My Heart is Like a Box of Names: Using List Poems to Write into Collective Pain

by Lisa M. O'Neill essayist, narrative journalist, and creative nonfiction writer who is currently teaching in the Poetry Center's Writing the Community program.

This past two weeks, I have thanked the universe more than once for poetry. For poets. For words. For the ability to use language to channel emotions that on their own feel much too powerful and disturbing and relentless to bear.

Last week, I sat in a classroom with poet Camille Dungy. I had signed up for her course “Writing Pain Into Possibility” on the first day I could register in August, attuned to the collective pain of the world but also heartened by what felt like so much room for possibility. When I arrived to that classroom, pain was palpable, a collective fog of grief hung in the room. Dungy entered the space in both a literal and metaphorical burst, punctuating the air with energy, dissecting and reorganizing the pain, showing us what vessels trauma could be poured into, revealing how vocabulary could channel, making unbearable pain more bearable through new form and perspective. She said she’d been thinking about making poetry and how, if we weren’t careful, poems could crumble under the weight of our fears.

She quoted Audre Lorde: Poetry is not a luxury.

She quoted C.D. Wright: What elegy is: not loss but opposition.

She spoke of her own losses in 2016 and how we are constantly bombarded with elegy—the death of poets and musicians and artists and a species of rodent we didn’t even know existed until its extinction, The Great Barrier Reef.

How do we engage in the political and survive as writers and human beings? she asked. What are the ways that in the midst of sorrow, anger, and terror, we can instill things at which we can marvel?

Last Tuesday, a week after the election, I taught a poetry workshop with seventh graders. I spent the morning staring into my coffee mug, trying to figure out what to possibly offer this roomful of kids, most of whom come from refugee families and almost all of whom are students of color. I thought about how, for me, writing is most importantly and necessarily a way to process through things I don’t understand, can’t make sense of, and feel too deeply to ignore. One thing I could do, I thought, was to hold space for them to use language to process emotion.

When I walked into the classroom to set up, my eyes fell upon the collaborative collage mural fifth-graders made with their art teacher just after the election. Each student had drawn with markers on an index card and now they were arranged together to form a mural of sad faces, eyes with tears streaming down, the orange face and hair of the president-elect. A black heart was broken in half. A broken white heart sat on top of an American flag. The words HOPE, LOVE, LUCK, HAPPY encased in a red circle, crossed through with a red line. One of the cards had a person crying with a speech bubble that read, “Bye, Tucson.”

Elegy: not loss but opposition.

Dungy told us that earlier in the week in her writing course at Colorado State University, they talked about collective trauma. She asked students about their experiences of collective trauma and found that 80 percent of her students had been directly or indirectly connected to the 2012 mass shooting at the Aurora movie theater. Students worked at the theater but were off that night, or they knew someone who went to the theater, including ones who were at that showing. Going to the movies was never the same again. We have to be aware that these collective traumas changed people’s lives, she said, that these are real people, not theoretical questions. What it means to show up the next day at school and see your friend isn’t there.

All of those losses, the ubiquity of it, you have to find a way to channel it, she said.

Back in class with the seventh graders, we prepared to write list poems. We looked at a few examples and then talked about the function and accumulative impact of lists. How lists are used to order things. How lists help us keep track. How lists remind us of things that are important. How lists remind us of things we need to remember. I asked students to write five lines for each of these prompts:

I wish …
Remember …
My heart is like …

This is what they wrote:

I wish I wasn’t an outsider
I wish I could fix the future
I wish the world wasn’t dying
I wish when I die I could live again
I wish I knew the meaning of life

Remember the past
Remember who our ancestors are
Remember their fates but also their goals and accomplishments
Remember their culture
Remember the love they gave one another

My heart is like a ball of fire
My heart is like a lion’s roar
My heart is like the ocean
My heart is like a knight
My heart is like what my mind thinks it is

I wish everybody knew how fast time went
I wish I could go back in time
I wish I could see the future
I wish time went slower
I wish to see the new generation

Remember the life you are in
Remember when you were little
Remember your friends
Remember your memories
Remember everyone loves you

My heart is a flowing stream
My heart is flooding with memories
My heart is keeping secrets from society
My heart is a refuge for my thoughts
My heart is connected to my soul

I wish I can sleep
I wish I can play football
I wish I could go to the library
I wish I could be rich
I wish I could have free pizza for life

I wish Hillary Clinton was a president
I wish people can stop violents
I wish I can go back in past
I wish people can stop hating other people

