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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Poetry Presentations: Here They Come

For the last several years I've introduced my students to poetry by making them write a comparison essay about two poems. They did their best with the complicated structure, having to come up with a supportable basis for comparison, and getting their quotations integrated, etc., etc., but it always left me feeling like I'd failed as a teacher because while the assignment showed me they could follow directions, it didn't pass the torch in terms of conveying the wow of poetry, the umpth, pop and kazam. Instead, they took two poems and made them wrestle until they were sweaty and dirty, barely breathing, face down on a mat.

This time I decided to do something different. I wanted them to examine a poem closely, to take a poem's pulse but not beat the poor poem into a bloody pulp.

So this time around I bypassed formal literary analysis altogether. Instead, I put them in small groups where they are preparing PowerPoint presentations on one of nine possible poems:

"From Blossoms" (Li-Young Lee)

"Linguine" (Diane Lockward)

"When the Burning Begins" (Patricia Smith)

"How to Make World Unity Salsa" (Juan Felipe Herrera)

"Ode to Conger Chowder" (Pablo Neruda)

"Cold Solace" (Anna Belle Kaufman) [in The Sun Magazine]

"Problems with Hurricanes" (Victor Hernandez Cruz)

"Cherry Tomatoes" (Sandra Beasley)

"Shopping for Pomegranates at Wal-Mart on New Year's Day" (Campbell McGrath)

I've assigned poetry presentations before, but I've never actually demonstrated by example exactly what I was looking for. (Yes very lame of me, I know!) After viewing a bunch of physics lectures online this past summer courtesy MIT’s Open Courseware, I decided my Poetry Unit could use its own little infusion of baking soda and vinegar.

While perusing the current issue of River Styx, the poem "Free Bird" by Rose Kelleher, with its allusions to Frye Boots, Brooke Shields, Jodi Foster, bongs, tresses, and the strutting ManFest that was the 1970s, screamed out “Transform me into a Powerpoint Demo!” So that’s exactly what I did.

Here’s a sample from said demo:


Seventies Man—how unabashedly

he struts his stuff! You gotta love those long

gold chains that loop across that naked V

Of polyester-free, unbuttoned chest

I don't know how much they enjoyed Kelleher's poem (or my "take" on its ironic message regarding so-called female empowerment), but the nice thing was that they now have a better sense of what I'm asking them to do. In fact, we spent very little class time on clarifying my expectations, and most of it figuring out what they wanted to assert and how they would support it with specific examples from the text. Small victory!

Tomorrow they'll use class time to finalize their slide shows, and Tuesday the fun begins . . . seven presentations over two days. I'm almost certain these will be the best two class days of the quarter. I'll keep you posted . . .

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