Article for Teachers

Writing from the Senses

Disarming gifted and perfectionist students with sound and synesthesia.

Each summer, I have the privilege of teaching creative writing to talented, motivated, academically gifted high school students. They can fly through the math portion of the SAT, and they can recite Latin declensions on command. Some are spelling bee champions and quiz bowl aficionados. None of this, however, has prepared them for the intuitive, mysterious process that is poetry writing. In the poetry classroom, their perfectionism becomes an obstacle. Writing is a long, messy process, full of U-turns and fortuitous errors. For students who have been consistently rewarded for buzzing in with the right answer right away, the process of drafting and revising a poem can be daunting, confusing, and frustrating.

For this reason, I ask my students to work against their perfectionism and to become comfortable with ambiguity. I aim to cultivate a classroom environment where there is time and space for uncertainty and experimentation. In short, I attempt to lure them away from the seductive logic of right and wrong answers and into a world where mistakes can lead to discoveries. In addition to teaching my students technical language skills—awareness of metaphor and imagery, attention to sound, skillful manipulation of the line—I encourage playfulness. Together, my students and I court surprise in the belief that if you make space for it, the imagination will assert itself.

One of the best ways to get students to engage their creative sides and ignore their negative internal censors is to have them rediscover their senses through synesthesia. Here are two classroom sequences that can help to disarm students’ perfectionism and lead them into fresh, imaginative writing. These sequences are grounded in a few general guidelines:

  1.  Ask your students a lot of questions for which there are no right or wrong answers.
  2. Manufacture assignments for them that make use of enabling constraints.
  3. Do lots of “nutty” writing. (As Theodore Roethke once wrote, “the nuttier the assignment, often, the better the results.”)

These activities can be adapted to work in the college classroom or the traditional high school environment; they can also be suitable for younger students with some minor variations. No supplies are needed for Activity 1 below, but Activity 2 requires an odd assortment of textured and/or scented objects—wool, coffee grounds, a lemon, sandpaper, a potato, and, if available, objects students might not be familiar with, such as lychee, dragon fruit, Buddha’s hand, aloe, sugarcane, pieces of hardware from a hardware store, fish bones, cooking implements, and perhaps some others. Additionally, you will need paint chip cards—those little sample cards you can pick up for free at a paint or hardware store—in a variety of appealing colors. It may sound like a lot to gather, but having a variety of unique items really lets students re-engage their senses.


Activity 1: Reveling in Sound

We all have words that we love simply because of how they sound: carbuncle, kerfuffle, susurration. Poets probably have more of these than your average person. Poetry is an oral and aural art; it is spoken and heard. When introducing beginning writers to poetry, I like to begin with sound. Before jumping into the aural qualities of words, however, it’s useful to remind students that words have connotations in addition to denotations. The following game is a quick way into these terms.

Pass the Salt

Give your students two minutes to write as many complete sentences as possible. Each sentence must convey this content: Pass the salt. It works best when you make it a game and see who can come up with the most sentences. A typical student-produced list might look like this:

  1. Pass the salt.
  2. Pass the salt, please.
  3. Please pass the salt.
  4. Yo, give me the salt.
  5. Salt, please.
  6. Give me the NaCl.
  7. Salt over here!
  8. Dude, salt.

After students have shared their lists (and the winner has received appropriate adoration), introduce or review diction (word choice) and syntax (word order). Once students apprehend the limitless possibilities that variations in diction and syntax provide, it’s useful to discuss a word’s denotation (what a word means most literally) versus its connotation (all the possible figurative meanings a word carries around).

You might pose a question like: Where might one expect to hear “Give me the NaCl”? Someone will chime in with “In a science lab.” You might ask: How might you describe a dinner party where someone says, “Please pass the salt”? Someone will say “polite.” How old would you expect someone to be who says, “Yo, salt!” Students will understand that “yo” is associated with a certain generation, just as “groovy” or “keen” is.

Once students understand that words have connotations as well as denotations, it’s time to really consider their aural textures. I find that the following activity works well in groups of three to five students.

