I read a poem with my students called "Folding Sheets," by Madge Piercy. (Here it is.) Afterward we talked about activities that make us think of certain people. Piercy's poem includes lots of sensory details, so we talked about those, too. I challenged the students to write a poem that recounted a memory of doing something with someone, and in the course of the description, revealed a person and a relationship.
Then I decided to try it myself.
The poem was a lot different from the way I was planning in my head (a fact which became part of my minilesson). I decided to write about going to church. There was a period when I was a child when my family attended a church in Swahili. Though we had lived in Kenya for a while, we lived in an English-speaking enclave, since my parents worked in education, and all education in Kenya was in English. Our vocabularies contained some Swahili words, and my parents had studied the language, but my brothers and I couldn't understand enough to follow what was going on. That was the church experience I decided to write about.
I started by brainstorming.
Not all these details wound up in the poem, but I worked hard to remember exactly how it felt to be in that place at that time.
Next, I tried a first draft.
I found that I wasn't really focusing on my parents, whom I had intended to write about. (You can see my mother saying "Shh" in the first draft, though.) Instead, I kept thinking about a song we used to sing. In English, the song is "Pass Me Not." You can see that I had already remembered it in my brainstorming. It was "Unisipite" there, and it was "Unisipite" in my first draft, but actually it's called "Usinipite." I had remembered it wrong, a fact I learned when I talked to my brothers.
Because that was my next step: research. I told my students that we think about research when we're writing something informational, but that I often do research for all kinds of writing. In this case, it involved talking to my brothers (we had an extensive Facebook chat sharing our memories). It also involved looking up "Usinipite" on YouTube and finding this fascinating video:
I watched this video off and on for the rest of the afternoon. Not only was that the song (jazzed up slightly in this version), but LOOK at that white tie! It could be the seventies again.
I decided I wanted to focus on that song, and so I continued researching by looking up the lyrics and downloading Lyle Lovett's version (unfortunately I couldn't find a video of him singing it).
I thought more and more about that song, and how I was asking God, in Swahili, which I didn't even understand (we used to call the song "Unispite"), to minister to me, too, and not pass me by. And I thought about how God did that, and how my childhood faith, instead of being stifled by those hours in church, was actually strengthened.
I'm not completely happy yet with the poem that resulted, but I shared it with my students anyway, as well as the process I went through: prewriting, researching my own past, marinating the ideas for days, shifting the focus from my original intention. Here it is:
Pass Me Not
Sunday morning found my family in a schoolroom for worship.
Dressed in our matching polyester outfits, my brothers and I
Sat at splintery, grafitti-ed wooden desks.
My hair was neatly braided
And the kids behind us pulled my blond pigtails.
It was hot.
A fly buzzed.
The Swahili words of the sermon buzzed too,
Swarming around our heads
As we wiggled
And our parents hushed us.
We sang Usinipite
Which we gigglingly called Unispite.
“Pass me not, O gentle Savior,”
Say Fanny Crosby’s English words, which I didn’t know at the time:
Hear my earnest cry;
While on others thou art calling,
Do not pass me by.”
He did call on me too.
And through the heat and the buzzing and the splinters and the wiggling
He passed me not.
The Poetry Friday roundup is here today.
4 hours ago