By Lesléa Newman, Spalding Low-Residency MFA Faculty (Writing for Children & Young Adults)
Lesléa Newman (Photo by Mary Vazquez)
“Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.”
I can’t remember who I stole that quote from. Which doesn’t make me a great writer necessarily. I am, however, a pretty good thief.
I started my career as a crook back in the 1980’s when I was attending the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute. I was studying with the literary luminaries Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, and Patricia Donegan, and one of them put a life-changing book into my hands: Rose: Where Did You Get That Red? The author, Kenneth Koch is often credited for being the granddaddy of the “poetry in the schools” movement, for he was one of the first poets to go into the public schools and teach children how to read and write poetry. How did he do it? He read the children great poems and had them write their own poems modeled on and inspired by the poems they heard. In effect, he taught the children how to “steal.”
Allen Ginsberg introducing Lesléa Newman at poetry reading at Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in 1981. Also pictured: Peter Orlovsky and Patricia Donegan.
Being someone who often has trouble coming up with an idea for a new poem, I turned the pages of Koch’s book eagerly. Why invent the wheel when it has been invented before, and so beautifully? Why not use the already invented forms of beloved poems as a container to pour my own words into?
One of the classic poems that Koch employed in his book and his teaching, is Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” which can be found here.
What is Wallace doing in the poem? He is taking something ordinary—a blackbird—and making it into something extraordinary by describing it in thirteen different ways. He looks closely at the blackbird, observing a tiny part of it in the first stanza: “Among twenty mountains,/The only moving thing/Was the eye of the blackbird.” He multiplies the blackbird and imagines three of them in the second stanza: “I was of three minds/Like a tree/In which there are three blackbirds.” He imagines the blackbird moving as part of a performance or pantomime in the third stanza. And so on. And in these various explorations, he not only observes the blackbird, he observes himself observing the blackbird. And thus he observes many things about life itself.
Before I began to write my own poem, I decided to type out Wallace Stevens’ poem, just to get the feel of it underneath my fingertips. And believe it or not, when I went back to re-read it, I found that I had made a typo in the title. And that’s how this poem came to be:
THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A BLACKBOARD
I Among twenty crowded classrooms The only sound Was the rat-tat-tat Of the white stick of chalk Against the black blackboard.
II I was of three minds, Like the multiple-choice question With three incorrect answers Scrawled upon the blackboard.
III The eraser whirled across the blackboard. It was a small part of the pantomime.
IV A teacher and her classroom Are one. A teacher and her classroom and her blackboard Are one.
V I do not know which I dread more, The start of the lesson Or the end of the lesson. The blackboard covered with problems Or just erased.
VI Foreign words filled the blackboard In a curled and swirling script. The shadow of the teacher Paced to and fro Her mood was indecipherable.
VII Oh restless children at your wooden desks Why do you stare out the window at the sky? Do you not see the blank blackboard before you Waiting like a Buddha for your attention?
VIII I know great lines from great poetry And my times-tables up through twelve. But I know, too, That the blackboard is involved In everything I know.
IX When the blackboard disappeared From the front of the classroom, It marked the end of one of many eras.
X At the sight of the cracked blackboard Lying on the curb with the trash, Even the most overworked, underpaid teacher Would cry out sharply.
XI She dreamt she was back In her third-grade classroom And a great fear pierced her As she watched herself vanish Into the bottomless black hole Of the blackboard.
XII The classroom is empty. The blackboard must be lonely.
XIII It was the end of the school year All year long. We were graduating And we were going to graduate. The blackboard sat Covered in chalk dust.
One of the writing exercises my mentor Allen Ginsberg assigned was to “write an imitation of one of your own poems” which is a very eye-opening endeavor. And so I wrote an imitation of my imitation:
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poem
I Among seven silent rooms Under a moonless midnight sky The only sound heard Is the poet’s pen Scritching across the page.
II The poet was of three minds Like a sonnet, a sestina And a terza rima.
III The poet tried to compose herself She was a sorry part of the pantomime.
IV A poet and a poem are one A poet and a poem and a reader Are one.
V The poet does not know Which to prefer, Starting a poem Or ending a poem: The act of writing Or the act of having written.
VI Coffee grows cold in the cup Lunch lies uneaten on the plate The poet paces endlessly Her mood is indecipherable.
VII Oh young people of the world With your cell phones, laptops, and video games Can’t you see the poems waiting to be read Scattered like fallen leaves all around you?
VIII The poet knows how to dance the fandango And bake brownies that can break your heart But she knows, too That poetry is involved in everything she knows.
IX When the poem flew out of the poet’s mind It marked the edge of one of many circles.
X At the sight of all those poetry collections On the bookshelves of the library The poet cried out in ecstasy and despair.
XI The poet went to a café And fear overtook her In that she mistook all the Latté-sipping patrons for poets.
XII The poet’s pen is moving The poet must be writing.
XIII It was the middle of the night All day long. The poet was writing And she was going to write. The poem sat In her mind waiting.
When I was putting together my newest poetry collection, Lovely, I included these imitations and several other imitations as well including my two-line poem “Old Age” modeled after Robert Frost’s two-line poem, “The Span of Life;” my long, rhyming narrative poem, “The Writer and the Messenger” modeled after Lewis Carroll’s long, rhyming narrative poem, “The Walrus and The Carpenter;” and my prose poem, “Maidel” modeled after Jamaica Kincaid’s short-short story, “Girl.” I figure, if you’re going to steal, why not steal from the best? As long as I keep writing, I will continue to “steal” from poets whose work I admire. Won’t you “steal away” with me?
Lesléa Newman (faculty, W4CYA) has created 70 books for readers of all ages. Recent books include the poetry collections, Lovely and I Carry My Mother; and the children’s books, Sparkle Boy and Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed.
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at A Blackboard” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poet” copyright © 2018 by Lesléa Newman, from Lovely published by Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA. Reprinted by permission of the author.