“So much depends upon…” “…my page for English B”: Writing Assignment by Michael Dickel

I had the pleasure of meeting Michael in Salerno, Italy, in July of 2015  when we both participated in the 100Thousand Poets for Change Conference.  Michael joined me, along  with Laura Shovan and Debby Kevin, my travel companions, in sharing a gourmet Salerno lunch in a wonderful ristorante.  Michael also served as the emcee for one of our poetry nights. His work speaks of struggle and peace, and he is committed to using the arts for social change. Welcome, Michael.

MIchael Dickel
MIchael Dickel

The Red Wheel Barrow

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

William Carlos Williams 

A couple of years ago, I taught an English as Foreign Language (EFL) creative writing course at one of the top education colleges in Israel. The students were in the Excellence Program, an Israeli version of an honors program, where they receive full tuition if they keep their GPAs up, and also take additional courses each semester to enrich their learning and prepare them for professional life and graduate study. My course helped them get more comfortable with their English writing and their creativity.

The students had had a few writing assignments at the point in the semester when I introduced a poetry one. They had written to introduce themselves, practiced descriptive writing from observation (non-fiction), and developed a short narrative (fiction). For this assignment, I had them write a poem in response to another poem.

The assignment

I gave them two different poems to read and respond to, both of which have straight-forward language accessible to English-language learners. The poems involve observation and description, but in very different ways. One tells a story. They share a deceptive simplicity, but that surface simplicity also allows students to access them and to use them as a model for their responses.

One poem I used was William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” quoted above. It owes much to short Japanese poetry forms and Williams’ insistence on the image over ideas. Despite the simplicity of what is, in the end, only one sentence, the poem conveys a mood, and with its opening lines, the sense that something significant waits, an outcome, and that what it depends upon is beyond us—beyond our understanding or control.

Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B”, on the other hand, is more involved. It includes narrative. It opens:

The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?

In fact, I chose it because it begins with an assignment, and the persona of the poem responds by questioning the assignment (it is not Hughes speaking—the biographical details that come later are made up). The speaker of the poem goes on to ask what is true for him, as he describes his walk from New York University to the cheap housing at the Harlem Y, where he, “the only colored student in my class,” lives. He describes what he likes, what he does, and wonders if it is different for him as a “colored” person (the poem was written in the 1950s) than it is for his “white” instructor. He wonders if his paper will be white or colored, and suggests it will be both. He engages both the similarities and differences of the two of them—white instructor and African-American student—and their mutual resistance to be too much like the Other.

The poem ends with:
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.

I often use this poem when asking students in a course to write a poem, as a way to invite them to use any resistance that they might have to writing a poem, or to writing any assignment, for that matter. I also like that it suggests the fact that students and teachers learn from each other (I think this happens when classes go very well). Finally, the poem shows that we often give assignments without fully knowing or understanding the material- and cultural-realities of our students.

For the assignment, I asked the students to read the poems first, and then to choose one and write their own poem in response. Most, but not all, of the students responded to the shorter poem by Williams. Some responded to Hughes’ poem. A couple of the Excellence-Program students wrote two poems, responding to each.

How I respond to student writing

When I respond to students’ poems in my courses, especially in the EFL context, I don’t focus on issues of correctness in English. I mark spelling and grammar mistakes, of course, but without a written comment in almost all cases. I write comments, though, about poetic suggestions. Often, these poetic suggestions transfer to other forms of writing as well.

For example, one student wrote a very powerful poem using the image of an empty velvet chair by a window. However, she wrote it as a sentence, without line breaks. So, my comments suggested using line breaks, and where they might add drama or power to the reading of her “sentence.”

The students seemed to enjoy the assignment. Almost all of them took it seriously, from my reading of their poems. Many of them wrote good poems—that could be made better, which I hope my method of commenting helps them to see. And I believe commenting on content and poetics (while still marking errors) focuses on the students’ strengths and the potential of their writing. They still learn about their mistakes in the language, but they also see that they wrote something that their instructor took seriously as a draft poem.

Final thoughts

For this assignment and others, I choose strong examples to share with the class—both so that other students see good examples, and so that they see (for later, when they respond to each other in small groups) that even good writing could be improved, with the help of thoughtful commentary. I tell them that I revise my own writing all of the time. And, I think most importantly, I emphasize that the writing process is not about how to write perfectly the first time, but about how to perfect writing over time.

