hold his heart and his life.
Let me dig it a little bigger please.
Let us hold him a bit longer until I make it fit.
A shovel, please, a shovel.”

My man-child steered me back to the car
Kicking up dust, defying death
one step at a time, even if unwilling
I glance back at the emptiness
“It was just a shell,” the wind whispered,
“Don’t wish him from glory back to ashes.”

A patriarch goes before us
Forging ahead like he always has
Reminding us with our memories of him
We gain a life by giving it up
We will not grieve as those with no hope
Knowing he pointed the way with his life
And our dad, he is already home.

suelarkinsweems, Dec 2016

creative commons

Contributing a Verse

While we had a great summer break, I am ready for this summer to fade. It has been loud and hard and overwhelming– the world seems bent on turning itself inside out.
A friend recently wrote a piece about returning to nature to find solace when the world seems to be spinning out of control. Her meditation on the ocean reminded me of the question Whitman asked and answered in a section of Leaves of Grass, and his words encouraged me:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
~Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1892
gorge-801839_1280Hard to believe he was describing his own world in the 1800’s and not modern day America. My friends, we are still here and the powerful play goes on. Let’s contribute a verse that makes a difference for years to come– that we will be remembered for our compassion and fierce grace.