…the totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something besides the parts.”
—from Metaphysics by Aristotle
Collaborative Poetry, Day One
Every Day One of a new school year, I sense terror shooting through my classroom like a pinball from a flipper, lighting up and dinging pop bumpers as each student, especially in my Expressive Writing class, thinks of a new worry.
Maybe I should’ve just taken organic chemistry? I’m not really friends with any of these people.
What if they judge me? I’m not that creative.
What is she going to make us do? Is it alright if I don’t share my work aloud?
Creating an atmosphere where students hold space for one another can prove daunting when a class roster includes individuals, all bringing unique vibes to the classroom—many of whom have doubts about their talents. I’ve discovered that writing collaboratively builds trust and respect among students and creates a team mentality as well as a product that everyone can own when it’s complete. I aspire to be the Pinball Wizard, master of the flippers, to rack up a high score that we earn together.
There are quite a few creative approaches to collective poetry writing that work in person or in virtual classrooms. I usually begin by giving students three choices and allowing them to vote on their favorite project or, for maximum high-game points, propose an entirely different one. This allows them to take charge immediately. I let them know that I will work both as contributor and editor. I align myself with them, which validates the importance of the project. (Confession: As an active member of the team, I also have more fun.) My students unite quickly with a focused goal and the anticipation of something exciting on the horizon. Their terror dissipates a little and we all relax into the game.
Taking a Cue From the Club
I didn’t discover the potential of this teaching method in my classroom, but rather in a group I moderate called Aevidum, which is a nationwide club to raise awareness for teen depression, anxiety, and suicide prevention. The club advocates using creativity as a vehicle to help teens discuss these topics and share vital information with their communities through art.
At club meetings, I often use a poem, painting, or music video to start discussions. One day before National Suicide Prevention Week, I shared Anis Mojgani’s “You’ll see me tomorrow because…” The students were shocked by this stunning poem and intrigued with the specificity of his sprawling list.
On the fly, I gave them note cards and asked them to write three reasons that would prevent them from ending their lives in the style of Mojgani’s poem. Then, I asked the dreaded question that often results in extended awkward silence… Would anyone like to share?
Remarkably, hands shot up, and while I’d told them they only had to share one, they exceeded my wishes and shared three, or five, or more. We ran out of time in the club period and they seemed sad, so I collected their cards as they exited with the promise of reading more next time.
That night, I laid out the nameless cards on my living room floor and started to read them aloud. With a grateful heart and even more committed discipleship to Mojgani, I realized they had created something fresh and potent – something real. I started typing and this piece was the result.
You’ll See Me Tomorrow
You’ll see me tomorrow because I believe that I have only just started living life. Because I don’t have smile lines on my face, and because I want to. You’ll see me tomorrow because of friends who are stronger than me, because if they can do it, then why the hell can’t I? Because of warm showers and cold showers and sun showers, because dancing while the rain pours down my back and drips over my face and soaks into my skin while the neighbors watch and laugh because I am alive and glowing and thriving. Because when I come down two minutes before I need to leave for school, planning to skip breakfast for the third day in a row, my parents have one ready to go, still warm with the love they put into it, because they noticed I haven’t been eating as much. Because of long talks in the car with my sister because she trusts me enough to break down when her friends are abandoning her. You’ll see me tomorrow because of smooth chocolate and fresh baked sugar cookies still warm from the oven and raspberry ice cream melting in my hands on a hot summer day, because of those days in spring where it’s neither hot nor cold but just right with the sun shining and a slight breeze and the smell of blooming roses and new beginnings in the air. Because of new school supplies and blank pages and pens that glide across them. Because pencils have made me unafraid to make mistakes. Because I still enjoy climbing oak trees and biking at sunset when the world is pink and purple and periwinkle with cool shadows running over me as I fly down the tallest hill. Because of my best friend, because she’s stuck with me and I don’t deserve her, because she knows the “me” now and will know the “me” in ten years. Because of new friends and finding that one person that I can just talk to for ages because they care about what I have to say. Because a smile can make someone’s day, because secrets can thrill me and books can change me. You’ll see me tomorrow because learning is growing, because when I’ve lost myself, there are people there to help me find it all again. You’ll see me tomorrow, because I am strong today.
I made copies for the next meeting, and asked everyone to highlight the lines they had contributed so we could all read it together with single voices for their own lines. For solidarity, someone asked if they could read the first and last lines in unison as a promise, so that’s what we did.
From Cue to Move
After the “happy accident” at Aevidum, I moved the process to my classes and began incorporating research. It was sneaky, but well-intentioned. A brainstorm to find two unlikely people that might speak well to each other or might argue brought myriad combinations. Of course, incorporating quotes and ideologies meant locating them, reading them, and using logic to link ideas. The wilder the combination, the happier my students. Mash-ups of play characters, authors, painters, historical figures, pop culture icons, and musicians began to emerge: Chance the Rapper writes a play with Sophocles; Andy Warhol goes on a picnic with Marilyn Monroe; Christina Rossetti describes Misty Copeland dancing.
For this style, writing names and quotes on note cards and then laying them out on individual desks works well. Students read and discuss without being stuck in their seats or glancing at a clock. The work demands cooperation, and I have learned to impose time limits or it could go on for days. Some of the most successful collaborations in my classes happen when four students work together to research and draft, and then all groups present orally at the next class. They’re free to add music or stage the piece however they’d like, which is my favorite part. They all support and cheer for each other, really listening and providing feedback afterwards. What follows is an unlikely, but intriguing, pairing of voices.
Twenty Truths to Outlast the Sun
—Emily Dickinson and Ms. Lauryn Hill converse
E. I am out with lanterns looking for myself.
L. I made up my mind to define my own destiny.
E. Not knowing when the dawn will come I open every door.
L. Tomorrow, our seeds will grow. All we need is dedication.
E. Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.