Often students tell me that they “can’t write” because it is so much work, that they struggle to write what they mean, and that they can’t just write it out the first time. I usually turn these narratives of “failure” as writers around and congratulate them on being “good writers” (or “good potential writers”)—writers who already realize that writing takes work, that it is a messy struggle, and that even the “best” results often don’t quite say what we are trying to say with our writing. I believe that providing students with content comments, alongside modeling for them in class how to use those comments to serve their own purposes, is a process that helps students learn how to negotiate the messiness and arrive at, if not perfect writing, at least writing that they feel comes closer to speaking for them.

Bio: Michael Dickel, a poet, fiction writer, and photographer, has taught at various colleges and universities in Israel and the U.S. He co-edited Voices Israel Volume 36 (2010). He was managing editor for arc-23 and 24. Is a Rose Press released his new book, The Palm Reading after The Toad’s Garden in 2016. His previous books are War Surrounds Us, Midwest / Mid-East, and The World Behind It, Chaos… With producer / director David Fisher, he received an NEH grant to write a film script about Yiddish theatre. Dickel’s writing, art, and photographs have appeared in print and online.

Letting Go of an Old Mindset, Seeking the Divine Feminine: Siobhan Mac Mahon

This week I’d like to welcome my friend Siobhan Mac Mahon as guest blogger. Siobhan and I met in Salerno, Italy, this summer when we both attended the 100Thousand Poets for Change Conference. We shared some lovely meals in Salerno and discovered our mutual love of using language and poetry to help people heal. Siobhan is originally from Dublin, Ireland, and her poetry sings with the fierce fire of Celtic wit and humor. Welcome, Siobhan!

I am not very good at ‘Letting Go’. You would only have to cast your eyes around some of the messy, and as yet, unresolved areas of my life, (of which there are a few) to surmise that perhaps a good spring-cleaning might be in order!

Siobhan McMahon
Siobhan McMahon

Neither am I very good at letting go of things (Though don’t let on to my mother, whom I recently berated when helping her clear her house – a house groaning with things, every cupboard packed full of memories and 50 years of family life) They say that you turn into your mother and my cluttered house is beginning to resemble hers! A house littered with books, plants, candles, art, feathers collected on my woodland walks, pebbles from the west coast of Ireland, half- finished poems, photos, notebooks and journals….. Pieces of paper with inspirational quotes adorn my fridge door, making it difficult to get at the basics of life inside – milk, cheese, eggs. Not to mention the old clothes that I can’t bear to get rid of, the ridiculously high – and very uncomfortable – sequinned shoes that I will never wear again, but which remind me of glamour and glitter, the smart suit that I never have the occasion to wear, but which never-the-less represents to me the possibility of, one day, being more organised, efficient and possibly even in control of my life.

But what I am really struggling to let go of is a very old mind-set, much older than me or my mother or her mother before her; the mind-set of patriarchy. A mind-set that that has divorced the sacred from the body and from the earth and has banished it into some nebulous and ethereal realm, where it is ruled over by a judgemental and fearful God. A God whom we must eternally appease, seek on bended knees and in whose name we wreak war, destruction and violence on others and claim ‘dominion’ over the Earth.

Perhaps the truth is much simpler and more beautiful than this and perhaps what I need to let go of, more than anything, is the seeking for ‘enlightenment’/a God/the Divine – whatever you might call it – outside of the here, the now, the ‘ordinary’ Perhaps I could let go of my old conditioned mind-set and trust my inner wisdom which tells me that the Earth herself is sacred: Her rivers, seas, mountains, forests and wildlife and that we are the guardians of this beautiful planet; each of us with our own unique and beautiful song to sing and that together we create – ‘a symphony of wild delight’

But in the long struggle to let go of this mind-set, I find I meet the demons of doubt, fear, pride, guilt, despair and shame along the way. They ambush me when I am least expecting them, appearing in many different disguises- vicious, tenacious and voracious – they have, at times, crippled me. Especially shame and doubt. Those two are the most persistent. As a woman I carry within the very cells of my body centuries of shame and of silencing, and yet also, a memory of something more beautiful, something forgotten but always present, something sacred that lives and breathes within our bodies and within the Earth. Something beautiful and essential to life which has always been carried, silently, in the darkness of our bodies, which is now being re-born into the world

This is why I write. I write to remember the language of the Divine Feminine; a language that does not separate the body from the sacred, the soul from the soil. I write to break the silence of shame and of doubt, to clear out – de-clutter – my inner house. I write to name and to honour the wisdom, the power, the beauty, the un-tamed wildness and the sacred sensuality that lives and breathes within our bodies and the body of the Earth. I write to find a way home out of the deep forest of our forgetting. I write to dispel the demons – and on a good day – to laugh at their ridiculous antics!

