I moved to the Bay Area for college when I was eighteen and about as moody as they come. I remember sitting on the Stanford campus, watching thin blonde women’s ponytails swish as they jogged around the lake, which reflected the perfect blue of the sky. A little breeze might stir in the oak leaves, in case the sun got a titch too hot. The women, smiling as they jogged by, flashed their perfect teeth. And meanwhile, I was a stormy mess of homesickness and angst, none of which was reflected back to me by the world. Where was the rain? The 45 degree stratoculumous dimness? Where were the storms? I wanted thrashing branches and blowing rain, or at least some nice bleakness every now and again.
So you can imagine how much I love Danez Smith’s poem “i’m going back to Minnesota where sadness makes sense,” which starts:
o California, don’t you know the sun is only a god
if you learn to starve for her? i’m over the ocean
Kids can read serious poems too
Whenever I get excited about a poem, I want to share it with my students, and as long as the material is generally appropriate and not too completely obscure, I do. I don’t think kids need to just read kids poems, fun as those can also be. Kids like mysterious, beautiful things. They like big feelings. They like weirdness and wildness. Poetry has all of that.
There is so much in this poem, and sharing it with my classes the last couple of weeks has been really fun. What does it mean, the sun is only a god if you learn to starve for her? Is it that you are starved for sunlight? (My students’ idea) Or a comment on the dark side of California beauty culture? (My first thought.) Yes. And also maybe something else entirely. There is room for many simultaneous things in a poem, and in our minds too, if we allow it.
From a poem to a prompt
When we look at a poem, we almost always use it to prompt writing. So where did we go from here? Backwards Odes.
I think that feeling of secretly hating the thing you were told was paradise is a common feeling, especially for teens and older kids. This poem becomes a space for young people to write from their own opinions and truths, against the conformity of their peers, or the expectations of the world or authority.
Write a poem about something you don't like, even though it feels like everyone else does.
Why don't you like it?
What do you like instead?
How does it make you feel?
How do you like to feel and when do you feel that way?
Try to make us really see/hear/smell/feel the things in your poem.
If you want to, you can talk right to the thing you don't like: o California.