Mentor Text Wednesday: Memoir Mixtapes’ Poetry

Mentor Text: Poetry from Memoir Mixtapes


  • Writing Memoir
  • Making Personal Connections
  • Analyzing Music
  • Responding to Music

Background – As I shared in my last Mentor Text Wednesday post, I found a great journal that encompasses two of my favorite things, memoir and music. I shared a couple of prose pieces in that post, and said I’d be talking about Memoir Mixtapes again. So, here we go.

memoir mixtapesIf you’ve taken the time to explore any of the four issues of Memoir Mixtapes that have been released thus far, you’ve found not only great prose memoir pieces about music, but some great poetry as well. I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’ve really been into poetry lately, so I was really excited to discover this. I’m hoping that a lot of our memoir writing next year will have a poetic slant, so this is a very useful mentor text set for me.

One of my classes’ work with Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down drove home for me the fact that poetry is a powerful way to have students write about things that impact them. Sometimes, the poetic forms pulls the ideas out in unique ways. Maybe the brevity of the form, the stress on creative expression is a catalyst for deeper and more perceptive writing. Perhaps the struggle of expressing ideas and opinions in verse enables students more room to think. Maybe the use of poetic mentor texts gives them a template for expression that pulls different things out of them.

My hope is that playing with these poems will allow my students to write some great memoir poetry related to music when we’re exploring this next year.

How We Might Use These Texts:

Writing Memoir – I focus a lot on writing memoir in one of my courses, and I’ve always been trying to find cool ways to incorporate music into that. That’s a personal bias, because I feel like the soundtrack to our lives is a significant thing. These poems are going to be great mentor texts for that.

Sarah Little’s “A Poem in Two Parts” is one I’ll use for sure. I love the “two parts” conceit. In part one, she writes about where she was when the song first struck her, and how it resonated. In the second part, she talks about where she is now. Particularly, as a rural teacher, I love the small town – city contrast. I plan to have my writers to think back to a song that resonated with them when they were younger, and write about that. Then, we’ll listen to the track, and reflect on where we are in contrast to then. I’m envisioning a Grade 12 student reflecting on “their jam” from Grade 9, reflecting their entry and exit from our school. (I may also start collecting and filing this kind of information with next year’s Grade 9s.)

Ann Kestner’s “Daniel Defying The Silence” is a tough poem. Though I like to subvert some of the tropes of memoir, this hard story is a good mentor text for connecting a specific song to a person, and to an event. I love the conceit here though, that Elton John’s “Daniel” said things that the family couldn’t. I love the challenge of having students find songs that say the things they can’t, and interspersing the lyrics of the song with their thoughts, reflections, or their telling of a story. It wouldn’t necessarily need to be as heavy as Kestner’s piece, but I think this could be a very powerful exercise for some of our writers.

I love how M. Stone’s “Year of Dismantling Myths” connects a particular artist and album to her coming of age, and developing an identity. For music fans, that first album, or artist, that is yours is significant. You feel many things, and it seems as if a whole new world, a whole new way of being is opened to you. This poem is a mentor text for exploring that. Stone writes about what drew her to Tori Amos’ songs, what scared her, what inspired her, and what she left behind as a result of this discovery. This is a great mentor text for having our writers ponder those same things.

Making Personal Connections – Throughout my entire life, as long as I can remember being aware of music, I feel as if I’ve heard songs that make my heart leap up and shout, “That’s me!” From those great songs of my teens that spoke to my angst, to songs that capture moments with my wife and daughters now, music continues to speak to me, and for me. I can only assume that it does for others.

Janice Logo Sapigao’s “Noreaga Shouts Out The Phillipines” is awesome. Be honest, anytime a song namechecks a place that matter to you, you get a little bit giddy right? Even if it isn’t a straight namechecking, when a songwriter writes about a place just like the one you’re from, or in, or about a situation like yours, it matters to you. That validation from a songwriter feels very important. This poem is about that. I’d love to have students write about their feelings when they heard a song that was about them.

I am not a Swiftie, but I get it. Benjamin Rozzi’s “It Started With Fire, and To Fire I Return” actually encapsulates a lot of what I think has built Taylor Swift’s career, relatable lyrics. So many of us have had the experience of a broken relationship, and the pain of dealing with the artifacts of that relationship, knowing that our ex was doing the same. Swift’s song about burning the photographic mementos captures a time worn trope of broken love, but one that plays out pretty often for young people. It’s a safe bet that many of our writers have a heartbreak song, the one that they listened to, commiserated with, and could write about now. This poem is a great mentor text for writing that piece.

Analyzing Music – A few years ago, a student who knew what I dug musically came to me with a recommendation. He raved about the structure of a particular song, the way it gradually built, climaxing very near the end of the song. His excitement, and his description, were compelling, and I discovered a new artist I adored. I’ve struggled, when having students write about music, in successfully having them write about the sonic experience. They write wonderfully about the lyrics, about the tone, and about the circumstances around the song that might make it significant. They generally don’t talk about the sound, outside of praising or criticising the singer’s voice. “The First Five Notes of Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is”” by Andrew Hachey begins with a bit of that. I love that first stanza, and how it focuses on the music, and the impression created.

Responding To Music – “Don’t Stop Me Now // Queen” by Danny McLaren and “TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME” by Alan Gann are about a response to music. Yes, there are moments of memoir as well, but to me, these poems are mainly about the feeling that comes from music. They’re similar to Stone’s Tori Amos piece in that they get to the impact on the listener’s life.

However, there’s a really visceral response that happens when we hear a song, or album that matters. I love that these poems get into that. Though this particular aspect might only appeal to the hardcore music fans you have writing for you, I think it will mean a lot if you ask it of them. Gann’s poem, in particular, talks about the emotional, and physical, reaction to Queen’s song. This is a neat mentor text to use to push writers beyond surface reactions, and into a deeper response to music. It goes past, “What did you think?” and deepens “How did the music make you feel?” by extending that question to physical responses.

The beauty of a mentor text source like Memoir Mixtapes is the volume from which you have to draw. I put together a packet of poems culled from their first four issues. It’s not every poem, and there are more to come. It’s a versatile little packet of poems too. Our writers could work through the different poems included, pulling songs from their playlists to write alongside each poem. They could also look at the different pieces, and choose a purpose that they connect to, and pull from their record collection to write to. Visions of a class wearing headphones, each writer with pen to paper, writing about music fuels my excitement and appreciation for what Memoir Mixtapes has to offer us. (Also, the visual aesthetic of these journals is awesome.)

Do you have other poetry about music that we could add to this set? What’s missing – what else do we want our writers to write about music? What Taylor Swiftian strategy have you used for dealing with mementoes of an ex?

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


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