WITS Voices: A Tower of Dreams
February 25, 2020
By Arlene Naganawa, WITS Writer-in-Residence
I love how poets use language in surprising, transformative ways, creating metaphors and images that we don’t often encounter in academic or journalistic writing. When I work with students, I encourage them to take leaps in their poems, to elevate their language. I don’t mean for students to use words that sound “more important” or “professorial,” (puffed-up language being the bane of teachers) but elevate as in lifting up. A great image lifts us, gives us new perspectives and insights into emotions, situations, and ideas.
Many students write about the selves they are and the selves they could be, often expressing themselves in evocative, almost mysterious, ways. Corrina says, “I am the shape of a cat in the night” and Esmeralda uses a wonderful simile when she proclaims, “I could be pitch black, like when you waste that unwanted watercolor and you watch it flow through your cup.” And Braylin asserts, “I am a tower of dreams growing.” Each of these poets creates a double of herself, a projection of personal energy, beautifully described. These personas have dream-like qualities; they are elusive, ephemeral, yet powerful and magical.
Poems in our classroom are often filled with precise, tender descriptions. Vivian writes, “The world cocoons me with its hands and holds me tight.” Reading this line gives me, and I hope all readers, a sense of comfort and love, something we can use in these times of political turmoil and despair.
Other students’ lines capture the world’s loveliness and fragility. Henry’s “the lake trickles with light” pleases the eye and the ear, and the consonance of k’s and l’s is pitch perfect. Evan’s phrase, “a horse, whose ears tremble/like the hands of a frightened child” captures the vulnerability and fragility of living creatures. In contrast, Ani describes a scene that embodies such energy that we feel it in our bodies: “The leaves turned to gold / as the wind called / like a child’s hands yanking all the branches in reach. / A yellow light explodes the clouds.”
Sometimes, the students take an ordinary thing and consider its many surprising facets, as Hania does in her mediation on “silver”:
Crown, silver, declares authority.
Moon, silver, light of the night.
Ice, silver, cool to the night.
Winter, silver, preparing for life.
Law, silver, seemingly pure.
Cat, silver, hunter of night.
Mouse, silver, prey of the cat.
Aragon, silver, silencer of all.
Language used in humor is also surprising and delightful. Thorvald’s poem captures his personality; he is quite pleased with it:
If I Was
If I was a shape, I would be a triangle
like those signs that say DO NOT ENTER
If I was a number, I would be one of those made-up numbers
like eleventeen or thirtytwelve because I stand out
If I was an animal, I would be a sloth
became I take my time
If I was a sound, I would be that random drip of water
waking you up right as you start to sleep
and if I was a color, I would be a neon green
annoying you to death
(Note: Thorvald is not at all annoying!)
When we wrote about our legacies, most students recalled family or the natural environment. However, Sander’s ode to pasta is a humorous take on his legacy (of eating):
Remember the Pasta
Remember the buttery penne pasta.
Know the cheesy soft mac ‘n’ cheese.
Remember the cheese melting, know
the long spaghetti strands sliding down
your throat. Remember the homemade
noodles that the strongest person could
not chew. Remember the wheel pasta
that look like a wagon’s wheel. Remember
how you spelled words with them.
You are evidence of a pasta-eating machine.
Remember the pasta.
Transformation in poetry sometimes is less about language or craft and more about depth of emotion. Over and over, students’ poems reveal quiet, personal thoughts. In every setting where I have written poetry with young people, they’ve offered glimpses into their inner lives. These poems are gifts. I am especially touched by Neha’s poem about herself. She surprised herself by writing it; like many poets, she did not know what her poem would reveal until she wrote it:
A sunrise filled with love;
it filled my heart with happiness.
That morning me and my family
were enjoying the day.
The love I got from my family
I never got from the others.
No worries were in my body
or fear that made me sit still
in the darkness of my heart
that couldn’t move at all.
I didn’t know how to cry.
And that’s how I came to the earth,
by getting love from my family’s heart.
I will never forget it.
My name became lover of the earth.
Ayla’s poem also refers to the earth; in her poem the river becomes a life force, “like a human.” As she moves her reader through the rapids, Ayla offers guidance and encouragement:
—after Joy Harjo
Remember not to get lost by the river.
Know your path.
Remember the smell of fresh water.
Know the feeling.
Remember the gushing waves—
that is the strongest flow to rip you
from the land.
The river is dangerous.
Remember how water can save lives
and take lives.
Remember the sharp rocks, how they
make a stone path across the river.
The river is evidence of life and death.
Remember, you don’t have to be afraid
of things you can’t handle. Know who you are.
Remember the life your parents gave you.
Know your name.
Remember, the river is like a human.
Know that they go on for a long time
like our souls. There are sharp paths
we take but we still get by them.
Sometimes we get lost but find our way back.
Know you can be anything you want
and no one can tell you anything.
Ayla’s poem offers wisdom for us all: “Know who you are. Know your name. Sometimes we get lost but find our way back.” I hope young people working with WITS discover that writing can map the inner self’s intersection with the outer world. And I hope as they write, they begin to truly know their names.
Arlene Naganawa is a poet and teaching artist. She has been a Scribes instructor at Hugo House, grades 5-12, and has been Writer-in-Residence at Islander Middle School on Mercer Island. She has been a Pongo poet, writing with incarcerated youth at King County Juvenile Detention and currently mentors youth writers in Echo Glen Children’s Center. Her chapbooks include “Private Graveyard” (Gribble Press), “The Scarecrow Bride” (Red Bird Chapbooks), and “The Ark and the Bear” (Floating Bridge Press). She was a recipient of Seattle Arts Commission literary artist awards, and has been featured on Metro Poetry on Buses.