Mentor Text: Salvage by Hedgie Choi
- Exploring the use of profanity
- Poetic form
- Building connections
I’m a recovering magazine addict.
I’ve gone from snagging every magazine that slightly caught my eye, and subscribing to numerous publications to buying more selectively, and holding a single subscription.
That preamble is just so I can talk about a poem from the February 2022 issue of Poetry magazine that I’m focusing on in this month’s Mentor Text Wednesday post.
See, I’ve not actually been able to finish that February issue because I keep getting rocked back on my heels by that poem. Even today, on my birthday, during my Spring Break, I’m thinking about it.
And this morning, I figured out how it can make its way into my classroom.
How we might use this text:
Exploring the use of profanity- In my Grade 11 course, we do poetry letters, an idea I borrowed from Karla Hilliard, in which students get a letter from me with three poems, and they respond with a letter discussing one of the poems. When I was putting April’s letter together last week, before the break, I so very badly wanted to include this poem.
But I couldn’t. The week before break, also a spirit week, had added its usual level of chaos to the building, and I had to speak quite forcefully to a number of my classes, my Grade 11s in particular, about the frequency and volume of their profanity. Probably not the best time to give them a poem that featured everyone’s favorite expletive.
But as I reflected on this poem this morning, I realized that it did what profanity can do best – it is shocking and jarring. I am by no means puritanical when it comes to swearing. In fact, those are some of my favourite words to use. But I know there’s power in using those words well, and that is a message that I’ve tried to communicate to my writers when the question of their use comes up.
Choi’s choice to use the f-word, isolating it on a line by itself, following the descriptive “soft and gentle” is part of what rocked me in this poem. It is a very conscious and deliberate choice that she made as a writer. It’s jarring, and you immediately find yourself considering her intent. This is, should we choose to use it, a model of how profanity can be used effectively in student writing. It is not used to offend, as an affront, not to shock on its own, but to have a definite, intentional impact that bears meaning.
Poetic Form – I’m teaching four English courses this semester, from Grade 9 to Literary focus. In each of them, we’ve explored writing poetry. And in each of them, there has been an expression of an inability to write poetry. It may be that unlike many of their previous experiences with expressing themselves in verse, I’m not giving them a set structure, or a set of rules. A lot of our writers have come to rely on rules, guidelines, structures and checklists to write.
One of my fallbacks has been to stress that, at a basic level, writing poetry is a matter of editing and arrangement. In Grade 9, we do a version of this in the ‘Parents’ lesson I’ve shared here before. In other classes, I remind them of that lesson, but I also tell them that their first draft can simply be writing the sentences that express the ideas they want to share. Then, they edit it to look like a poem, deciding on line breaks and stanza breaks. Choi’s poem, essentially a pair of sentences, is an excellent mentor text for this. We can look at what she’s done, and the choices she’s made in arranging this poem, and the impact of those choices.
Building Connections– I’m not sure of that’s the right phrasing, but the other thing that makes this poem resonate is the last stanza. When she writes, “Some things happened to me in my formative years that I don’t want to tell you about/but some things happened to you too.” I found myself nodding. However, as each of us nod in agreement, we’re likely all thinking about something different, the thing that spurs our version of the anger she communicates earlier in the poem. She’s tapping into the universality of teen angst without specifying it, truly making the teenage experience a universal thing.
It’s this vagueness that has an impact, and would be a great mentor text move for our writers. So often, they have a message, or idea they want to get across, and, as developing writers, it’s delivered quite bluntly and explicitly. Perhaps they rely on cliché, or well worn metaphors and imagery. I love the idea of exploring how we can evoke a feeling in readers without explicitly stating a specific instance, without detailing what “some things happened” are. It could lead to some powerful pieces.
I often flag poems, and other pieces, that I know I want to take into the classroom, yet don’t have a plan for. Sometimes, like this poem, they sit in my brain, and I fixate on them. I think that’s something that exists at the heart of using mentor texts, is that there are times that a text calls out for you to put it in front of students, yet there’s something, like the profanity in this poem, that gives you pause, and makes you really think about how it should be used. I really love it when I figure it out.
How do you handle the question of profanity use with your writers? Do you have go to lessons, or strategies for teaching poetry? What potential mentor texts are you trying to figure out for your classroom right now?
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