Prose from Poetry Magazine

Smart Girls Read Poetry

On the value of getting your hair wet.

What is the impact of poetry in our creative, professional, and personal lives? For me, all three of those are intertwined, and have been since I created Smart Girls with Amy Poehler. Smart Girls is an organization dedicated to helping young people cultivate their authentic selves. We emphasize intelligence and imagination over “fitting in.” We celebrate curiosity over gossip. We are a place where people can be their weird and wonderful selves.

Smart Girls has grown into a real community. One of the main goals of that community is to let people, especially young girls, know that they are not alone. Poetry is a part of that picture. I turn to poetry to know that I am not alone in my own feelings — feelings that I don’t know how to articulate. Poetry reminds me to be generous with acknowledgment, to advocate for others, and to stay the course.

The earliest memory I have of poets and poetry is Shel Silverstein. At the time I wasn’t even aware that it was poetry. I just liked the sound and feeling of his words. I’m probably not alone when I say a lot of that feeling was lost when I encountered poetry at school. There it was mostly learning about iambic pentameter and onomatopoeia. Looking back on it, I didn’t really connect with or understand most of the poetry I read in school. I connected with Doonesbury and Judy Blume instead. I wish I had encountered Edna St. Vincent Millay. That would have been pretty incredible.

The first time a poem resonated with me in a way that made it stick was when I was told to read “The Guest House” by Rumi, the Sufi poet. This poem helped me stop and think about the uninvited aspects of my life. By welcoming them, they became less frightening. I still read “The Guest House” when I find myself hiding in the familiar. This poem probably helped inspire our motto at Smart Girls: “get your hair wet!

There is a kind of teaching without lecturing in Rumi’s poetry that inspires me. In my frequently competitive and sometimes negative world, his optimism gives me a sense of hope. It has been said that his poetry “celebrates union” — bringing together, ending isolation. I know that we all need that.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
— From The Guest House, tr. by Coleman Barks

Now that I am older and, I hope, wiser, I have had the good fortune to befriend a real life poet: Amber Tamblyn. She is everything you want in a fellow human being. She’s intelligent, artistic, funny, curious, and poetic.

I invited her to be the Poet in Residence at Smart Girls immediately after I first encountered her poetry. Here was someone who seemed to know what I was thinking, feeling, afraid of, encouraged by — she made me feel understood. I look forward to her poems in our ABCs of Smart Girls every month, but her poem for H, “Heartbreak,” made me go deep. In this poem, Tamblyn pulls off what most of us aren’t able to: she distills grief and loss down into words that help others understand their own grief and loss.

as all the teenagers inside of me
and all the voices inside of those teenagers
and all the pain inside those voices
and all the bloom inside that pain
and all the fruition inside that bloom
and all the years
and all the love
and all the past
and all the broken
and all the beauty still feels you
laying here beside me
— From Heartbreak by Amber Tamblyn

Our relationships are the one beautiful and difficult thing holding us together. Otherwise, we are in constant risk of isolation and a subtle but persistent loss of our humanity. I am the first person to roll my eyes when someone says “It’s just business” because I think human-to-human encounters deserve more respect than that. The origins of our lives are a mystery, but I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say that those origins weren’t from a benevolent energy cultivating cubicle farms. When the measurements I use for success aren’t adding up to what society uses to measure success, I turn to Mary Oliver.

As you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own.
— From The Journey

This poem expresses what it feels like to discover your vocation. For me, that was discovering that I wanted to move forward with creating Smart Girls. But the poem is also about dumping your addictions, or dumping what is not working for you. “The Journey” affirms my theory that unconventional choices work out more often than not. 
I live with a wonderful and kind-hearted man with whom I’ve made a family — of our adopted dogs. I put all my effort into starting an online community to help girls know themselves better. It isn’t always a blast, but this is my life, and almost every Mary Oliver poem sheds light on it.

There is something positive about people of all kinds finding something of themselves and their world in poetry, even if others consider the poetry less than brilliant. It’s like music. I would rather go to somebody’s home and listen to something that’s not my favorite than go someplace where no music is played at all. What feeds my life may not feed yours. Where you find understanding and meaning, I may not. What matters is bringing ourselves to a poem and being open about what we find within the words. Poetry becomes that honest, beautiful, scary, confrontational, wonderful door for our imagination.

Originally Published: April 1st, 2016

Meredith Walker has been the producer for Nick News and the head of the talent department for Saturday Night Live. She cofounded and directs Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls and lives in Austin.

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  1. April 6, 2016

    What would you recommend for an
    8 yr old just starting off writing her
    own poetry. For age appropriate

  2. April 11, 2016
     Baltimore Poet

    Hi Martha,

    What about looking through Emily Dickenson and Robert Frost and picking out poems that you think are age appropriate and accessible for your daughter? Their Collected Poems are treasure troves. You could skim and just read the short ones (see "Provide, Provide"). Kay Ryan, a contemporary poet, writes poems that are short, accessible, and based on everyday objects, and also amazing to boot. See "The Best of It," her recent selected poems. William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience" can be found published by Dover Books for one dollar and the poems are amazing. Start with the innocent. T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" is a classic. Song lyrics can work (James Taylor, Carol King)? Also, this anthology seems promising: "Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children" (ed. Harold Bloom). Good luck!

  3. April 13, 2016

    Years ago I gave the poetry
    anthology Talking to the Sun to my
    very literate 7 year old. I think it is
    still available. Kenneth Koch edited
    I believe. She now had an MFA in

  4. April 13, 2016

    As a poet who married a man who does not for the life of
    him understand poetry (though he is kind about it), I
    have been struggling to explain why it is a required joy
    in my life. Thank you so much for putting into words why
    poetry is important on this earth, and how nourishing it
    can be to us. Spot on!

  5. April 22, 2016
     Cynthia Cochran

    Great article. I am printing this one off and sharing it with my students. Ms. Tamblyn visited my Illinois College classroom a month or so ago, and I have been enjoying that smart girls poetry myself!