I’ve used poetry writing prompts with my high school students for as long as I’ve been teaching poetry, describing them as a way to distract your brain so the poem that needs to get written can get written. I tell them that like cats, poems can be shy, elusive things, but if you start doing something playful and interesting, they might come closer just to see what you’re doing. I find that kids are very willing to cede control to the prompt and let it and their own instincts lead where they will.
It’s harder to get students to engage with the revision process. They tend to want to just fix any spelling errors or typos on their first draft and call it done; to skip over revision entirely and go straight from creating to editing and publishing. To do this is to miss out not only on the better poem this specific poem could have been, but also on the lessons it had for us about the craft of poetry.
The difference between creation and revision is the difference between instinct and intent. Instinct gives the poem energy, intent harnesses that energy. Intentional revision means examining the effect of the (probably largely unconscious) choices we made during creation to determine whether we’re happy with the results. In order to evaluate the effect of a choice, one must consider other options and their effects. Both the challenge and magic of poetry revision rest in the multitude of craft choices to consider: word choice, syntax, line length, line breaks, sound, imagery, and on and on—it’s a lot to juggle. Additionally, many of my high school students are learning about these options for the first time, and it’s hard to make conscious choices when you’re not even aware of the options.
After trying checklists and flowcharts and a variety of other revision tools, all of which felt too prescriptive, I finally landed on the poetry revision bingo card. I figured making revision an actual game might encourage a greater degree of playfulness. I tell my students that the goal is to get a bingo, not to get a perfect poem. This frees them up to be experimental and take chances they might not otherwise take. While they also have the option of jumping around the board at random, getting a bingo forces them to try things that might be unfamiliar to them, instead of just going for low hanging fruit. I sell it as an opportunity to be surprised, to find out what secrets the poem is keeping, as well as what it has to teach about craft. And of course, sometimes what the experiment teaches is that you had it right the first time, which isn’t a failure of the revision process, but a validation of your instincts.
The board I’ve included here and below is an updated version of the one I use with my students, designed for poets who are more familiar with craft terminology, but it can easily be adapted for a range of audiences. It can also be used in conjunction with workshops, where suggestions a poet receives in response to one poem can be turned into things for everyone to experiment with. This can help make a session more useful to the people whose poems are not being workshopped on that particular day. For example:
Workshop participant: Maybe try moving the last stanza to the beginning?
Group adds to bingo card: Move last stanza to beginning
Workshop participant: You’ve got three different metaphors here and I’m confused.
Group adds to bingo card: inventory / clarify / reduce metaphors
Added bonus: as we become more conscious of the choices we make during revision, honing our craft and adding tools to our repertoire, we internalize the lessons revision imparts, which in turn informs the instincts we bring to the creative process.
Suzanne Langlois’s chapbook “Bright Glint Gone” was the winner of the 2019 Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance chapbook award. Her poems have recently appeared in Menacing Hedge, The Whale Road Review, Cider Press Review, Rust + Moth, and Whisk(e)y Tit. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Independent Best American Poetry. She holds a BA in English Literature from Tufts University, an Ed.M. in Teacher Leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and an MFA from Warren Wilson College, and lives in Portland, Maine, where she teaches high school English.
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