Article for Teachers

Primary Sources

Getting your students to stop writing about what they know.

One of my students—I’ll call her Suzelle—was older. A matronly continuing ed student, she looked ready for a suburban PTA meeting. The other students looked like college freshmen—because they were. They wrote about a variety of subjects, many of which I recognized from other undergraduate poetry workshops: pets and grandparents, both dead. Also, something they liked to call “loss of innocence.”

But Suzelle had one thing on her mind—S-E-X—and wrote about it every week. She’d pass out a new one and read the slurping and foreskin and labial petals out loud, interrupting herself to look up with flashing eyes and confess, “I love sex.” 

The other students were having a hard time with this. The poems came at us, over and over. The details she did not include—there were not many—we furnished for her in our minds: the litter box and latch-hook rugs, the Barcaloungers, the bottle of Korbel sweating on the Ping-Pong table.

I am politically against dissuading any woman from expressing sexual delight, but I was concerned that a startled, flummoxed young person might eventually say something that would hurt Suzelle’s feelings. Suzelle’s sexy-time poems helped me realize that the students really struggled with what to write about. My giving them freedom wasn’t working, and it wasn’t something I really understood, either, as a writer. Expanding a diary entry into a poem, students can trip over chronology and facts, as well as the Ping-Pong table and the dog. Here’s something I hate to hear: “but it really happened like that!” It shuts students down, makes them unable to think clearly about revision. Starting from a fresher place can free them up, let them make more surprising connections and write more interesting poems. So I started making changes in the way I teach poetry workshops. 

There are a lot of ways student writers struggle with this issue; often it’s because they are trying to figure out what poems are supposed to be about. 

Here’s what they think they know about poetry:  

1. They are supposed to “write what they know,” but
    1a. they often don’t know much yet. 

2. Imagination is for fiction. Fiction can be funny and made-up, but 
    2a. poems have to be serious and true. 

I have no idea why students think those things. But as a poet and as a teacher, I feel that, like Suzelle’s basement, these are not fertile grounds for strong, exciting writing.

Caveat: the best writers can write well about anything. These students were not the best writers—yet. They needed a boost. And all I felt I was offering was praise of their effective description of vomiting in the dorm bathroom, or a reminder to be more concrete in their examples of how Nana was always there for them. And this workshop was for college credit, not a self-esteem badge, right? Right. So I gave them a different kind of boost. I gave them the kind of assignment I give myself when I’m writing poems.

When I’m writing, I don’t wait for the muse to strike. I don’t have time for that. I look at crazy inspiring things like people on the subway, other poems, museums, newspapers. 

So I decided to give my students things that I want to write about. Over time, this has evolved into a five-part exercise that I use to get students out of their own heads, wherever they are stuck. This semester I brought it into the first day of class. 


Part 1: Reading poems they love out loud

I don’t know how students got the idea that poetry is about sharing your sad feelings about loss and flowering trees, but this reminds them, early on, that poetry can do a lot more than that. I start by giving them fantastic poems, poems I love. You can find thousands right here, in the Poetry Foundation’s extraordinary collection. Here are two I gave my students: Tyehimba Jess’s “martha promise receives leadbelly, 1935”and “Shirt” by Robert Pinsky. 

First I read them aloud, and I talk about why I picked them: why I love these poems, how moved I am by their imagination and history and power. How I have been reading them for years, and how they change for me, or, more likely, I change around them. 

For example, sometimes I read Jess’s lines “pennies in his pocket / and prayer fresh on his lips,” and I just think it’s hopeless, anybody fresh out of prison. How much can pennies and prayer help? Other times I’m struck by Martha Promise’s generosity, and feel the tenderness in those lines. 

Sometimes I am completely distracted by the pleasure of Pinsky’s litanies—“The presser, the cutter, / The wringer, the mangle”—and all I want to do is listen to how they sound in my mouth. But other times I am able to admire how these useful objects of industry become sentient, become people, people’s job titles, in “The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter/ Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton.” So that this poem about process, about industry, is about the people who make process and industry happen—not just as a whole, but in its lines, in its words and in those gorgeous lists. I love a list!

Then I ask my students what they think. And maybe because I admit to lots of different feelings and interpretations, because I model containing multitudes, we can talk about these poems not just as students, not even just as readers, but as writers, as poets. As people who love poems. We talk about how they work, and how they work for us. And we reverse-engineer them. 


Part 2: Reverse-engineering an assignment

I ask the students what Pinsky might have wanted this poem to contain and accomplish, while he was writing it. I write what they say on the board, coming up with a list like this one: 

  • Literary allusion
  • Pleasure in language: alliteration, meter
  • Historical facts
  • How-to: names of machines and parts that make a shirt possible
  • Connections between his shirt/shirts from the past
  • Thinking about different industries that make a shirt possible
  • List/catalogue/litany

Then, looking at what they have written, I work with them to come up with this reverse-engineered assignment on the board: 

“Write a poem that takes pleasure in language while making connections between the shirt on my back and shirts, shirtmakers, and clothing makers from the past. Use litany, literary allusion, historical facts, and specificity about processes.” 

Now that we have seen a connection between a poem and a poet’s possible ambition for that poem, I pass out the primary sources. 


Part 3: Primary sources

I keep a file on my desktop of promising stuff I collect: photographs of colonial gibbets, broadsides from hangings, frontispieces from books with titles such as Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery, Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide. I look online at the Library of Congress and Digital History. Poking around looking for treasures, treasures for my own writing and for my students, I try things like googling random search terms. Don’t you want to read the articles that pop up between 1830 and 1930 when you look for “lipstick” in historical Boston newspapers? I do. 

