Three Minute Poetry

Here’s a quick idea to get the creative juices flowing this summer: Three Minute Poetry. Good for adults too!

Three minute poetry is a great way to help people break through the idea that they can’t write, or that they are not creative writers. It works best (and is most often relevant) for late elementary age and older. For younger children, three minutes is just not enough time to write down a thought, and while many younger children struggle with the mechanics of writing, most of them have not yet judged themselves to be uncreative. Three minute poetry is particularly fun in a group.

How it works:

~ Select three random words, the more interesting the better. For instance: Alligator. Pineapple. Thermodynamics.

~ Set a timer for three minutes and on the count of three, start writing.

~ Everyone has three minutes to write a poem that uses all three of the random words. Don’t worry about spelling. Remember, a poem does not have to rhyme, or be in full sentences, or make any logical sense at all. The crazier it is, the better!

~ When the timer goes off, everyone has a chance to share what they have written. It is amazing how different the poems will be, even though they were written in the same room at the same time using the same inspiration.

Because you can’t write something “good” in three minutes, all the pressure is off. And sometimes, a three minute poem can turn out to be something beautiful or funny, or can prompt a second, more leisurely draft. At the least it is a demonstration that creative writing can be fun. Shocking!

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In Defense of Boredom

Happy summer, everyone! I’ve got some fun ideas of ways to play with writing and language that I’ll share throughout the summer, but I want to start out by saying how important summer vacation is.

Edward Arthur Walton – A Daydream 1885

It’s important to have unstructured time. It’s important to have time to daydream, to wander, to tinker, to putz.

It’s important to get bored.

That’s right. Bored. As I understand it, boredom is a necessary blankness that makes space for truly awesome ideas.

“Only boring people get bored,” my mom used to say when we were whining about having nothing to do and begging to watch something. Then, “If you’re really bored, why don’t you clean the refrigerator?” We’d figure out something to do real fast.

The ideas that came out of my childhood boredom weren’t boring, and I’m sure your children’s aren’t either. We trained our chickens to stand on our heads, earned our way to Wild Waves by playing Suzuki songs on the Birke Gilman trail, and strung a tin-can telephone from one tree fort to another around two sides of our house (it never worked, of course, but the can may still be in one tree). I made my own bow and arrows, sat on our grape trellis and burned pirate treasure maps with a candle (safely, somehow), invented a language no one now speaks (or ever spoke), and tried to make things grow in the paint-chip invested no man’s land between our house and the neighbor’s driveway.

I could reminisce about all of this for a long time and I will spare you, but that’s partly the point: these are bright memories, and they all came out of boredom.

Sitting out boredom is also great practice in sitting out anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and every other uncomfortable thing life shoves at us. If we learn how to go through boredom without anyone fixing it for us, we’re that much better equipped to sit out the rest of it without reaching for screens or drugs or work or alcohol.

And there’s more — just like land, people need fallow times. We need the time to compost our experiences. Every moment does not bear fruit. Gary Snyder says it well in his poem “On Top”:

All this new stuff goes on top
turn it over, turn it over
wait and water down
from the dark bottom
turn it inside out
let it spread through
Sift down even.
Watch it sprout.

A mind like compost.

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Horizontal Weasel Cookies

Here is a great exercise for breaking through our own boringness, getting exposure to the texture and beauty of foreign languages, and just practicing getting words down on paper quickly. I’ve found even some of my most reluctant writers to thrive on this one, and it’s a perennial favorite.

I learned it as a poetry exercise called Homophonic Translation*. I teach it as spy practice.  I say we are getting radio signals in on our foreign lines. I say write down everything you hear, even if it doesn’t make sense, because (remember?) anything can be a clue!

This is how it works. I bring in poetry in other languages. I like to bring in Rilke (German), Neruda (Spanish), French surrealists, Haida and Navaho poems and stories — but you don’t have to stop there. It doesn’t even have to be poetry, but I like the added layer of letting the children hear the beauty and rightness of poems even when they don’t understand the words.

I read the poems very slowly. The students write down what they hear, as if it was English.  For instance, I read the Neruda line “Puedo escribir los versos mas tristes esta noche,” which literally translates to “Tonight I can write the saddest lines.” But we don’t write that — most of us don’t even know that. Instead we go for pure sound. We find the meanings our minds know in those sounds. We write things like “Playdough, a screecher, those purses, moss trees. Stay, Ester. No J.” I tell the class not to worry about getting all of it — just write down as much as they can. Even if they just get a word a line, that is something. After all, there might be a lot of nothing between the real coded message we are receiving over the wire. And taking dictation — not to mention translation, literal or homophonic — is an acquired skill. Afterwards, we all share what we wrote, and often crack up about it. Then we read another. Afterwards, there is time to assemble what they wrote down into their own poem, or to take their favorite phrase and run with it.

It’s nonsense, but it’s musical nonsense. And it’s a gold mine of wild phrases. For instance, one of my students (who coincidentally has dyslexia and is a very slow and careful writer and was at first challenged by the speed-writing part of this exercise) discovered the phrase “Horizontal weasel cookies.” It has been an endless source of humor for her and it’s become a meme in the class.

One of the things I love about this exercise is the way each language brings out different parts of English — the hard consonants of German, the long vowels of French.  I like mixing languages that are closely related to English, like French, with some that are vastly different, like Haida. And I like the excuse to read these beautiful poems to a roomful of children who are listening to the sounds and taking in what they hear without censoring it. What excellent practice for that internal dictation we call the creative process.

* I learned it originally from the excellent book The Practice of Poetry, ed. by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. This book has inspired me both as a teacher and as a writer, consistently, for years. It was written for adults, but it’s so awesome kids like it too.

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Eat the Evidence

This exercise is part of a yearly Frog Hollow tradition: Spy School. Technically, I’m not supposed to tell you anything about Spy School (what Spy School?) on strict decoded orders from a mysterious character named Agent Secretface. So we’ll just say I was telling you about our Observational Writing Day. How does that sound?

The International Spy Museum

Anyhow, we do many observational writing exercises on Observational Writing Day, culminating in some, shall we say, Observing People in Public Places and writing it down. Did you know we saw 14 people in  hats outside the Asian Art Museum last week? Some of them even seemed to know each other. None of them were children. Very suspicious, if you ask me.

To warm up for all of that, we do an exercise called Eat the Evidence. I adapted this one from Don’t Forget to Write, a great book put out by the national 826 people. How it works is that everyone gets a strawberry (or an orange, or an almond, or any other fairly-homogeneous, affordable, edible object). Each person has the job of figuring out what makes their strawberry unique. Does it have a dent? A torn stem? Is it large? Small? Light? Dark?

When the students are absolutely sure they can pick their strawberries out of a line-up, they give them to me and I put them on top of a sticky note (with their name on the other side) in a big grid of other strawberries on sticky notes. I usually add some extras to make it harder, because these kids are good. Then they each get a turn to find their object. If they’re right, they get to eat it. If not, it goes back into the grid and they wait for everyone else to guess and then take a second turn.

It’s rare for many people to need second turns though, because when a person’s spy, I mean observational, skills are activated, it is amazing what they notice. And of course, much of being a good writer (not to mention a fully alive human being) is learning to really look and to really see and to find the mysteries, stories, and threads of meaning in what you observe.  So we stare at strawberries and people wearing hats, because, as Agent Secretface told us, anything can be a clue.

Want to spy out Frog Hollow? Come to our open house, 7-8 pm, June 12th, 1919 E Prospect St, Seattle, 98112. I’ll be there to answer any questions you might have, except for about the identity of Agent Secretface.

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