Mentor Text Wednesday: The Poetry of Small Moments

Mentor Text: The Taco Boat by Al Ortolani

Writing Techniques:

  • Idea Generation
  • Memoir
  • Poetic Form
  • Voice

Background:

In  Twitter edchats, I’ve been part of discussions about what should be part of a teacher’s Twitter feed. One of my go-to recommendations is always poetry. Following poets, literary magazines and other sites that focus on poetry. The wealth of poetry this puts into your feed is good for your soul as a human, and a vital resource as an English teacher. My screens feed me poetry daily.

I’m a huge fan of poetry as a mentor text, as the texts I’ve shared on Mentor Text Wednesday would attest. Often, it is my Twitter feed that puts these poems in front of me, such as this week’s poem. Al Ortolani’s The Taco Boat was one of those poems that you read and instantly know has a place in your classroom.

Whaaaaat

The poem, as retweeted by Rattle magaizine, in which it appears

 

I immediately fell in love with this poem, and not just as a fan of tacos. It’s simple, and straightforward. It’s rich with tone, and uses a stylistic device that I adore masterfully. Best of all,  it’s about something that’s rather inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Part of me loves the notion of having my writers explore things like that in their writing, a contrast to the reach for the stars kind of writing we often seem to be pursuing.

How we might use this text:

Idea Generation – At its base level, this is a poem in which the poet recounts an experience they had. There is great moral or lesson, no great truth of human nature being explored. It is simply a poetic narration of something rather mundane. In one of my courses, we study memoir, and this is a great mentor text to use in that particular pursuit.

This poem would pair nicely with the exercises around finding writing and inspiration by paying attention to the things happening around you featured in Lynda Berry’s fantastic What It Is. Without that book, which, by the way, you really should have, you could have students read and discuss this poem, sending them off with the homework of paying attention to their day, looking for moments to explore and express in a poem of their own.

They could follow Ortolani’s lead, and write about a time they felt good, and had something they love to eat. They could also follow the spirit of the poem, and write about some other “smaller” moment in their lives. That this is a smaller moment is where the magic of this poem lies – everybody has these moments, and choosing one of them to elevate is the task.

Memoir – This is a beautiful little piece of memoir. The capture of inconsequential moments adds much to many traditional memoirs. When I think of what is most striking about the more unconventional memoir work of Amy Krouse Rosenthal, it is that she captures, and elevates, those smaller moments. This poem is a perfect mentor text for doing this.

It can also serve as a mentor text for simplifying the sharing of those larger moments. I often feel as teachers of writing, we’re working at dual purposes. We want our writers to write more about smaller things, exploding moments if you will. At the same time, we’re often trying to get them to handle other elements with brevity, and not overwrite about some topics.

I find myself wanting to use this poem as a mentor text in writing about some big, profound moment in life, boiling it down to the key elements, the moments of most impact in a short piece like this poem.

Poetic Form – This poem is one of the kind that frustrates students who have a fixed notion of what poetry looks like. It is more like a short paragraph that is arranged like a poem. I love giving students a piece like this, and discussing why the poet chose to present it in a more poetic style, as opposed to presenting it as prose. In that discussion, I’d hope for us to talk about the emotional impact the form has on the reader, and how it encourages a different consideration of the moment being presented.

This poem also makes masterful use of the device of repetition. I say masterful because the phrase about his ship having come in is echoed throughout the piece. It is, however, not simply repeated verbatim as is often the case, but is remixed and restated, which in my eye serves to add to the tone of the poem.

Voice – As Ortolani recounts his purchase and eating of a dozen tacos, he repeats the idea that his boat had come in. As he plays with this cliché, we find ourselves wondering if he is being serious. Is he celebrating a windfall by buying tacos? Is the fact that he has a dozen tacos now the windfall? Is he pulling our leg by elevating this moment, or is that just me reading the poem as such?

Our writers could use this as a model for playing with tone. The phrase we choose to repeat, and how we repeat it has an impact. If we’re exploring a tiny moment, it might make sense to poke fun at the silliness of doing so so seriously. If we’re exploring moments of joy, regret or anger, we could use phrasing that communicates those as well.

On my first reading of this poem, I knew I had a mentor text that I could use. I loved the whimsy I saw in it, and the exploration of a rather inconsequential moment. As I’ve rolled it around in my head, and thought about how it could be used as a mentor text, I’ve realized that it’s a much richer mentor text, as poetry often is, giving us an opportunity to explore different aspects of a form and our voices. It’s the best kind of mentor text in that way, because our writers could simply “copy” what Ortolani has done, and write a fine piece, but they could also dig deeper, finding ways to explore moments more fully, and poetically.

What other moments could they use this mentor text to explore? What other poems do you know that could be used similarly?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

-Jay

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