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Thematic Reading List: Poetic Perspectives—Understanding Others

I teach ekphrastic writing for a lot of reasons—I work ekphastically myself, I think images are a quick entry point for those new to written words, and that visuals hold flexible attention spans longer. I also think that there’s something about ekphrastic writing that flexes new parts of the brain in considering multiple stimuli, and that ekphrasis is an exercise in fostering empathy.

I came to this thinking while researching the work of teaching artist Tony Blackhawk, who uses abstract art like that of Cy Twombly to lead his students in loose ekphrastic writing exercises. In “Third Mind,” Blackhawk quotes Nancy Gorrell, who used Ekphrastic writing to help students learn about history by “entering” into another perspective. In my own practice, I’ve asked students to write from the perspective of an object in a painting, or from the position of the artist creating it. I’ve found that this practice in “entering” from a different angle seems to offer students an open-mindedness and explorative quality in a creative space that then leaks into the larger world.

This reading list is about entering that very practice—one of stepping into another perspective, and inhabiting the life of an “other” by peeking into their daily life, and seeing where you relate. I’m of the opinion that empathy is one of the most important skills an artist can develop—it’s useful across genres and mediums—and that it’s also a significant life skill. Oftentimes, it’s through the eyes of others—a flowerpot, a three-legged dog, the kid with roller skates—that we first begin to understand the world, and more fully engage with it ourselves.

Crazy to be Alive in such a strange World: Poems About People 

selected by Nancy Larrick


This is a collection celebrating the details of individual, unique personalities. The collection’s titles reflect the variety of voices contained in one small volume (“Hey, this little kid gets roller skates.” “Well son, I’ll tell you.”), and its accompanying photographs provide the poetic portraits with a visual accompaniment of faces across generations and cultural backgrounds.

Nancy Larrick cites what she calls “ a living portrait collection” in her hometown as inspiration for portrait poetry. Later, she says she “met” more poems about people and began to collect them into a community.

About this book, Larrick writes “What a picture these poems give of our world and of ourselves! Vivid. Complex. Teeming.  Like the old kaleidoscope which showed constant change in patterns of brilliant colors—none alike, none completely comprehensible or predictable, and thus all the more fascinating!”

 “Then we overtook a boy we knew

with his pet crow on his shoulder.

‘Always offer everyone a ride;

Don’t forget that when you get older.’”

Excerpt from “MANNERS for a child of 1918” by Elizabeth Bishop



The Table Where Rich People Sit

by Byrd Baylor with Pictures by Peter Parnall

In the first pages of this book, a family gathers around their hand-me-down table and imagines the table’s life before it came to them. Their talk winds into a daughter’s worries about her family’s poverty, and then into larger ideas of wealth and ownership as the children try to quantify the worth of what their family has.  

In the style of “Everybody needs a Rock,” each image is contained in the sparse organic lines of desert flora and fauna that layer color blocks like exposed sediment layers of the desert.


“My mother says,

‘We don’t just

take our pay

in cash,

you know.

We have a special plan

so we get paid

in sunsets, too,

and in having time

to hike around

the canyons

and look for eagle nests.'"


“My father thinks of

something else.

‘When a cactus blooms,

you should be there

to watch it


it might be a color

you won’t see again

any other day

of your life.

How much would you say

that color is worth?'

‘Fifty cents?’

my brother asks.

But they decide on


five thousand.

So now I write

forty thousand dollars.”




One and Seven

by Gianni Rodari and Beatrice Alemagna


“I once knew a child who was 7 children," begins a book also known as "Un et Sept" and "Uno y Siete" that links the life of one child to seven others across the globe. As the story goes on, the repetition of “But he also…” continues to parallel the life of one seven-year-old boy with many others. Each of these people are paired with an image of each new experience, full of layers of sketchy texture, pastel rubbings, and collage. The book decides, finally, that despite the variations in names, skin colors, and hometowns, “yet they were the same child, and they laughed in the same language.”


“He lived in Rome, his name was Paolo

and his father was a street-car driver.”


“But he also lived in Moscow,

his name was Yuri, like Gargarin,

and his father was a bricklayer

and also studied mathematics.”


“one was named Chu, he lived in Shanghai

and his father was a fisherman”



The Flag of Childhood: Poems from the Middle East

selected by Naomi Shihab Nye

Headnote: “In the spirit of the children at the Cairo Library who said, during the worst sandstorm of the twentieth century, ‘Just keep reading!’”

This is a collection full of poems from middle-eastern writers whose topics range from the train of stars in a deep night sky to the unjust differences between being raised as a boy or a girl in Egyptian culture. Many of the collected poets write about childhood, or from the perspective of a child, but their concerns are real-world, their tones at once mournful and full of joy.

Nye writes, hopefully, that readers of this book “will come to understand that in ‘the space between our footsteps’ resides eloquent, universal truths."


Excerpt from "Rice Paradise" by Ronny Someck, translated by Vivian Eden:

“My grandmother wouldn’t let us leave rice on our plates…

…she would drag all the leftovers to the centers of our plates

with a screeching fork and, nearly in tears,

tell how the uneaten rice would rise to the heavens

to complain to God.

Now she’s dead and I imagine the joy of the encounter

between her false teeth and the angels with flaming swords

at the gates of rice paradise….”






Uncle Switch: Loony Limericks

by X. J. Kennedy illustrated by John O’Brien


This book is a fun, lyric read about an uncle who does things just a little differently. Each page opens to a limerick and a full scene of Uncle Switch trying something or another the other way ‘round.

“Uncle Switch never does anything the way other folks do.”

For example:

“Uncle Switch has this tree whose routine

Is as mixed up as any I’ve seen:

                Apples ripple, red, and round

                Jump right up off the ground,

Fasten fast to a branch, and turn green.”


“When, by munching hard, Uncle gets through

Mowing meadowgrass—hear the man moo!—

    He exclaims with a snort,

             ‘Shucks, I’ve cut it too short!’—

So he sticks it all back on with glue.”




Sarah Minor is the Education Intern at the Poetry Center and Co-editor of the Wordplay blog. She is a current MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Arizona.

Arizona Board of Regents