Mentor Text Wednesday: My Father’s Moustache

Mentor Text: My Father’s Moustache by Ada Limon

Techniques:

  • Ekphrasis

Background

As I write this, I still have a few days left of the holiday break. We taught until mere days before Christmas, but have the whole first week of January off. It’s been a period of necessary recharging and relaxation in our household.

In fact, as discussed in the Moving Writers “back channel” I don’t even have to be here today. But, as I’m wont to do when I have any amount of time, I read a lot the last couple of weeks.

I always have a book of poetry on the go, so I’ve been making my way through the 2022 edition of The Best American Poetry. And I found I poem I flagged to share with you.

See, I find the holidays to be a reflective time of year. We gather, and we tell the old stories. For teachers, we get a break from being in the moment in our classrooms, and perhaps reflect and do some planning for the remainder of the year.

The idea of a new year is laden with reflection and the idea of change. There will be, no doubt, some ill advised abrupt change in some households like the one that Limon writes about in this poem. It might be fun to explore that in a couple of weeks.

Via Twitter

How we might use this text:

Ekphrasis – The last few years, I’ve had a set of memoir writing activities where we were writing about selfies. (I need to build a better set of mentor texts for it, but kind of steamed ahead anyway, if you want a peek into my process.) I love the idea of my writers trying to poetically capture the most vital of the 1000 words that each picture is worth.

Limon’s poem is a beautiful example of ekphrastic poetry. Firstly, she’s working from a poem that she wasn’t present for. I love this kind of inspiration for our writers, forcing them to step out of simply narrating a moment they were privy to. They have to fill in some blanks, either through an interview with the subject of the image, through their knowledge of the subject, or even through their imagination. I like how this pushes them towards a poetic version of creative non-fiction.

That being said, she also concretely brings it to a personal place. Though it isn’t separated by a stanza break, she speaks abut her current relationship with her father, the subject of the photo. In doing so, she evokes what happens when we look at a photo. In my class, I often find myself having what I think of as metacognitive chats, where we break down how we think about things. Limon discusses and analyzes the photo first, then she attaches it to a memory from childhood, and finally talks about where she and her father are now. I like the model this gives our writers for their own pieces.

Another thing that I think is worth noting, and discussing with writers using this as a mentor text is the fact that Limon chooses one element of the photo as a focus for her poem. Yes, it’s about more than her father’s moustache, isn’t it? But it’s the central element, one that evokes something for her as a writer. It’s not just a great writing move for our writers, but it’s also a good lesson in analysis.

I’ll be honest, I love the poem, and its mentor text potential, but a thing I’ve reflected on the last couple years is how easily we default to texts and lessons that show us the stereotypical family structures and dynamics. I’ve really been making an effort to contextualize, or develop a plan for such texts as this one, knowing that in many classes I’ll teach, the assumption that students will have a photo of a father, or other family member to work from is an erroneous and privileged one. I encourage you to consider this when you’re using texts like this one in your classroom.

What are your favourite ekphrastic poetry mentor texts? What are your strategies for exploring mentor texts that rely on elements that don’t reflect all members of your class?

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

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