Improvising a Poetic Structure

Like the techniques of taking dictation and using a fill-in-the-blank poem, the technique of improvising a poetic structure can be used to make sure that a distressed teen has a successful writing experience every time he or she sits down with Pongo.

Although choosing and setting up a poetic structure calls for some creativity and sensitivity on the part of the mentor, it is not a difficult process to set up a poem in this way. Many basic structures, including the structures highlighted below, have content that develops naturally, such as Wishes (“What do you wish for?”), Lists (“Let’s list your goals in life”), Memories (“What are your strongest memories of your dad?”), etc. A mentor can make such a poetic structure particularly relevant for a teen if the mentor is sensitive enough to choose a design that is based on a discovered truth – a teen’s neediness, an emotion, a significant loss, etc.

As in the process of taking dictation, a mentor may need to help a teen complete a poem by asking questions and making suggestions. For example, one poetic structure that can always be guided to completion is a Wish Poem. (This concept was taken from the poet Kenneth Koch’s book on teaching writing called “Wishes, Lies, and Dreams.”) This poem begins with the title “Wish Poem” and has a first line of “I wish.” Then the mentor asks what the teen would wish for. If a teen has a hard time talking, the mentor might ask questions and make suggestions that become increasingly specific, as necessary:

What would you wish for? (A thousand dollars.)
What would you buy with the money? (A lot of candy)
What kinds of candy? (Jolly Ranchers, etc.)
Maybe you’d like to be the Candy King. (Yes)
Would your kingdom be made of candy?
What would your kingdom be like?

In this example, the mentor would write down the teen’s words, with collaborations, as follows, to create a poem:

WISH POEM
by Noah (age 12?)

I wish I had a thousand dollars
I’d buy a lot of candy
Jolly Ranchers, gum, Daffy Taffys,
Airheads, Tootsie Rolls, Snickers,
Milky Ways, Skittles, M&Ms,
Mombas, KitKats, sodas,

I’d be the Candy King
My country would be all chocolate

As described in the process for taking dictation, a mentor may then have to be skilled in helping a teen wrap up a poem, to reach an appropriate resolution and conclusion. In the case of this “Wish Poem” by Noah, which describes his Candy Land, the boy started to write about chocolate gangsters and chocolate policemen who were shooting one another. He could not extricate himself from a chaotic and frightening situation. To help him reach a conclusion for his poem, the mentor took an active role. He reminded Noah that he was the Candy King. Noah could change things. What would he do? Noah decided that he would tell the police to leave his chocolate land:

I’d be the Candy King
My country would be all chocolate
You could take a bite out of crime
You could bite the police
There’d be chocolate flowers you could eat
My chocolate land would be bad
There be bad people with 22s, machine guns,
shooting the chocolate police

But I’m the Candy King
I’d just tell the police to leave
my chocolate land

Here is a list of ten poetic structures that writing mentor could use, with some comments or examples to illustrate their implementation.

Wish Poem: Described above. Here is a training exercise that you can use to practice and become familiar with this improvisational structure: Training - Wish Poem .

List Poem: A mentor chose this structure with a young man who acted very confused and seemed affected by medications. He referred to complications in his life, but had difficulty focusing. The mentor suggested the title, and then asked the author to list his life’s complications, which they discussed and wrote down individually. The mentor took a strong hand in focusing on one complication at a time.

LIFE’S COMPLICATIONS
by Jeff (age 13)

One complication
Is not having a parent there
Having to live on my own
Having to take care of myself

Another complication
Trying to get over a drug that
Can kill me…

Here is a training exercise that you can use to practice and become familiar with this improvisational structure: Training - List Poem .

Poetic-Imagery Poem: If a teen can articulate a feeling, you can help her create a successful poem using poetic imagery. She may need a series of examples to help her understand what you are looking for and to start her thinking. For example, if a teen is angry, does she feel like a bomb ready to explode, or like a monster ripping up a city, or like cornered rat, or ???? Here is an excerpt from a poem about loneliness.

NOT FEELING CARED FOR
by Larissa (age 16)

I feel alone
Like a deer that’s just been born
But its mom died
Like the only flower
In a field
Like a pool of water
In the middle of the desert

I feel deserted
Like an open piece of candy on the shelf
...

I feel the need for love
A squeeze of lemon in my glass of water

Here is a training exercise that you can use to practice and become familiar with this improvisational structure: Training - Poetic-Imagery Poem

Emotion Poem: Many distressed teens have strong emotions. These can be the subject of very relevant poems that effectively address feelings, reactions, and causes of a particular emotional state. A poem about anger can ask one or all of these questions: What is it like to feel angry? What happens to you when you’re angry? What are the causes of your anger? The answer to each question might include detailed anecdote or poetic imagery. In the excerpt below, the poem ends by repeating its first line, which raises an essential question within the poem – Why is it that “My anger is a mystery to me”?

