Mentor Text Wednesday: The Fence I Never Climbed

Mentor Text: ‘The Fence I Never Climbed, or, There Is a Parking Lot where Once I Broke My Arm’ by Neil Hilborn


  • Memoir
  • Anaphora
  • Titling


This school year, the third one under what I’ve taken to calling pandemic influenced learning, was tough. As it closed, I found myself sighing in relief. In a house heavily influenced by school, with kids in early years and middle years, and both parents teaching, it was, to say the least, a lot.

I found myself reading things I could read in small bursts, magazines, short prose and poetry. Since Stephen King debuted a new short story, I had a Scribd trial, and read a few poetry collections that I hadn’t read. Neil Hilborn’s Clatter was one of these.

Image via Goodreads

I read both of Hilborn’s other books a few years ago, and have had them in mind for a reread. There’s something about the open, confessional way he writes that I really love. There’s often an impulsive, unedited feel to his poems that I think our writers might appreciate.

How we might use this text:

Memoir- Though the heavier stuff is often a hallmark of memoir as a genre, it’s actually one place I feel that I’ve let more positivity in, a place where the pieces we’re looking at aren’t necessarily as heavy. Much of what we write beside as we craft memoir is reflective in nature, and frequently focused on “good” memories.

This is why I specifically flagged this poem for use in our memoir writing. My Grade 12 course features a lot of smaller memoir pieces that are edited and curated into a memoir chapbook at the course’s end. This poem, in Hilborn’s almost stream of consciousness style is perfect for this pursuit.

It reads like a band-aid being ripped off. It is a list of things he’d rather forget. It’s a barrage of the bad things, but with no real detail. They’re simply stated, and moved on from. (Well, except for the dog, but more on that later.) In writing instruction, I feel like we’re often working to get our writers to expand, and that’s why I’ve hewed away from harder prompts and mentor texts in the memoir stuff – it seems unfair to ask them to expand upon the tough stuff. Yes, writing is a place to work through those things, but part of me prefers the notion of empowering them as writers, and letting them make that choice for themselves.

Hilborn’s poem, however, gives us a place to dump that, to feel like we’ve gotten the bad tuff out. It doesn’t necessarily encourage a deeper dive, but could, if a writer needed it, act as a brainstorm for that dive.

Anaphora –  Repetition is one of my favorite poetic devices, especially in the classroom. I just adore how it drives home a point. I really like mentor text pieces that employ it.

Hilborn’s return to the image of the dog is notable here. It serves to make it the worst memory in this list. He comes back to it throughout the poem. It’s intentional, but in a poem that feels like a list poem, it feels almost unintentional, like in the rush of listing the bad things, he’s forgotten that he’s mentioned it already, and has hit send before proofreading.

I think this is a powerful model of the use of anaphora for our writers. It’s not always a pattern, but a return to phrasing that stresses an image or idea. Writing beside this piece, our writers could see that. Specifically, if they’re listing the things they’d like to forget, this allows them to stress one thing in particular, but really, they’re not going into detail. They’re not exploding the moment, they’re emphasizing it. I think that’s an interesting way to express oneself.

Titling– I’m always thinking about titling. Our old provincial exam once had a reflecting question where students were asked to give their writing piece a title, and reflect on its effectiveness and appropriateness. I always kind of hated that question, because it felt like a trap. Often, if something is titled perfectly, there isn’t really a profound way to express that.

And, I’m sure you’ve noted, our writers give their pieces the clunkiest titles. If they move past titles that simply state the topic and form of the piece, it’s not far past. I find myself encouraging them to take big swings, and title things creatively.

Like an old emo song, Hilborn gave this poem a big title. It’s grand, it’s appropriate, but it isn’t super “on the nose” either. Also, the powerful use of “or” gives students a Get Out of Jail Free Card on this one. Throwing that conjunction in there allows them to throw up two titles. Couldn’t decide which one was best? Use ‘em both! Want to use your title to signal that the poem might have two big ideas in it? Give each one a nod!

As well, I think there’s something about writing poems for many students that feels “smaller.” They don’t always spend multiple classes on them. In my space, they might be part of a collection, and feel less under the microscope. For many of our writers, poetry already feels like a big risk, so taking another risk with the title isn’t a big deal.

I read poetry with mentor text potential as one of my primary considerations. Like I just said, they often feel smaller, while pushing a writer in many ways. As I’ve been reflecting this year on the tools I use in my classroom to do the heavy lifting, I’ve really been thinking about the role of poetry. These pieces which can seem so small, but ask so much are valuable tools, and using them as mentor texts will empower our writers not just as poets, but in other forms as well.

Which poets do you use to inspire your writers? How do you encourage your writers to give their pieces great titles?

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

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