This semester, I have focused a lot of my time and energy on preparing for my comprehensive exams. One of my reading lists was 21st century American poetry, perhaps the area of literature I am most comfortable and familiar with. While I read dozens and dozens of new collections each year, though, I rarely give a lot of space to theory. Since comprehensive exams require a certain amount of theory, I’ve spent the past few months immersing myself in recent publications centered on writing in diaspora, poetry as a mechanism for agency, disability poetics and poetry as activism.
Across every text, one of the most pervasive themes is that poetry is generative and scientifically proven to promote healing, not just cognitively and emotionally, but also physically. The benefits of poetry in palliative care, for example, are well-documented and encourage caregivers to both read and write poetry often during treatment. In most instances, theory focuses on the act of writing, and it highlighted for me how little I have centered writing in this column. Starting with this month’s edition, I am committing to balancing literary analysis praxis with writing praxis in the column.
As the end of the year approaches, I am sitting with the number of students who have confided in me that this semester has been uncharacteristically draining. I can see it in the way they carry themselves, the engagement in class, and the topics they’ve chosen for essays. Many, many young people are struggling right now, and many may feel increasingly helpless against a seemingly endless onslaught of trauma and tragedy. With that in mind, I offer up a writing exercise based on the writing practice and camaraderie of a handful of poets.
I can’t remember everyone who participated, but I do remember that the game started with Cristin O’keefe Aptowicz. Aptowicz was in the habit of naming each year, and the poets in her circle adopted the practice of writing poems carrying the name of the year. I believe the game inspired her collection, The Year of No Mistakes. Since one of the most cathartic aspects of writing includes self-reflection, I’m including two poems that look backward instead of forward, and specifically poems that use a moment of grief as a catalyst for grace.
Objective: Generate a draft that writes outward from a moment of grief or regret and toward grace, for the self and/or for others.
“The Year You Thought You Were Dying,” by Mindy Nettifee
“The Year of No Grudges,” by Andrea Gibson
- Begin by writing the phrase “The year you thought you were dying…” on the board and ask students to complete the sentence. Invite students to share out their responses.
- Read the title and first line of Nettifee’s poem: “The year you thought you were dying/was a really good year.” Prompt to students to reflect on how Nettifee’s line either challenges or confirms their respective responses, then have them predict reasons that Nettifee might have for her declaration.
- Have students read Nettifee’s poem in full. Discuss the various decisions that the speaker makes in what they believe will be their last year. Urge students to make inferences about the speaker, the life they may have lived prior to the events in the poem, and how anticipating death alters our perception of futurity.
- Next, introduce the title of Andrea Gibson’s poem. Encourage students to share how grudges have impacted them over the past year.
- Play “The Year of No Grudges.” Prompt students to share out lines from the poem that resonated with them. Note how Gibson stubbornly refuses their own anger to focus on the ways that they and their friend are alike, are fully human, can both walk on water in the dead of winter.
- Bring things full circle by asking students to reflect on how both poets ground their poems in common, everyday moments. How does this correspond with the seemingly fantastical (impossible) thesis that moments of grief and trauma can, in fact, call our attention to the myriad moments of joy that ripple out from that moment.
- List 3-5 moments from the past year where you felt wronged or betrayed by someone or something.
- List 3-5 things you wish you had done over the past year, but didn’t for one reason or another.
- Name the past year, drawing on the structure of Nettifee’s and/or Gibson’s poem titles. Write this at the top of a blank page and use it as the title to your poem.
- Underneath the title, write for 2 minutes without stopping. No editing or revision. Just generative, unpolished writing.
Using your lists and freewrite, craft a poem that makes use of your title from Step 3 and writes toward grace. Consider the structure of the poem and how it relates to the events/moments within your poem. If certain things occurred multiple times throughout the year, consider forms that make use of repetition like the pantoum or villanelle to highlight that repetition.