Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Poetry with VT Poet Laureate Chard DeNiord

Each April, PoemCity, Montpelier's celebration of National Poetry Month, reminds us how very alive and well poetry is in Vermont. Fittingly, for our April educator event (the last of the spring series) Chard deNiord, Poet Laureate of Vermont, joined us in the Children's Room for a presentation focused on getting students engaged with poetry.

Chard deNiord answers questions from the audience.

Chard offered three possible titles for his talk—"Amazing Sense of Disparate Things," "Panning the Unconscious," and "The Rainbow and the Grebe: The Unconscious and the Imagination"—all of which are different ways of thinking about the topic around which the event revolved. Chard guided audience members through a Mad-Libs style poetry exercise entitled "Testimonial," inspired by and borrowing from former US Poet Laureate Rota Dove's poem by the same name. In this exercise, students choose their own words and phrases to fill in the poem's blanks. The poem, which is rooted in natural imagery, is punctuated by headlines that define its stanzas; while Chard provided a handout of headlines plucked from newspapers (included, along with the exercise, as a PDF below), he noted that it was also fine to craft original headlines.

The exercise "Testimonial" is designed for high school students, however teachers can easily adapt it for middle school and even younger students. Chard read through the poem, asking audience members to fill in their copies with their own word choices as he read, after which several audience members shared their completed poems aloud with the larger group. Attendees' poems contained wonderful and varied opening phrases such as "Back when the world was divided between lava and snow" and "Back when the world was divided between tomato soup and ice cream" and contained lyrics from Bessie Smith and Bob Dylan.

Attendees compose their poems.
This particular exercise is an excellent vehicle for considering the difference between the unconscious and the imagination, as it asks students to employ both. Citing Alan Ginsburg’s motto "first thought, best thought," Chard encouraged audience members to move through the exercise quickly, and to do so as well when using it in the classroom, as this really allows the unconscious to emerge. "Testimonial" also works well for getting students to think about the act of reading poetry versus the act of writing poetry, as it asks students to be both reader and writer. (And, it occurred to me as I thought more about the exercise after the event, how you approach the act of choosing words to fill in the poem’s blanks—by either reading through the poem and selecting words to fit as you go, or simply filling in each blank before reading through the poem—affects the final product.) 

Some of our favorite poetry for young readers.
Chard recommended two books by Kenneth Koch for educators who want to introduce poetry writing to young children: Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Kids to Write Poetry and Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?: Teaching Great Poetry to Children. Another exercise he likes that educators can adapt for writers of all ages is Ruth Stone's poetry game, in which preselected words are put in a hat and students create poems by pulling out words and arranging them together. Former Poet Laureate of Vermont Sydney Lea was in attendance, and he and Chard discussed the merits of asking students to focus on a poem's language and what it does, rather than what the poem means. Other practical poetry work to use in schools that Chard discussed includes getting involved in the Poetry Out Loud program, through which students select and read poems aloud in the classroom (librarians can also incorporate this into a library activity), and which sponsors an annual national poetry recitation competition; asking students to identify poems that relate to their experiences; and developing found poetry exercises, in which students choose lines from everyday sources including (but certainly not limited to) advertisements, songs, and television shows. Teachers can encourage students in grades 7-12 to enter their own poems in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which offer scholarship and publication opportunities.

Chard's most recent book of poems, Interstate, as well as his previous titles, are available from Bear Pond. 

Further reading and resources on teaching poetry:


Our Educator Events will return in the fall; stay tuned for the 2016-17 program! If you have an idea for an event—be it a speaker or a topic—please email Jane at jane@bearpondbooks.com.