When you ask a group of energetic kindergarteners to imagine jumping inside the infamous painting, Starry Night, you don’t tell them to remain in their seats. You tell them to get their goggles on and get ready to dive into the swimming, swirling world of Van Gogh’s painting and you let them bolt, almost instinctively, from their seat in the back of the class to the front, projected image of his painting. You let them stick their nose up to the projector and let them “ooh” and “ahh”. You let them go cross-eyed imagining what that ever-ambiguous and debated dark, looming tower is in the painting’s right corner. And it turns out you’ll get responses as varied as “it’s a piece of my hair!” to “that tower isn’t a tower—it is seaweed!”.
This is exactly what the writer Yanara Friedland did in our Writing in the Community workshop. This group of kindergarteners at Pueblo Gardens Elementary were excited to list everything they saw when they felt the painting had a 3-dimensional, physical aspect. I was inspired by Yanara’s use of physical exploration as a method for writing.
At one of the Poetry Center’s Family Days, I constructed a lesson plan based on this idea of physicality. In this activity, called Going Under, I asked the students to first imagine a grassy schoolyard and second, to think of all the things (living or otherwise) that could be physically below or above that object. We dove into the dirt and found worms. Further into the dirt they told me there was a “hot ball of fire” at the Earth’s center. We propelled into the atmosphere, into outer space and found worms there too. One girl closed her eyes tight and, smiling, said she could see billions of bright, flying insects circling around the center of the Milky Way.
Imagination takes up space: worlds are made (some with bugs in the sky instead of stars), fantasy lands with deep, dark forests are mapped out, haunted rooms are written with menacing ghosts in the ceiling corner. As a writer myself, I struggle with the pre-conceived notion that art is invented conceptually and out of thin air. I used to have the illusion that writers sit down at their desk, pen in hand, with an abstract idea already planned out. That big conceptual idea they have been wanting to write about (death, love, violence, etc), we are taught, is something writers simply transfer onto paper. What this illusion unfortunately suggests is that art is made in a vacuum. It also suggests that art is a formula. What is more interesting and close to actual imagination is how the mind (and memory) engages with space and the physical moments we experience daily. When you ran your fingers down the tree bark, what did it feel like? How does your mom’s voice sound when she talks down to you? When you were dared to lick that pole on the playground, what did the metal taste like? Imagination is pinned by thread to the daily experiences we have with the real, living world around us. Memory breathes just like the world does. And because of this, it is important to start with the physical.
I had not learned the importance of the palpable in art until Renee Angle, who shaped the Writing in the Community program into its current form, posed this question to us: how do you get kids (or yourself for that matter) excited to write poetry? I learned you start with a ripe orange, and holding it in your hand, ask what it smells, tastes, and feels like (another exercise we have done with students). In this way writing is not a means by which to get to a destination, but rather a way to explore. Writing should be as adventurous as it is contemplative.
Our Going Under poems at Family Days allowed us to dig around in the dirt and let bugs “crawl all over our arms”. Students even told me that in the dirt they saw “deep water under the ants” and “great, monstrous blobs of liquid” under such deep pools. I mean, what is there to contemplate about great, big blobs of water? A lot. The excitement young poets have in exploring can show us that above all else, you have to be an adventurer in order to be a poet.
Sophie Daws is an undergradaute at the University of Arizona. She recently taught a poetry workshop for the Writing the Community Program.