L. After winter must come spring. Change, it comes eventually.
E. The poet lights the light and fades away.
L. Oh, you inspire me to be the higher me.
E. We never know how high we are till we are called to rise.
L. You are my peace of mind. That old me is left behind.
E. I am nobody! Who are you? Are you a nobody too?
L. Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem.
E. Pardon my sanity in a world insane.
L. You know I only say it because I’m truly genuine.
E. Friends are nations in themselves.
L. And I thank you for choosing me.
E. Our brains are wider than the sky.
L. What a joy it is to be alive.
E. I felt it shelter to speak to you.
L. Wisdom is better than silver and gold.
Take 2: Going Online
This year, when COVID-19 forced us to connect in a virtual classroom, the project morphed to something different out of necessity. My department usually hosts a contest for seniors to write a class poem that the winning student reads at graduation as the official poet laureate. This year, the seniors were suffering, and many were shutting down due to feeling disconnected and uncertain of the future. They didn’t have the motivation to write alone.
A Zoom Writing Lab proved a great way to create their Class of 2020 poem together using a generative prompt. They began to rejuvenate as the Zoom format gave them ample time to make a list together of all the things that were not lost during the quarantine. Ideas inspired ideas and their lists grew. Everyone added their suggestions and then the editing began. Fusing the formal, elevated language some students chose with the specific day-to-day memories and events was challenging, but the result gave them a collective piece to share and remember. The school printed a color version on a photo of our building as a gift for each student. Here’s an excerpt:
We Still Have 2020
The place breathes nostalgia.
Shoes clap on tiled floors,
The halls that echo ring of life,
Calamitous voices rise, fall, complain of summer heat.
The place breathes nostalgia and lives in us.
We still have peering eyes of underclassmen watching their favorite seniors venture into new beginnings we all hoped for…The Morning Show Crew proclaiming “Have a great day, Crusaders!”…Powder Puff games and long food truck lines to prepare for homecoming …gratitude journals with Mrs. Martin…dancing gleefully to “Island in the Sun” at the Aevidum Food Truck Festival…joyfully singing our Alma Mater after every football game…bright Friday night lights reflecting back on the football team’s golden jerseys…Alex darting downfield clutching a football to his ribs, making for the end zone…the adrenaline rush while performing on stage…Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy by the fire, teaching us what love means…government jumping jacks with Mr. Martin…the Dramaturgy Lifeboat Game where we fought for our characters’ survival…Rachel Joy Scott reminding us to live with passion; look around us with tenderness…
The new generation arrived
Unaware of what was next
The perennial hardships of mind and will
And the unrelenting companionship of a unified body
The new generation arrived with souls of solidarity.
Channeling creativity in the presence of like minds yields amazing results. It also reminds us that, as artists, we cannot always survive or flourish in isolation.
Synergy reigns supreme.
Photo by sagesolar, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Dana Kinsey.
Winter Stars: Three 10-Minute Plays includes one tragedy, one noir fantasy, and one comedy: Winter Stars; To the Shadows We Return, and Auras in Suburbia.
” I’d love to see these on stage, especially for youth theater, and I look forward to more from this author.”
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This is a wonderfully affirming essay on the value of poetry and writing it collaboratively. We at Tweetspeak have discovered how much fun it can be, and how surprising the results.
I’ve participated in a number of online collaborative poetry exercises, most notably Tupelo Press’s ‘The Million-Line Poem’, which is written in couplets. People throughout the U.S. participated. I may fashion my own poem from my contributions. My lines frequently turned the direction the poem was going in or added current news. The entire poem is a wonder.
Dana Kinsey says
Thanks so much, Maureen! I’ll definitely look closer at The Million-Line Poem. Now more than ever, collaboration holds valuable lessons. Keeping poems current is also a goal I’ll be pursuing this school year.
Megan Willome says
I love the idea of combining words by long-dead poets with words by current musicians. In the “Twenty Truths to Outlast the Sun” poem you shared, both Emily Dickinson and Lauryn Hill enhanced each other when paired side by side.
Dana Kinsey says
Thanks, Megan! Yes, it’s really fun to call on the students’ passions and tastes when it comes to current music. It gives them a new kind of ownership for sure. It also widens my musical horizons when they introduce me to new artists, especially my international students.
P.S. I’ll also be using and promoting The Joy of Poetry with my students this year! What an awesome read.
Sandra Heska King says
“I sense terror shooting through my classroom like a pinball from a flipper, lighting up and dinging pop bumpers”
This line made me smile. But then things got serious. Those lines by the Aevidum students are beautiful. And I love the Class of 2020 poem and how it started with lists. What a positive way to collaborate–truly a gift.
Dana Kinsey says
Thanks, Sandra! I’m so glad you like the article. Aevidum started near my school in Lancaster County, PA after the suicide of a young man devastated his twin sister, and it has grown into an international club. I will be sharing your praise with my students. They truly inspire me:)
Will Willingham says
That pinball game had me too! Spent many an hour with those flippers and lights. (Okay, and some quarters, yes.)
Really struck by the way you deftly used poetry to help your students drop their guard, and that you took something that had been so unnerving to them in the beginning and let it be the thing that opened them up to that vulnerability. And that they wanted to pick it up again another day….
Really just beautiful.
Dana Kinsey says
Thank you so much! I love having the ability to improvise in my classroom and club to do what’s best for my students. My lesson plans may dictate the final number of “points” I’m striving to reach, but the balls launch differently every time, and so it’s most fun to just trust and follow.
Will Willingham says
But now and again, you get enough points, as you did with your students on returning the next day, to see that FREE GAME light up. 🙂
Dana Kinsey says
Yessss! Exactly! And those are the best kind of days!