Why I Teach Poetry Writing to Teen Girls

Posted on in On Our Radar by Meredith Heller

In a world that is becoming wholly dependent on technology and addicted to high speed and virtual stimulation, how do we keep our imagination fertile and our capacity for feeling lithe? In a society that is always dictating who and how we should be to fit in, how do we hear our own voice and be true to ourselves? In a culture that is just beginning to value the opinions and wisdom of women, how do we encourage our daughters to stand up and speak their truth in a male-dominated world? When I was a teen, trying to find my way, writing poetry saved my life.

It’s a rainy spring day in Marin County, California. I’m trekking through puddles in my rain boots, looking at clouds reflected in the water, and thinking about how I will make contact with a group of kids who don’t really care about learning or poetry because life has already demanded too much of them. I walk into a classroom at juvenile hall, another at an extension high school for at-risk kids, another at a local elementary school, and finally, one in a relaxed home atmosphere where I teach private poetry writing workshops for teen girls. I say, I’m not here to teach you other people’s poetry; I’m here for you to teach me your poetry. So put away your phones, take out a piece of paper, stop talking, and walk outside with me for moment.

I ask the kids, what do you notice? What are you aware of inside and outside of you? Take in the quality of the light, the feel of the air on your skin, the water droplets on the plants, the sound of the rain, the stillness of the playground, the color of your best friend’s sneakers, the curl in your classmate’s hair, the tightness in your shoulders, the hunger in your belly, the rhythm of your breathing, your sadness, your fear, your desire.

The shift in energy is tangible. Suddenly it’s as if all the kids have gone from being pale crumpled paper bags to colorful inflated balloons. Bodies start moving, smiles break open. These kids are listening to what is true for themselves in this moment and they feel more alive. I ask them to remember five feelings or images that are the strongest as we slowly walk inside.

I explain that as poets, we notice things, feel things deeply, and have a strong need to express ourselves, and that this expression can be cathartic and empowering. I don’t really believe that we can teach creativity or poetic writing, but I do believe that we can hone our attention to notice what moves us. We can develop a love of language and the joy that comes from finding just the right word and right rhythm to convey our feelings, whether it’s hurt, anger, grief, fear, shame, love, desire, or elation. That there is a magic that happens when we name our thoughts and feelings, commit them to paper, speak them out loud. We feel a sense of belonging to ourselves and others when we express ourselves clearly, feel understood, and see that other people resonate with our experience in a way that illuminates their own.

Surreal female portrait blended with vivid colors on the subject of imagination, creativity and design
Surreal female portrait blended with vivid colors on the subject of imagination, creativity and design

We write for 15 minutes. Some kids ask, what should I write? Well, I say, what was alive for you out there? Grab onto what matters to you, what moves you. One girl offers shyly, the clouds and the color of the sky. The feel of rain on my skin. Is this right? Yes, I say. If it’s true for you, then it’s right. Start here. Write these down and see if you can do one of two things: either flesh them out by giving more detail or boil them down to their essence. Okay! she responds with enthusiasm. And I know she’s learning to trust herself. I know she’s learning that she has her own answers, and that what she feels and thinks matters. I suggest that their feelings, thoughts, and imaginations are some of the very few places they have total freedom to explore their own truth and to make their own rules, and that poetry is a place they can express themselves fully on their own terms.

They read their pieces, some so quiet we have to lean forward to hear them, some with dramatic flair, and some just kicking it easy like they’re talking to their best friend or singing their favorite song. We clap after each piece because we know the courage and vulnerability it takes to share your piece. I repeat their juiciest lines back to them so they know they’ve been heard and celebrated. And so the other kids learn what kind of wording brings a poem to life.

The bell rings. No one moves. They all look at me like they don’t want to leave, like they don’t want to lose this. This is my greatest moment. I believe in them and they feel it, and they begin to believe in themselves. Go on, I say, this is yours. No one can take this from you. Keep listening inside yourselves. Keep noticing what moves you in the world. Make a list. Write it down. See you next week.

Meredith Heller is a poet and singer/songwriter with graduate degrees in writing and education. A California Poet in the Schools, she teaches poetry writing workshops, coaches voice and songwriting, leads MoonTribe Write of Passage Nature Program for teen girls, and hosts Siren Song, a women’s singer/songwriter night. Her poetry collection, Songlines, is now available from Finishing Line Press. She is mused by nature, synchronicity, and kindred souls. Visit her blog: BonesofSynchronicity.com

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