As for my house, perhaps a little de-clutter wouldn’t go amiss after all! But I’ll keep the inspirational quotes on my fridge; the books, the pebbles, the feathers, the art, the candles and the half-finished poems littering my home. Perhaps I’ll even dust down those sequinned shoes and go dancing in them!

Mapping a New Reality
by Siobhan Mac Mahon


When all the old paths
have been concreted over,

Root tree Goddess by Debra Bernier
Root tree Goddess by Debra Bernier

the way forgotten.

When words shape-shift
beneath your feet,
spelling another reality,

When you don’t know
what to pray for anymore,
let alone to whom – you must leave

Behind The broken compasses,
burn The man-made maps
and head for home,

Following the knowing
in your bones, the aching
of your heart,

The song-line of your body.

Bio: Siobhan is Irish Performance Poet, living in Yorkshire, she performs widely in England, Ireland and Europe. Her poems, powerful and often funny, celebrate the beauty of the Earth and the return of the Sacred Feminine. She pokes fun at rigid, patriarchal religions and structures, giving voice to the outrageous, the silenced and the banished (and that’s just before she has her breakfast!)

Siobhan has been writing and performing her poetry, collaborating with other artists and creating mayhem/Spoken word projects for over 20 years, including the Arts Council funded projects – The Mouth of the Cave and Voices of Women. She has recently completed a short poetry film.

Website: www.siobhanmacmahon.co.uk 


What Can Poets Change?

I just returned from a wonderful conference called 100 Thousand Poets for Change in Salerno, Italy. The event organizers and driving forces behind the international gathering of poets for social change are Michael Rothenberg and Terri Carrion of Guernville, California. Their idea? Invite poets and organizers from all over the world to gather in Salerno–to  meet, socialize, and network to discuss ideas for how we can all facilitate social change. And they made it all work in a beautiful place called the Santa Sofia Complex, the site of a former monastery now used as an exhibit center and a gathering space.

Unlikely, you say. What can poets change? I used to think that as well, back when I was an activist marching in the streets and demonstrating at politicians’ offices. Show up, resist, use civil disobedience—that’s how you change things. And, yes, that’s still a vibrant and important model for social change. But we’re not all called to engage in the same way, especially as we move through different seasons in our lives. The poets that I hung out with in Salerno are an eclectic, international group of activists who are using the power of words to change hearts. And often a change of heart is more powerful than a change of mind. This week and next week, I’ll be sharing stories of two amazing poets I met in Salerno. I hope the following story makes you smile.

Michael Rothenberg, Richard Botchwey, and Terri Carrion
Michael Rothenberg, Richard Botchwey, and Terri Carrion

Richard Paa Kofi Botchwey is a bright, friendly, and kind young man from Ghana who has a warm smile and lots of wisdom to share. He impressed me with his story about being an orphan at the age of 7 and how he used his faith and determination to overcome all the hardships a child alone is faced with. Richard is one of those people about whom you might say, “He didn’t just survive, he thrived.” And Richard is passionate about taking his message of hope for orphans on a grand tour. In 2013 he published his memoir called The Tale of an Orphan: A Lesson To Learn and received much praise and critical acclaim for his personal story of triumph. Richard now works to help other orphans, especially in Ghana, and has established a trust called Orphan Trust Movement, which has helped over 10,000 young people in Ghana. Richard calls all of us to action with his quiet courage when he says, “You are the one who can stand up and do something to bring everlasting difference. …if you are not an orphan, you can still use this book to learn how to stop reflecting on the past and improve your life today.” Richard is changing the lives of orphans and many others with his book, his poetry, and his quiet determination.

Dear Readers, whose writing has inspired you? Whose work has touched your heart in some profound way? I love to hear your stories, so please share in the comments.