Give Me All Your Poetry

Sappho, Anne Carson, found word poems, and ransom notes

I remember when I discovered the poet Anne Carson. I was twenty-four. I was sitting on the roof of a house in Oakland where I briefly lived along with ten other people, or maybe fourteen. It was hard to say. People were everywhere always, which was why I was sitting on the roof. I could see down into an Ethiopian restaurant and smell their cooking. Everything was noisy: housemates, the fans and fryers next door, car stereos, traffic on Telegraph Ave. But Anne Carson’s writing felt still and quiet: sadness and wings and someone named Red. Shortly afterwards, when I’d moved “temporarily” home to Washington, I got ahold of Carson’s translations of Sappho, If Not, Winter. Other Sappho translations I’d read were stiff and old-fashioned. They expounded. They rhymed. Carson’s are fragments. their heart grew cold/they let their wings down….I used to weave crowns….whiter by far than an egg….

The words of Sappho, who lived  in Greece around 600 BCE, nearly only remain in fragments: a flake of papyrus here, a quote there. So Carson’s fragmentary, mystery-filled translations feel like they honor Sappho’s work. They make it mysterious. Alive. And with their impeccable taste, children love these poem-shards. They love their weirdness, their mystery, their possibility. Or maybe they just love me reading them all/but different/hair or just celery and telling them it’s a poem.

Anyhow, I like to share Carson’s Sappho to talk about how old poetry is, to show that all old poetry wasn’t just written by white dudes, to think about translation and how literature sticks around and also keeps changing and getting lost — and as inspiration for writing found word poems.

The premise of found word poems is that you steal words from other texts to make your own, like someone cutting out words from a newspaper to make a ransom note. Only poetry. To do this prompt you need scissors, glue stick, and some kind of writing to cut up. Magazines, newspapers, anything interesting – though I know from awkward experience that if there are any bad words the kids will find them. Who knew there were so many risque words in literary journals? Also, young readers do better if you can find them some big print.

Kids can start with a whole source, or you can cut it up into little slips and let them sift through them like archeologists sorting papyrus fragments. When they find words or phrases they like, they cut them out and assemble them into their own poems. If they want to, they can add a word here or there. Or assemble it letter by letter. There’s something very satisfying about these poems, about finding the words for your writing outside your mind, recognizing them, ordering them. Also gluing them. And if we can get all these satisfactions without demanding any ransom, all the better. It is doubtful, especially given our lackluster glue-stick technologies, that our poems will survive millenniums, but then again, who knows?