Gatsby Is Not a Cat
and other lies
To start this whole A Few Crooked Words thing off right, I want you to tell your kids to lie. This is the truth. I do.
Why? When I want to help a child get excited about writing, I start with poetry. And the best way I know to get kids writing poetry is to write lie poems.
With the right infectious enthusiasm, poetry can help children get lit up about writing, about language, and about the centuries-long conversation on the human experience that we call literature. Also, poetry is short. Children can write a poem, revise it for spelling and punctuation, and illustrate it all in a sitting, whereas most “stories” children want to write are really novels, or whole series of novels, or complete worlds. Getting all that from mind to paper at all, let alone in a day, is a challenge and so the satisfaction of completing something often gets lost when kids write longer forms. Writing poetry shows children they are writers, and allows them to play with many different things quickly.
Many of the things I call poems could easily be called exercises. Sometimes they’re just a few words scrawled on a piece of paper. But when we name them poems, we respect that they are kids’ thoughts and perceptions. We give them a place in the conversation. And we respect the work it took for them to write those wobbly words down. Asking them to revise for spelling, punctuation (and legibility!) is also a way of taking what they’ve made seriously. And then we move on.
Because lying is fun! Because reality is more fluid than we pretend. Because there are many kinds of truth.
Actually, because telling kids to write crazy lies sets their writing free.
I like starting with writing lies because it lifts off all the weight of right and wrong, of academic judgment, of failure. It is permission to be wild and crazy and imaginative. It connects kids with their own inner world, where no one else’s rules matter. It gives them the sense that writing is a kind of liberation, that you can do things and imagine things in writing that aren’t cute or polite, but are as vast as your own mind. Kids seem to understand that asking them to write lies isn’t condoning lying, but is giving them permission to use their imaginations. And the prompt is concrete enough it gives them the scaffolding to get words down on paper.
The Prompt Itself:
The prompt is simple: Put a lie in every line, or make the whole poem one big long lie. Your poems don’t need to rhyme or use fancy “poet” words. Just write the craziest lies you can think of. It can help to show kids a written-down poem, like some of the kid-written examples below, so they can see what a line is. Tell them a line doesn’t need to be a sentence (though it can be), and it can be long or short – whatever feels right. Or just let them equate a line with a sentence.
I borrowed this prompt from Kenneth Koch’s wonderful book Wishes, Dreams, and Lies, about teaching poetry in New York City public elementary schools in the 1960’s. I highly recommend this book – it’s full of great poetry ideas, as well as lots of poems by Koch’s students, which helps kids get the sense that poetry is for them, that they are part of the conversation. Hopefully the poems below do that too. Enjoy!
Gatsby is not a cat.
He does not meow
and he is not hungry all the time
and never eats.
He never sleeps
and does not go outside.
They do not sting or buzz.
They live in orbs with butter and TV’s.
I am the dirt.
I eat the sky.
I turn to dust in the night.
I drink the air.
I fly in the ground.
I Never Lie
I wear a dress made of light.
I love the noise of chalk.
I ride a llama.
I have a pet rainbow.
My house is made of dust.
All my wishes come true.
My grandma is a witch.
My whispers are a yell.
Oh and I never lie.
My mum is a sausage singing bravo.
My dad is a cake on fire screaming.
My brother’s a big fat tomato.
My sister’s a scream cheese sandwich.
It's All True
I am a snowy owl.
I live on a white star.
I only eat grapes.
I swoosh across space and go
to the moon every Friday.
I have the best view of everything.
When I get tired of flying I
float on a pink apple that takes
me to earth and there I ride
on little mice. I fly to the jungle
and there I rest in my nest for
the night. In the morning bright
and early I fly to the bunny's
house and we play chess then
I leave and head back to the
pink apple that takes me to my
star. And there I live.