When I talk about poetry with my students it often elicits a groan. We can usually get past the horror when we start reading contemporary poetry together and they realize, “Hey! I can make sense of this!” because most of their experience with poems in the past is “old and boring” (in their words).
But writing poetry? That’s pretty terrifying for many of my students. They either tell me outright that they can’t write poems or they sit in front of a blank document paralyzed by perfectionism. How can they write a poem like the ones we’ve been reading? Who will want to read their words? It’s just too hard to write poems!
For that reason, I like to start with found poems. Found poetry takes existing lines and reworks them for a new poem. Students can make found poems from newspaper articles, other poems, novels, and any other text.
My favorite found poem to share with students right now is “Dear Amy Nehzooukammyatootill” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. The poem takes lines from individual emails Nezhukumatathil received from high school students about her work and combines them into a new piece. In an interview with superstition (review), a literary magazine, she says,
“After receiving dozens of these emails, I noticed some repeated sentiments, almost chant-like, so to me, when reading all of these student emails together, I was very much drawn to the sounds first, content later. Of course I found the humor of dozens of high school students telling me quite openly and honestly what they thought of my first book and I was truly charmed and amazed at the lack of filter in their responses. The poem itself is just a tiny fragment of various responses that I received in a 24 hr period, but I think Annie Dillard talked about found poems best when she said, “…Turning a text into a poem doubles that poem’s context. The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles.”
Reading the poem and the interview immediately made me think of the feedback students receive all day long in school. What would it look like if students followed Nezhukumatathil’s example and created a found poem from the feedback they receive?
For this activity, I ask students to read “Dear Amy Nehzooukammyatootill” as we listen to the recording on the Poetry Foundation website. After we read it together we talk about what a found poem is. Students pull out their favorite lines from Nezhukumatathil’s poem and we discuss what the students might have meant when they included a particular line in the email versus what Nezhukumatathil means when she includes it in her poem.
Finally, I challenge students to create a quick found poem from the written feedback they have received from teachers. We use Google Classroom for grading, so students can go back through their last few pieces and copy individual lines of feedback in different classes. If they have hard copies of recent tests/assignments they can also pull lines from those.
As a closing activity, ask students to share their poem with a neighbor (if they are comfortable).
Sarah Gross is one of the co-organizers of NerdCampNJ. She teaches in central New Jersey and loves spending time outdoors. Follow her on Twitter @thereadingzone