A friend once told me that poetic writing is concerned with questions, as opposed to plot which seeks answers. Poetry is possibility. I would add to this definition and say that poetry does concern itself with answers but in poetry answers aren’t definite and singular. Answers (in the poem they might appear as "statements") are tried on, tossed off, and challenged. Answers—that which is known—are at play and in constant threat of being proven wrong. We’ve seen poets navigate this question-answer-question before. The poet states their bold “This is the way things are” line. They have, self-assured, thrust a flagpole of certainty into the earth and dare us to challenge it. But later, in the same poem even, we watch the poet’s confidence wane. I think of Frank O’Hara’s “A Step Away From Them." The line “But is the / earth as full as life was full, of them?” appears suddenly in an otherwise statement and observation-filled poem. Frank O’Hara, back at square one, digs up the certainty-flagpole. We are thrust into a field of possibilities, deciding what direction to take and what answer out of many to grab at.
This is the magic of poetry (and life) that is so delightful and worth exploring with your students. Life is complicated, and so is our decision making and opinion forming (or at least hopefully it is). In the Q & A exercise we welcome a variety of responses and creative impulses, all the while pushing students to move away from normal, repetitive, and expected answers. In response to one question the exercise calls for a list of answers and possibilities. When we truly inquire, study, and penetrate a question we’re thrust into uncertainty and there isn’t one answer to life’s questions. It isn’t realistic, afterall, to approach the world stubbornly and in one way. With this exercise we enter a field of possibility—of explorative uncertainty.
Q&A Writing Exercise
Grades: Elementary, middle school, and high school with adjustment
Materials: Several paper strips and pieces of lined paper for each student
As is always true, it’s best to warm up the classroom. Apply the Q&A to the group writing format. Think of a question ahead of time. Write this question on the board and ask the class to give you answers.
When thinking of questions, consider the age of your class. I was initially intimidated to pose existential questions to third graders, but I found young students were equipped, delightfully so, to tackle the abstract. I asked my third grade class questions such as: Who am I? What are mountains? What am I doing here? Why do frogs jump? Why do people exist? The responses I got were oddball, spirited, and thought-provoking.
For older students, pose grounded and slightly more specific questions. For example: Where did black holes start? What is crime? What is a privilege? Middle and high school are years of synthesis and critical thinking. The Q and A can be a great compliment to the history they’re learning; their growing life experience; and the current political climate they find themselves in. In other words, explore the opinions they’re forming.
Take several answers from the class and write each answer as a line. Take answers/lines until you feel the poem is robust; but more importantly, once it feels varied. Read the poem aloud (make sure you include the poem’s title: the question!), emphasizing drama and tone where the writing calls for it. Make a point of discussing variety in answers: “Notice how we came up with several different answers for the same question!”
After the warm up, have students break off into partners. Pass out strips of paper as well as full pages of blank paper to each student.
Part I: Instruct the students to think of a question they’ve always wanted answered. When they have that question in their head (without saying it aloud), instruct them write it on the strip of paper.
Part II: Have the students swap strips of paper and answer their partner’s question on the full page of paper. Tell them to write as much as it takes to answer their partner’s question. Remind them, as the group poem demonstrated, there are several ways to answer the same question.
Tell the students they are welcome to repeat this exchange several times or can work more in-depth on 1-2 answer-poems they’ve started.
Welcome discussion for this exercise. You may notice partnerships converge into larger groups. Excited, students overhear a question from another group, and will jump in with their opinion on the matter. The class will get loud. This noise, however, may be an opportunity for you to overhear and enjoy some impassioned discussion on why it is, exactly, the sky shines so blue.
Example Group Poem, Q & A Exercise:
WHERE DO WE COME FROM?
Rocks are from the Earth
Rocks come from my hand
Because I mould them
They always roll
Rocks? Rocks I throw
Into a giant pile in my backyard
which forms the Earth again
Planets are from my mind
Dancing and bobbing like waves
There is a big pink one now…
Planets are made of glitter!
Planets don’t come from anywhere.
People come from dogs.
People walk the streets
Like my mom yelling for me
People say to one another:
“It’s time for dinner!”
People bump into me.
People are from other planets
And have huge heads, aah!
The universe? My mom gave
Me the universe.
The universe comes from above.
The universe comes from nowhere, duh
The universe comes from people.
People come in from outside.
Sophie Daws is a nature poet first and a femme/queer/Marxist poet second. Her work revolves around labor, memory, and architecture--all of which are explored in terms of nature/ecology and a feminine-queer aesthetic. Sophie has created, skipped, and danced across the Sonoran Desert since birth and incorporates this landscape into her poetry. She received her B.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing in 2018 and holds a minor in Plant Sciences. She received the Hattie Lockett Award in 2018 and graduated with honors for her poetry manuscript and thesis, Snag.