Here’s one from the Boston Daily Globe, October 1, 1922: “BROOKLYN FLAPPER REVEALED AS RUNAWAY DORCHESTER BOY Harold Harrington Proves Too Alluring in His Sister’s Clothes and He Has to Use Fists.” 

I print out useful articles and search results. Every student gets a different one; they seem to like it when I pick out something special for each of them.

They have a little time to read over their particular articles, and then we do some freewriting. 


Part 4: Freewriting

Here’s how I do freewriting: three minutes or so, based on whatever is at hand—a daffodil, this article, their weekend, whatever. At the end of three minutes I have them count their words, and somebody gets his or her name on the board underneath this honorific: “MOST PROLIFIC.” This is to remind them that when you are getting started, it doesn’t matter how good it is. It matters that there’s a lot of it, that you are building what Seamus Heaney calls a “word-hoard” that you can draw from later.

Then they read their freewrites out loud, and I write down whatever I’ve heard and liked, whatever seems promising for another freewrite. Shaun Steele, one of my undergraduate students, has agreed to let me share his work as part of this essay: he was given the “BROOKLYN FLAPPER” article, and his first freewrite contained, among other things, “What do we owe to delinquency charges if not plumed hat.” Which I thought was great! I didn’t understand it, but I didn’t need to: it was part of his word-hoard now, and it seemed promising. 

So I picked that from his first freewrite, and gave it to him to use as the prompt for a second freewrite. I pick something from each student; I pay attention, I listen, I take notes, and I direct them. They have new faith in the power of the stuff they wrotebecause I am the teacher and I picked it, which doesn’t hurt when they are trying to build the confidence they need to write terrific poems. Also, I happen to pick the best parts. 

Students surprise me and themselves with terrific freewriting, and then I tell them, “Look over your article and your freewrites and develop an assignment for yourself, for your next poem.” They can look up at the board and see how we reverse-engineered the Pinsky assignment, and they go to it. For less sophisticated students, I provide more help, but this is something I think is an important part of being a writer; they need to be able to give themselves assignments and deadlines. So I have them do it, from the beginning of the course. They get very good at it in no time at all. 


Part 5: Writing their own poems based on their primary source, freewriting, and assignment

So that’s the kind of assignment I started giving my students, lo these many Suzelles ago. They leave the classroom with their primary source, a series of linked freewritings that add up to a promising word-hoard, and an assignment for themselves, something they are excited to work on. And now I will share with you Shaun Steele’s poem, based on the assignment he developed on the first day of class. 

 “Brooklyn flapper revealed as runaway Dorchester boy” Oct. 1, 1922 
by Shaun Steele

The boy was “too alluring”
the assailants “too familiar.”
These are the phrases sexual assaults
warrant, when silk pumps
and close cropped hair are present.

What do we owe to delinquency
charges if not plumed hat? What do 
we owe to acquittals if not
false presumptions? Could this
have happened without rayon
stockings? Unlikely.

For a boy to embrace jazz 
and Charleston is questionable; to wear 
chiffon and Black Bottom, inexcusable.
Some liberation is gender specific.
Fourteen year old males have never been
Marshall Field’s target demographic,
and Gimbel's cannot mass market
cloche hats and horn rimmed
glasses to both genders, no matter
how free they feel. To do so
would bastardize a movement.

When you don your sister’s clothes
and run away, your absence is not reported.
All that can be said is that you “used
to entertain us so well,” and a lingering
undercurrent of shame. 

Abandon your femininity, Harold,
adopt and accept a “two fisted masculine 

Now imagine that Shaun’s classroom is full of students who remember Shaun’s primary source, and are thinking about how his poem addresses the assignment he came up with in class. And then imagine that Suzelle’s classroom is full of uncomfortable silences about three-ways and lost innocence. 

If you are trying to let the students run the discussion, and you should, Shaun’s class is more likely to get into other archaic gender markers that Shaun could have used, and how T.S. Eliot deals with quotation versus how Jorie Graham does it in “Spoken from the Hedgerows.” The talk will be rich and varied and useful to the students and interesting to you.

If you love terrific poems, and you are teaching writing, you already have a lot of power. Use that power for good, but feel free to do yourself some good, too. Come on over to Shaun’s classroom. The company is better, and the grading is a lot more fun. 

“‘Brooklyn flapper revealed as runaway Dorchester boy’ Oct. 1, 1922” by Shaun Steele, used by permission of Shaun Steele.
Originally Published: April 30th, 2012

Jill McDonough is the author of the full collections Habeas Corpus (2008), Where You Live (2012), Reaper (2017), and multiple chapbooks, including Oh, James! (2012). Her editing projects include An Invitation to Poetry: A Classroom Guide for Instructors (2006), which she edited with Maggie Dietz and Robert Pinsky, and Forgotten Eyes:...

  1. March 14, 2013
     Heather Brown

    EVERY POETRY WRITING TEACHER should read this. I can't wait to use
    these ideas in my classroom next term. Thank you, Jill! I'm so thrilled to
    have discovered in you both a kick-ass poet and a kick-ass teacher. I'm
    a lucky (fan)girl.

  2. April 11, 2014
     Mack Hall, HSG

    I advise my students to avoid such stereotypes as "A matronly continuing ed student, she looked ready for a suburban PTA meeting."

  3. April 12, 2014

    I came to writing poetry gradually having somehow escaped it as an
    English Major, then edited, then wrote my way out of many griefs.
    Were I ever to teach it--perhaps as a volunteer who has experience
    with adult earners, your techniques are invaluable. Great article about
    evocative process!