I wish we were treated equal
I wish that Donald Trump never won
I wish that President Obama was still the president
I wish to get my dreams to come true
I wish the world would go back to where it was

My heart is like a beautiful ocean
My heart is like a beating drum
My heart is like a burning fire
My heart is like a cabinet of memories
My heart is like a box of names

Remember when two beautiful babies were born
Remember when Barack Obama was president
Remember when my little sister came into the world
Remember the good ol dayz
Remember when they saved my life

Remember when my baby brother was born
Remember when I learned how to ride a two-wheeled bike
Remember when we went to California
Remember when I first held my baby brother
Remember when there was peace and love

Remember when we watched Hillary Clinton didn’t win
Remember when I got on Honor Roll
Remember when I got to dance
Remember when my little twin brothers were born
Remember when I saw my little sister born. I have seen the miracle of life and it is horrible

I wish Donald Trump wasn’t president
I wish the world wasn’t so cruel
I wish people weren’t so selfish
I wish there was peace
I wish people cared more for other people
I wish Donald Trump wasn’t president
I wish Squidward wasn’t so annoying
I wish there was equal rights for everyone
I wish there was peace
I wish people were more loving
I wish parents were so nice
I wish a teacher did have rules for the school
I wish to get ice coffee once a week

Remember when the two beautiful baby girls were born
Remember when love wasn’t a chore
Remember when life wasn’t a struggle
Remember when Rosa stood up for herself and brought a little peace for blacks
Remember when Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream

Remember counting down for New Years
Remember those birthday parties
Remember people crying when we left
Remember the hot cocoa one snowy day
Remember the encouragement from great people. Remember.

My heart is like a flame of fire
My heart is like a block of ice
My heart is like a broken heart
My heart is like a beautiful flower
My heart is like a peaceful ocean wave

I wish that I was perfect
I wish that I would be so perfect, no one could be in my way
I wish that when someone saw my life, they would cry because they couldn’t compare
I wish if I were perfect, I wouldn’t have sadness in my life
I wish every college would want me because I couldn’t fail

I wish that we were all equal
I wish that we were loving
I wish that we were all the same
I wish that we all had money
I wish that all of this will happen

I wish I was back home
I wish I can see all my friends
I wish I can see the beautiful trees and grass
I wish I can throw snowballs at my friends again
I wish that I can have those snow days from school

I wish there was peace
I wish there was hope
I wish there was faith
I wish there was strength
I wish there was love

I remember my mom
I remember the first time I went to school
I remember when Obama was president
I remember nothing
I remember my mom
I remember my dad
I remember my sister
I remember my family

My heart is like a pounding stone. My heart is regretting everything.

I wish to go back in time
I wish there were more trees
I wish I could give clothes to everyone
I wish I could meet Bernie Sanders
I wish to go everywhere

My heart is like a stone
My heart is solid
My heart is cold
My heart has no room for anyone
My heart is disappointed


My heart is like frozen ice
My heart is like an ocean wave
My heart is like eyes: it loves to gaze
My heart is like a human: it cries


I wish to see animals evolve
I wish to see equal pay
I wish to do extraordinary things
I wish to see my mother be joyful
I wish make peace

Remember the animals before you eat them
Remember where the plastic bottles go after you use them
Remember the environment before you destroy it
Remember people who need help that you don’t help
Remember how you treated the needy

I wish upon a star
I wish I remember my father
I wish I was never alone
I wish I was lead to the light and not left alone
I wish the skies were blue
I wish the grass was greener
I wish I could get what I want
I wish Obama was still president
I wish wishes came true

I remember the good times
I remember the bad times
I remember the sad times
I remember when I was broken
Remember the good time
Remember you’re never alone because I am here for you
Remember me and I’ll remember you
Remember I love you

My heart is broken
My heart is black like my soul
My heart is cold
My heart is like a free butterfly
My heart is like a fountain of water
My heart is like a leaf on a branch
My heart is like a sky full of flying birds
My heart is like a precious jewelry

My heart is in little pieces
My heart is no where to be found
My heart wishes time went slower
My heart broken
My heart is pouring tears

Remember when dinosaurs still lived
Remember when sound came from nowhere
Remember when water streamed through every river
Remember when the skies were blue and the grass was greener
Remember the good old days

I wish I was a grown up man
I wish Donald Trump wasn’t a president
I wish people can stop hating each other
I remember when my mom used to kiss me when I was a baby
My heart is like a storm inside it
My heart feels empty

Alongside his writing, one student wrote the quote from Brian Andreas: Anyone can slay a dragon, but try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again. That’s what takes a real hero.