(This month is National Poetry Month, but we think poetry is important EVERY DAY, which is why we’re so pleased to have as our guest blogger this week someone whose job it is to introduce poetry to kids in a fun and engaging way. Thank you to Mairead Case from the Youth Services division of The Poetry Foundation library for this wonderful guest post!)
Here at the Poetry Foundation I develop and lead all workshops for young patrons who come through on field trips. We do have a script—workshops last ninety minutes, and each one includes reading, writing, and performance—but every visit is different. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, so folks here speak different languages, they come from different schools, and they think different kinds of poems are funny and brave and beautiful and weird.
We want all young visitors to feel welcome at the Poetry Foundation, and not just fancy Sunday welcome—sit down at the table welcome. One way I know a field trip was successful is if young patrons took books off the shelves and sat awhile. A field trip is successful when someone chooses to read a new poem. Our library has over 30,000 volumes in multiple languages plus magazines, chapbooks, and audio, so there are plenty of choices. Many of these are available online as well—you can even search our poetry archive by theme (“birthday,” say, or “purple”), and find any issue of Poetry magazine in full for free.
Whenever people ask, “How do I help my young friend feel excited about poetry?” I say, “Ask her.” I mean sure, poetry isn’t for everyone. That said, nobody—not even the most curious, open-hearted reader—likes everything. If a patron says she hates poetry, I ask what poems she’s read, what felt wrong or confusing. Sometimes poetry just never felt relevant to her life, or maybe she didn’t hear it in a way that fit in her pocket. Often giving a young reader permission to say what she doesn’t like helps her find what she does.
Five more tools:
- Silent reading is just one way to hear a poem—don’t forget reading aloud, or writing back. During Summer Poetry Camps, I’ll start the day pulling a book from our shelves—current favorites are Bernadette Mayer, ca conrad, and Eric Baus—then telling each student to pick a poem, any poem, and read it aloud to the group. (The person reading gets to hold a talisman in her free hand; usually it’s a hunk of rose quartz.) I feel strongly that writing back is an important part of hearing a poem, especially for young poets. So next, we’ll each write a response poem—either a letter to the poet, or else a totally new poem, incorporating structure, tone, or objects we heard in the book.
- When a new poet reads new work, say something heftier than just “I like it!” Tell her what you noticed—start a conversation, for example “I heard a lot of shhhh- noises in your poem Mairead, and saw blue and gray, and there were rain and ducks. It felt wintery and a little melancholy, to me. Can you talk more about that?” Do the very best you can to see the poet, to listen to what she’s saying, and to consider why and to whom.
- Keep your ear to the ground. On field trips we work to rep Chicago writers, because there are so many amazing ones here—the favorite right now is Kush Thompson; her first book just came out from New School Poetics—but also because it’s important for young poets to read people who came up the same way.
- Mix it up! Poems are art with specific sound and shape, sometimes differently on the page and in the air. A favorite exercise at Summer Poetry Camp is mixtaping, where each poet performs three poems she read, enjoyed, and connected on her own. Pair poems with paintings, pages in Andrei Molotiu’s Abstract Comics, or streets in your city. Listen to music and transcribe it using colored pencils—right now we like Stereolab, Battles, and Konono No 1—then write a poem to match.
- Know you’re not alone. There are plenty of resources, if you’re lucky enough to read poetry with youth. Open the Door is an anthology edited by Dominic Luxford, Jesse Nathan, and Dorothea Lasky, available in hard copy from McSweeney’s and as a free PDF on our website. Derrick Brown and Tim Stafford’s Learn Then Burn is fantastic too.
We’d love to see you at the library soon—online or, if you’re local, during open hours, at a field trip or Poetry Camp, or at Poemtime, our weekly storytime for children ages 2-5. Everything is free and open to the public.
And of course you’re invited to Children’s Poetry Day on April 26th. This year’s theme is Poetry and Adventure, featuring songs by Adventure Sandwich, films programmed by The Nightingale, a scavenger hunt, art-making with the Art Institute of Chicago, tasty healthy snacks from Whole Foods, and surprises. Come through, read with us!