Ready to Kiss Winter Goodbye, But Don’t Toss These Poems

This winter, here in Minnesota, we’ve been reminded that March, even with climate change,  can still be full-on winter.

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All that snow was pretty and now I am so ready to be done with winter—snow shovels, gloves, boots, hats.

But as I pack away my winter poems, I’m reluctant to let go a few favorites, ones that always seem to spark winter conversations and memories with older adults I work with, especially when combined with a few photos of winter scenes—historic blizzards in particular stir up a lot of conversation and memories.

In particular this pair of  poems—-featuring heating and how we used to heat our houses— and who did the work to keep that heat coming—are often fruitful for stirring up memories and stories:

Marge Percy, “The Air Smelled Dirty”

Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”

Lots of folks remember the coal chute, but the stories range widely, a few gems:

parents’ taking a break from shoveling to show a child how to make a snowball (and start a snowball fight, and —more importantly—enjoy life),

cutting peat for heating fuel,

trying to jimmy coins out of a British bedsit gas meter.

The Hayden poem also often leads to interesting conversations about how little of our parents’ own lives we sometimes understood when we were children…

So I won’t miss the end of winter, but I will miss the winter stories these poems kick up.

PS—

Here are some resources for finding your own favorite winter poems:

Interesting Literature

Poetry Foundation

American Academy of Poets

Let me know your favorites and what connects you to them…

PPS–

And if you find too many gloomy winter poems, for a lighter mood check out:

Robert Frost, “Dust of Snow”

Snowy tree limbs

 

 

Learning by Going, #2: You Don’t Even Need a Window

 

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I organize a lot of Known by Heart/Writing Home poetry sessions around windows. There are tons of interesting poems that  feature windows (see a couple below). I also like to connect writing to other art forms, so sometimes we write responding to images of paintings —Many students respond especially to Vermeer, whose paintings are filled with windows, seen and implied.

I also like to introduce something painters call a view-finder.

A viewfinder  can be as simple as a piece of card stock with a rectangle cut in it. There are fancier adjustable versions. Simple or fancy, painters use a viewfinder to select what scene or slice of the world they choose to paint.

I like to introduce writing and poetry craft elements as things, that once we learn about them, give us more choices. For example, we may or may not want to rhyme or have lines with a certain number of stresses or syllables, but once we know what a line is, we have more choices about how we use them in a poem.

And the viewfinder is an object lesson in what to me is the first element of writing craft:

We get to choose what to write about.

And this is one of those places where art-making and wellness intersect. Making choices is a key aspect of art-making, of finding our unique voice, of honing our craft. And to bring in the mental health or therapy perspective, having a sense of choice and making choices even in difficult times or situations, is a key aspect of emotional well-being.

So back to the writing with a view-finder. When I do this activity, writers often choose to focus on something within the room where they are writing. But it’s very helpful to have a window. It gives writers more choices; for writers with mobility limitations, a window with a view is no small thing in maintaining a connection to the world outside.

I give participants each a viewfinder, show how you can include more or less of a scene by bringing the frame closer or farther away from your eye.

It’s such a treat to hear what an array of images or stories a group of writers write looking out the same window. Suddenly one scene prisms into the individual perspectives of the writers.

But I was a little dismayed recently when I walked into a room I hadn’t taught in before equipped with my stack of viewfinders to realize there were no windows that my writers could look out at. I had been in the space a few years before, new it was a basement, but remembered it had windows. But I had forgotten they were not clear glass. No view to the outside world and not much to inspire in the room: Stacks of chairs,  formica tables, drab carpet.

But I shouldn’t have worried. The group dug in with gusto and found thinks to write about I would never have imagined—persona poems from the perspectives of the furniture, internal monologues, a prose poem about a lost loved one.

So what did I learn that day? Trust your writers. If people have made the effort to show up, they will find a way to write something fresh, unique, compelling, from the heart. The writers remind me we have the power of choosing what to focus on in even the most unpromising setting.

That’s something that has a use way beyond that one poetry class.

A Couple of Window Poems:

Alicia Ostriker, “August Morning, Upper Broadway”

Natasha Trethewey, “Incident”

 

Recommended Reading: Moonwalking with Einstein

Memory as a sport? Give me a break. I didn’t expect to like Joshua Foer’s book about becoming a mental athlete, vying for a championship based on the ability to cram and recall huge amounts of useless information.

But Moonwalking with Einstein is a great read and Foer does far more than just chart his journey into the nerdy world of memory athletes.

Along the way he provides an engaging explanation of how neuroscientists currently understand memory. He shows us how the extreme accomplishments of memory champions build on ancient and (conceptually) simple techniques of linking image, place and memory. He takes us through the history of moving memory out of our heads and into technology…and he’s not just talking about SD cards and smart phones here: As Foer points out, writing and books are also forms of external memory storage.

If the question of memory intrigues you in any way, find yourself a copy of this book.