One of the perks of pandemic online classes has been being able to invite faraway visiting writers into class. Last year my friend Joshua Gottlieb-Miller came in, via the internet, from Houston, and shared some of his poetry. He’s been working on a series of poems about Jewish faith that use boxes to separate off some lines, raising questions of which parts of the poem you read when. In the process of showing us his poems, he also showed us “Obligations 2” by Layli Long Soldier. (Check out the poem if you want everything else in this post to make sense.) Aha! I thought, we’re coming back to this one. (Josh is coming back too, hopefully!)
“Obligations 2” was part of a larger poetry installation Long Soldier did to create star quilts made of poems. It made up one diamond in one quilt, which she made from wiring diamonds of paper with laser-cut words on them together with copper wire.
Like Josh’s poems, it can be read in many ways and does not tell you which reading is right. Heady stuff for new readers! I think it’s more important to let kids into the exciting and potent world of contemporary poetry than to worry about them “getting” the poems. So we experienced the poem, without analyzing it too deeply.
We talked some about what she was exploring in the poem, but like I often do when I share poetry that isn’t “kid” poetry with kids, we didn’t worry too much about what it meant, as much as how it worked and how it moved us. Though certainly this poem could be a beautiful doorway into talking about American history and legacies of grief.
This year, we looked at Layli Long Soldier’s poem again. We noticed that its diamond shape gave us options on how to read it. Would we read all the words, top to bottom, or trace paths, perhaps picking one word or phrase from each line.
I had as many students as possible read us a version of the poem.
Then I had us read it popcorn style, where I read the first word, then people chimed in as moved, sometimes one and sometimes a few people reading at the same time, the same or different words.
We looked a little more closely at how the poem worked. We noticed that if we chose between the words, sometimes the choices made big differences: “embrace” or “resist.” Sometimes there was no choice. There is no getting around “the grief the grief the grief the grief.” We noticed that often each word on a line had something in common with the others. In the line “the future the present the past” each option speaks of time.
We talked about how the poem asks questions and explores possibilities, but doesn’t tell us one answer. “It’s not about anything,” said one student, but I argued that it was definitely about something, but it was less a thesis about it than a way of turning that something around and around. It was a kind of choose-your-own-adventure.
Write your own star quilt or choose-your-own-adventure poem that could be read in lots of different ways depending on which phrases a reader chooses to read. You can write your poem in the same diamond shape, or make a shape of your own. Maybe you can make it so that very different outcomes happen depending on the different choices someone reading it makes. Maybe some lines offer very different choices, and some only give one option. Maybe you write it about something you are thinking about but don’t have the answer to. Or maybe it is about a journey, or some other series of choices.
My students wrote poems that ranged from the nonsensical to the philosophical. One wrote a poem about dancing, where each phrase was a dance move and each path through the poem described a different choreography. It was a challenging poem for some of my confident writers, as they had to approach it less with something they wanted to proclaim than a sense of possibility. But I’ve been very satisfied with the engagement and excitement this poem created, as well as the poems that resulted.