MY ANGER IS A MYSTERY TO ME
by Damien (age 14)

My anger is a mystery to me

Sometimes when I get angry
     I don’t realize itI just go after people
     I use drugs to calm me down
     I just need to smoke a cigarette

Sometimes when I get angry
     I feel like the world is out to get me
     …


My anger is a mystery to me

Here is a training exercise that you can use to practice and become familiar with this improvisational structure: Training - Emotion Poem

Chronology / Memory Poem: The author is this example is a homeless teen. She had already written a great deal with a Pongo mentor on other days, and was short of ideas during this session. The mentor asked her to proceed step-by-step through a series of memories – “I remember when I was 5,” “I remember when I was 6,” etc. There is an excerpt from her poem, below. The poem naturally captures a process in which her life went downhill. The last stanza (not included here) wraps up the poem by describing her life today. At fifteen years old, she feels “tired” and ready to make a change.

EARLY MEMORIES
by Monica (age 15)


I remember
I was 6
and everybody in my first-grade class
got the chicken pox.
For a month
there were no more than two kids in class.
I learned to block out
the itch with my mind.
I really got good at it,
and I still do it today.

Here is a training exercise that you can use to practice and become familiar with this improvisational structure: Training - Memory Poem

Sensory Poem: A mentor can help a teen to write about an event by structuring a poem based on sensory experiences. In the example below, the mentor used a sensory structure for teens in a therapy group on traumatic grief (inside a juvenile rehabilitation facility). Each stanza asked the author to describe a different experience associated with a traumatic death. We’ve included an excerpt from a poem here. The mentor helped the boy end the poem by creating a last stanza about "The way I feel today." When this boy finished the poem below, his counselor said it was the most she had heard him talk in a year.

WHEN DEATH COMES SUDDENLY
by Ron (age 13)

The things I’ve heard.
Gunshots. It wasn’t really loud because they were right in front of me. More than 100 shots from automatic weapons. They shot the whole car up. Plus my cousin got shot 15 times.

The things I’ve touched.
I held his hand. He lived for three hours when he got fixed up. His hand was soft, clean. And I had a flashback at the time. I could have died
.…

Here is a training exercise that you can use to practice and become familiar with this improvisational structure: Training - Sensory Poem

What-If Poem: Many teens find themselves in dire circumstances. The structure of “What If” can be very relevant, or at least interesting, for a teen. Here are several lines from one teen’s poem.

WHAT IF ALCOHOL
by Antoine (age 17)

If alcohol was never invented
People would remember what crimes they committed

If alcohol was never invented
Children wouldn’t grow up to be alcoholics

If alcohol was never invented
I would never have to feel guilty or have regrets

Here are some examples of  What If questions that could be turned into poems;

What if you didn’t have to be here now?
What if you woke up and this was all a dream?
What if alcohol was never invented?
What if there was no TV?
What if there was a community center on every corner, open 24/7?
What if people were loved as much as they should be?
What if mothers and fathers always listened to their kids?
What if kids ran their families?
What if you could have anything you wanted?

Here is a training exercise that you can use to practice and become familiar with this improvisational structure: Training - What-If Poem

Repeated-Line Poem: Sometimes a teen may start to dictate her thoughts, but stall. However, you may recognize resonance in one of her lines, though. And you can make that strong line the basis for a new poem by repeating it, and asking the teen to fill in the blanks between the repeated line. The new poem might have both thematic power and rhythm. Here is an excerpt from a poem that repeats a line:

WHOSE FAULT WAS
by Amber

We don’t talk to each other enough
     Whose fault was that
But isn’t she my mother
    
Whose fault was that
She was never there for me
     Whose fault was that
She lied a lot in the past
     Whose fault was that
But I think she tries hard
     Whose fault was that

Here is a training exercise that you can use to practice and become familiar with this improvisational structure: Training - Repeated-Line Poem

Good/Bad Poem: Many of our authors have topics to express that are also difficult to approach directly because of their power or because of mixed feelings. You can help the teen to write by allowing her to paint different sides of an issue, such as the good and the bad. For example, a teen might want to write about her mom, but feel stymied by conflicted feelings. You can help her by generalizing the experience to Mothers as a group, and then asking her to write a good thing about mothers and a bad thing about mothers in an alternating pattern. Here is an excerpt of a poem by a young woman in the state psychiatric hospital:

GOOD EXPERIENCE / BAD EXPERIENCE
by Rebecca (age 14)

A good experience – I learned
not to lean back in chairs

A bad experience – With
hurting people

A good experience – Trying to learn
to dance

A bad experience – Hurting myself

Here is a training exercise that you can use to practice and become familiar with this improvisational structure: Training - Good-Bad Poem

Question Poem: Sometimes a teen is so conflicted and confused that it is difficult for him to write anything that expresses a point of view. You can facilitate an interesting poem by explaining that a person doesn’t always need the answers in life. Sometimes it’s important to articulate the questions. Here is an excerpt from a poem of questions:

QUESTIONS
by Lewis (age 19)

Why is the real world such a burden?
How will I ever be respected?
Why am I in so much pain?
Why did I never get in touch with my emotions?

Here is a training exercise that you can use to practice and become familiar with this improvisational structure: Training - Question Poem

Of course there is an endless variety of options for improvised poetic structures. A few more structures are Self-Portrait, What People Don’t Understand About Me, My Strengths, Someone I Love, etc.