Creating a Sound Palette

For this exercise, begin by asking each group to collectively brainstorm words that are crunchy, billowy, soft, hard, sharp, gravelly, smooth, angular, and fluffy. Depending on the age, you might ask for five or 25 of each. When working with my gifted high school students, I like to ask for 15 real words and five imaginary words (ones that aren’t real words but should be). It’s important to remind students that they’re assigning words to categories based on how the words sound, not what they mean. So “kick” might be assigned to the crunchy group, or “gall” might be assigned to the billowy group.

Once the students have collaboratively brainstormed their lists, they can share them by writing their words on the board and reading them aloud. This collection of communal words now becomes a “sound palette.”

At this point, I like to bring the class together to discuss a published poem or two. Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”is perfect for younger students, who can act out the poem: They might “gyre and gimble,” for instance, or draw a picture of a “vorpal sword” or a “Tumtum tree.” (Even imaginary words carry meaning: The students will intuitively understand that to “whiffle” is not to “burble,” because the two words do not sound the same.)

More advanced students might look at a few poems by Gertrude Stein. For example, Stein’s “[The house was just twinkling in the moon light]”pairs well with “Susie Asado.”When teaching Stein, it’s useful to read the poems aloud multiple times. After giving students time to puzzle over the poems on their own, I might ask a series of questions: Are these poems? How do you know? How is each organized? What mood is created in each? What patterns do you notice? How does repetition function in each? What words are repeated? What sounds are repeated? What effect does this repetition have on you, the reader? What questions does each poem leave you with? Does this poem change your relationship with language? How so?

I believe that beginning poets serve themselves well to practice imitation. I might at this time ask each student to write his or her own Carroll or Stein imitation, pulling in words from the sound palette on the board. I encourage students to engage with each word as a sound object and to think less about each word’s denotation and more about its aural texture. You can encourage them to play around with such tools as alliteration, assonance, consonance, rhyme, meter, onomatopoeia, and juxtaposition—thus incorporating these craft words into their poetry vocabularies and these tools into their poetry toolboxes.

A word on Stein: When teaching the work of Gertrude Stein, or any challenging poet for that matter, it’s useful to emphasize that the questions raised by the poems are often far more interesting than the answers. The poems, in other words, are not codes to be solved or locks yielding to only one key. I will admit to you—as I do to my students—that I am no expert on Stein. Together, my students and I fumble our way through, teaching each other. Each time I teach Stein to a new classroom of students, it is a new experience. The conversation goes where it will, and it is never the same conversation twice.

Here’s a poem by high school student Sophia Pichanick titled “A Child’s Nonsense Song.” She was asked to pay particular attention to sound, and notice how that close attention to sound heightens and sharpens the language in the first stanza. Then, in the second stanza, a striking image appears.

Shhh, shhhh, shhhh.

The yoos is softly whistling
and the sulfur so sereneserene.
You don’t hear it?
The frosty grass crunchelling,
and the jagged bloss
singsingsings its lullaby
to the chittering mittle
as the catbird croons
to his chicks.

Shhh, shhhh.
Can’t you hear?

The bats swooping through the darkness
like the fireflies she loved to catch
in the old, broken jars back home.

Shhh, shhhh, sleep.

Once you feel that your students are comfortable working with words at the level of sound, it’s time to move them into a slightly more challenging activity, one that asks them to rethink the way they interact with the world around them.


Activity 2: Synesthesia

Synesthesia occurs physically when the stimulation of one sensory pathway in the brain stimulates another. For example, a musician may see the color blue when a G major chord is played. Or the taste of a lemon may be associated with the ringing of an alarm clock. By encouraging students to practice synesthesia, I’m asking them to write from their bodies, not their minds. I’m encouraging them to defamiliarize their relationship with the world and with language. I’m inviting them to further abandon logic (which they’ve already begun to do in the previous activity) and to instead respond intuitively, from some other part of the brain—memory, intuition, or the subconscious.

Part I: Blindfolded Observation

Bring in a blindfold. Ask a student to volunteer to come to the front of the room and explore an object while blindfolded.

Once the student is appropriately blindfolded, hand him or her an interestingly textured object—a lychee, a pineapple, a dragon fruit, a pinecone, whatever you can find. Give the student a moment or two to handle the object.

Now ask the student to respond to a series of questions. Each question will have to do with the object’s texture, but you will ask the student to answer with one of the other senses. For example, you might ask: What color is this texture? What does this texture smell like? (Do not allow the student to smell the object.) What sound does this texture make? What does this texture taste like? Have another student in the class write down the responses.

