Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Double Acrostics, The Tag Team of Poetry

Today was day two of teaching ENG273: Contemporary American Poetry. With only two "English" majors in the class, I was a little worried that once again, the rule of the "W" (classes marked as "W" are known as "Writing Intensive", which is required by all students to take, and most of these classes are owned by the English Department) has ruined creative writing courses for good, forever. But after today I think I can safely start to sew a little patch over the crack in my chest where disappointment once leaked out (OK, so it's only the second day of class, and OK I'm being overly dramatic).

I think I'm at an advantage as an instructor because poetry is new to most of my students. They still think of poetry as a mysterious art form. They think of Shakespeare and Carver. They think of formulas and patterns. They are intimidated, but willing to learn. They scribble everything I say in a notebook. And it's awesome.

So to get everyone warmed up, we discussed what "poetry" is/isn't, and what a "poem" is/isn't. After hashing these definitions out on the board, we had a tornado of chalky word-stuffs, which everyone agreed did in fact look like a poem itself (it read something like: arrange Shakespeare anything/ Verse pattern bathroom stall/ Sound breaks lines unstressed/ Economy the image process"). After our discussion, I decided to give what I call the "Interview Acrostic" assignment. Normally, I would never assign an acrostic poem to a group of college students. Some people think acrostics are lame--built for the lazy poet. Those people have obviously not read Frank O'Hara's acrostic, "Edwin's Hand," a beautiful acrostic of repetitions, a love poem for Edwin Denby, which begins
Easy to love, but
difficult to please, he
walks densely as a child
in the midst of spectacular
needs to understand.

Desire makes our
enchanter gracious, and
naturally he’s surprised to
be. And so are you to be
you, when he smiles…

Plus, as Ron Padget says in his Handbook of Poetic Forms, "any poetic form is trivialized by poor use, and the emptiness is the author's fault, not the form's" (4-5). I agree--but I did want to mix the tradition up a bit, through its process (this is CONTEMPORARY poetry, after all):

The assignment:

You and a partner will interview one another by asking & answering the following questions:

1.) If you could have 3 wishes, what would your 2nd wish be?
2.) Describe the last dream you had that you can remember.
3.) How tall are you?
4.) What is the most interesting thing about your mother and/or father?
5.) What is your biggest fear?

Everyone was excited to give the interviews and answer the questions themselves. After the Q&A period was over, they had to do the homework: using the material collected from the interview, compose an acrostic poem for your partner, using his or her first AND last names.

I love this assignment because it's a good introduction to form, and a good way for students to get to know one another, which ultimately helps begin the creation of a safe, productive, fun, and creative workspace for all involved.

We'll see how it goes--I'll be posting my acrostic soon!

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