Recently, I had the chance to stop by an elementary school in NYC and read some of my poems for children. It was fun, not only because I got to skip a day of the 9-5 grind and share some of my work for my intended audience, but also because some of the kids had already experienced my work, shared it with their teachers and friends, and were requesting I read favorite poems or shouting out lines of other poems before I got to them. It was also the first time I sat down and did a signing—something that was as ingratiating as it was tedious—as well as the first time I read something that a child thought was so funny he fell out of his chair and collapsed onto the floor in a fit of giggles.
It was a good day.
During my presentation, I also taught the group how to write an “Identity” poem. I’m a big believer in not just sharing my poetry with young people, but also getting them to create their own poems, and letting the process of creation “reveal” the power and scope of poetry. I also use this prompt for fleshing out characters in my novels, and the times I’ve used it in classrooms and during presentations have all resulted in very interesting, if different poems, so if you’ll indulge me follow along and write an Identity Poem as you go. I also encourage you to share this with your teachers and students, though note I’m going to be a little bit more technical here than I would in a classroom. (If you’re going to teach this to students who are younger than 8 I’d recommend limiting the number of lines to three.)
Here we go!
- Write a line about a place that is important to you
This place can be anything—a favorite chair or sitting room, a library, a tree, an attic, a cupboard. The important thing is to a) be very specific in adding details, b) conjugate all your verbs as gerunds, and c) make sure this line starts with an article, like “the” or “a” or something possessive like “my.” For example, since I spend hours a day riding the one train, I can write: “The One Train sliding north alongside the Hudson River.”
- Write a line about a food that you like
This doesn’t have to be a favorite food, though I generally recommend that it is. Again (and, actually, with every line) follow the format from the first line: details, gerunds, articles are all key to the structure of the poem. You can either write about why that food appeals to you; flavor, or preparation, or occasion (like turkey on Thanksgiving). I, personally, like bacon, not just for the flavor but also for the lazy Sunday mornings as my wife and I putter around, so I can write: “The bacon sizzling in the frying pan, and the gurgling of the orange juice as my wife fills my glass.”
- Write a line about the first color that comes to your mind
Unlike the line about food, I generally discourage older writers (ie, 10-year-olds and beyond) to write their favorite color. Rather, write about a color that is attached to something meaningful in your life. My mom, before she passed away, crazy southern lady that she was, insisted on being buried in a pine box. So I can write: “The light reflecting on my mother’s pine box, the onionskin pages of the hymnal.”
- Write a line about someone you admire
In classroom lessons, I generally say write about a parent or guardian, but I also suggest grandparent, teacher, aunt, uncle, etc. This line I recommend to make very personal. For me, even though it took hours to drive out of the state, my final image of Texas before I moved to New York was my dad hugging me goodbye at 4:00am on our lawn, then watching me drive away in an over-packed U-haul. I’ll write: “My dad on the dew-glistening lawn, watching my U-haul drive away.”
- Write a line about an important event
This line should focus on something important that’s happened to you or, if it didn’t happen to you, it’s effect has caused a tremendous and resounding change in your life. This could be a parent’s death, a financial loss; or it could be something joyful—generally, my classes write “Opening presents on Hanukah or Christmas.” I’m happily married, so I’ll write: “My wife’s ‘I do.’”
What you should have now is a list of phrases, of lines specific to a place, a food, a color, a person, and an event directly associated with your life. These should be arranged one after the other—and if they aren’t take the time to rearrange them so they are.
Now, and here’s the clincher, before each line write: “I am.”
Let’s see what my poem looks like. (Line breaks added bc of my MFA tics.)
I am the one train
alongside the Hudson River.
I am the bacon sizzling
in the frying pan, the gurgling of the orange juice
as my wife fills my glass.
I am the light reflecting
on my mother’s pine
box, the onionskin pages
of the hymnal. I am my dad
on the dew-glistening lawn,
watching my U-haul drive away.
I am my wife’s I do.
I won’t say this is “high art,” but the intention is that it’s serviceable art, that the writer, when writing down a list of things that have little-to-nothing in common, can just through the addition of a few words, suddenly create a lyrical event, an I that is true to oneself and in creating this I hopefully they can glimpse the power of writing and poetry. I try to enforce through this how writing is more than the meaning of its words, that single written gesture can be as evocative as any picture or song.