Up until this point, the students have stayed close to their senses, but now, to really open up the activity, pose more abstract questions. What memory has this texture? What mood has this texture? What emotion has this texture?

After the student has finished exploring the object, the blindfold is removed and the object is revealed. You might then pass the object around the room, allowing each student to handle it and respond in a similar way, recording their responses.

You can also approach this activity by engaging one of the other senses. For example, you might ask students to smell a lemon, coffee grounds, or mint leaves.

Ideally, by the activity’s conclusion, everyone has a list of concrete associations paired with memories or abstractions. You might pause here and ask the students to craft these fragments into a synesthesia poem, or you might continue on to the next part of the activity. Either way, it’s good to take at least a short break or to stretch the activity out over two class sessions so that when students walk back into the room, they will be confronted with an array of enticing paint chip cards. This reminds them how appealing color is on a basic level—something that is clear to any parent or teacher who has presented a small child with a pack of newly opened crayons. Here’s one way the paint chip card activity might unfold:

Part II: Paint Chip Card Response

Ask all of your students to approach the array of paint chip cards and choose one that appeals to them. Encourage them to respond intuitively, without overthinking their choice.

If the paint chip card contains an array of colors, ask students to select one to focus on. They should write the name of this color at the top of a blank notebook page. (Paints have wonderful names: rain forest canopy, fiesta, courtyard, pocket watch, lovely bluff.)

Students will now engage in timed writing in response to the cards. I might ask them to respond to prompts like this: What scent is this color? What taste is this color? What texture is this color? What place is this color? What mood is this color? What memory is this color? A minute or two per prompt works well.

After students have responded to their color, I ask them to choose a different color, a very different one. Then they continue where they left off, now responding to this new color. (By changing colors two-thirds of the way in, you can encourage a turn [volta] into the poem.)

Once the students have finished responding to their paint chip cards, I ask them to write a poem on the spot that incorporates some of what they have just written. They can reorder things as much as they want, and they can leave out material, but they cannot add new content other than a word or two to connect pieces. Here’s a surprising and innovative poem by student Alexandra Rallo called “Green Froth,” written in 10 minutes after the synesthesia activity’s conclusion:

The creek is sluicing over
tiny pebbles, pulling at their dirty undersides,
licking them, rolling them together.
In my fingers, the wet soil squirms and
loosens; the leaves press
their chlorophyll on my skin.
The taste is herbal, soothing and warm—
it unlaces into chamomile tea.
The smell of woodland wetness. Hickory balm.
I am living in my nostalgia, furling slowly,
slowly into my hermit house of memories.

One of my favorite things about this activity is that it always produces unexpected results, and my students are usually as surprised as I am. Some are thrilled with what they have written. They love the associative leaps and startling juxtapositions. During the revision process, these students will make their poems wilder, more daring. Others will feel compelled to revise a sense of narrative or thematic unity into their poems. This is also appropriate. All of this might lead to a fruitful discussion of aesthetics. Different poems, after all, ask readers to engage with them in different ways.

I find that discussing aesthetics early on in a creative writing class opens up the way students later discuss poems during writing workshops. Rather than insisting that every poem contain a clear narrative or theme, students are more apt to recognize other organizing principles that a poet might employ, such as sound, repetition, or association.

Working with synesthesia also jars students out of clichéd language. It throws them into a kind of writing that is intuitive and logical, concrete and abstract, of the body and of the mind. When they stumble into fortuitous juxtapositions, they appreciate the element of mystery inherent in the writing process. When they compose word by word and image by image, they slow down, becoming immersed in writing at the level of word choice and line. By focusing on the trees over the forest, they stay one step ahead of their internal censors. This creates space for that shy beast, the imagination, to appear. To paraphrase Alexandra Rallo, the poems unfurl slowly; slowly the sounds and images come from the hermit house of memory and into the classroom.

Originally Published: August 29th, 2013

Born in Pennsylvania, Michelle Y. Burke earned a BA in creative writing from Loyola University Maryland, an MFA in poetry from the Ohio State University, and a PhD in English from the University of Cincinnati. She is the author of the poetry collection Animal Purpose, winner of the 2015 Hollis Summers Poetry Prize....