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  • July 22nd, 2011 | 5:53 PM
Session #8 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Class

Today was the eighth of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.

It was a good day. I expected it would be. It happens in all the residencies I teach in detention facilities - a really bad day gets a few kids in trouble and then the next time I come in they do pretty well. I have four sessions left and the last three, I just found out, will be with a substitute in the class. That makes things really tough. Substitutes usually bring out the worst in them.

One girl got out yesterday so we had a new girl today. Pretty low key though she participated right off the bat. That doesn't usually happen. It's so hard to look at these kids and not know their stories, what brought them to such a place.

The word for the day was TRUST. Here's their group poem:

Feels like an unbreakable bond, like someone catching you when you fall
Trust looks like two lovers holding hands and it sounds like best friends gossiping on the phone.
It smells like incense in church
Trust tastes like leftovers your mom made and tears.

They wrote individual poems about trust and a few of them shared their writing.

We did another group poem, a sort of mad lib.

This is the poem
that goes in the place where you have to stay on your toes
that flows
because it runs through our veins
because we said so
and when thugs cry at night
happy, alone, solid,
this is the poem
that runs from the ground up to our soul

Another warm-up we did was envelope poems. I have a stack of envelopes, some have cards in them, some have paper folded up. Some just have a postcard. The envelopes are sealed and they are all different. Different colors, shapes, sizes. Some have stamps. Some don't. Some look like they've been folded in someone's pocket for a long time and some have words written on the outside. The idea was for them to have written a poem that is inside the envelope. Some of them did pretty well with this. Those that didn't, well, I think I need to do a better set-up to invite them to write.

I handed out copies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's How Do I Love Thee? I tried to get a discussion going about what they thought meant but that fell flat. I ended up just reading them the analysis. Then we brainstormed various ways you could let someone know you loved them without actually saying the words, "I love you." They were slow to get started but eventually filled the board. From there I had them write their love poems that never used the words love.

Again, only a few girls shared.

I handed out a copy of the poem You Learn (which I have attributed to Jorge Luis Borges) and this poem they felt more able and willing to discuss. They liked it a lot, especially the last line, "with every goodbye you learn."

Then they wrote their own versions of what they had learned and they wrote some marvelous poems.Really good stuff.

I read them the last pages of Hugging the Rock which then lead to a discussion about how come writers don't make very much money.

As I gathered up the folders one I asked one girl if she was doing okay because she didn't share anything today and she usually does. She said, "I'm okay. But I don't know what wrong me lately. All of the sudden my poems getting personal and stuck under my skin."

I told her good. That means you're a writer now.
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.


( 12 comments — Leave comment )
July 23rd, 2011 01:00 am (UTC)
So Impressed!
My bat is off to you because I know how difficult this job must be at the same time, so rewarding! Prayers for you and the girls.
July 23rd, 2011 03:30 am (UTC)
Re: So Impressed!
Thank you!
July 23rd, 2011 01:03 am (UTC)
"She said, "I'm okay. But I don't know what wrong me lately. All of the sudden my poems getting personal and stuck under my skin."

That's success, in a nutshell.
July 23rd, 2011 03:30 am (UTC)
I know. It was SO cool!
July 23rd, 2011 01:41 am (UTC)
Sounds like you had a much better day today good.
Trust though, would have been a very hard word for them I expect. I imagine that most if not all have trust issues.

I must be "A Writer" too even though sometimes it is too hard to imagine but I can totally relate to that last girl you spoke to. I have felt that feeling when things just get under your skin. You have so much in your head. You want to write it all down but you can't because like she said some things become too personal.

Funny thing is though if we could bring ourselves to write these things, they are the stories that most people could relate to. It is my opinion that a true life story is one of the best that you can read. No frills, no fantasies just honesty.

They are also the hardest to write though I think because you would know that anyone reading it would know it was about you. You can't write it because you would wonder if those that you know would ever look at you the same way again. Or look at you with some sense of pity over what you have been through.

So what do we do but keep all the best stories locked away as I do organised in my little boxes. Of which I wrote this poem


There are three kinds of boxes

I use to organise my mind

The first is a big black steel box

to put all bad memories I find

The box has no key it only has a slot

In here I place thoughts

That need to be forgot

I need them no longer

They only cause me pain

By dwelling on them

I have nothing to gain

I push the box to the back of my mind

to remain there forevermore

I can add to but never release

For these things have gone before

The second is my silver box

For the qualities I hold dear

Courage, wisdom happiness and love

with them close, I need not fear

I collect these, so hard to find

From people I most admire

I add to the box to help me through life

To grow as I desire

I place this box on my shoulder

To keep those things inside

For I no longer feel frightened

Nor need to run and hide

With this box close by

I can face anything life has in store

The box can be opened freely

to be used and used some more

The third is my golden box

It opens with a big gold key

To place memories of people

that will always mean so much to me

Those that have passed on

People I have met along the way

These are close to my heart

In the hope they won't fade away

I feel by having the boxes with me

I can see things more clearly

To open my eyes to remind me

what it is I hold dearly

I hope to always keep these boxes

They are always close by

To hold those special memories

Until the day I die

- Anne McKenna

There it is out there for all to see or at least anyone that chooses to read it anyway. You know how hard it is to share things. Sad when this should be one of the most natural things to do.

- Anne McKenna

July 23rd, 2011 03:30 am (UTC)
Thank you, Anne. Your revision really polished it up nicely.
August 20th, 2011 12:15 am (UTC)
This poem is beautiful! Thank you for sharing it!
July 23rd, 2011 04:23 pm (UTC)
this is the poem
that runs from the ground up to our soul

I LOVE this.

They're really coming alive, aren't they? Digging deep and writing amazing poetry. Brava to you all!
July 23rd, 2011 06:41 pm (UTC)
Awesome connection with that one girl at the end. And I'm glad the new girl was participating right away.
July 31st, 2011 09:06 am (UTC)
Hi,nice to meet you I circled you in google + because I am also a writer. I have worked with incarcerated youth, at-risk-teens and incarcerated women.
Your blog is great. One technique I have used is asking students if they would be willing to let me read their work anonymously and some students would read their own work later as they felt safer and safer they began to read their work.It is amazing. You have a big heart to do the work you do. Stay in touch,
Rose Offner
August 11th, 2011 03:27 pm (UTC)
They liked it a lot, especially the last line, "with every goodbye you learn."

How very true.
August 20th, 2011 12:15 am (UTC)
I really admire you working with these girls. You have a good heart. I like poetry, but have never been able to write good poetry. I'm not familiar with the different forms and the rules, but it would be fun to learn.

I loved your book Hugging the Rock! I hope they liked it too.
( 12 comments — Leave comment )

Who am I?I was born on the Cancer/Leo cusp and share a birthday with Ernest Hemingway and Robin Williams. The similarities don't stop there as I can go from depressed to ecstatic without ever passing go. I feel scared most of the time though my friends call me brave and I find it easier to believe in my friends than to believe in my own abilities to make what I want out of my life.

Who am I? A wife, a mother, a daughter, and even, gulp, a grandmother.

Who am I? A writer who never gets tired of playing with words, even when the words are hard to find. A writer of books for children and articles for grown-ups and many things in-between.

Who am I? A motivational speaker, writing instructor, workshop leader and full-time follower of dreams.

Who am I? Read and find out.

Susan Taylor Brown

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