Poetry of Place: Where I’m From

On Monday, in a post on A Shrewdness of Apes, the author thinks of her terminally ill father and reflects on the pieces of her childhood that shaped who she is. 

“I come from a place that plays gospel music over the loudspeaker at a gas station-- you can get Jesus while you get Super Unleaded and a bag of pork rinds to go.

I come from a place where one loves God, Mama, and football-- but not necessarily in that order, particularly on a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon.”

The post reminded me of one of my favorite writing assignments.
A few years ago as a way of beginning to study our local community I had students, who were mostly local, write about where they come from. I thought the background work we did and discussions we had leading up to the writing were very valuable. Students enjoyed thinking about and photographing the places important to them, but the quality of the writing wasn’t as high as I would have liked or as good as I thought is could’ve been. 

Right after I finished the writing assignment I found a much better model for getting the kind of specificity I wanted from students. George Ella Lyon’s book Where I’m From seems to be the original source. Though I haven’t actually read her book, I’ve since run into hundreds of great examples that follow this form. Some just use the model, others have more specific guidelines. Unlike many “forms,” rather than ending up with many examples of vague, similar writing, the style of this makes each piece unique.

I especially like the idea of creating a sort of hyper text poem—along the lines of the first post I mentioned, with links to some of the places and things the poem might reference.

I don’t have examples of my own students work, but there are many others —students, teachers, bloggers—who have also given the format a try.
The Minnesota Writing Project has even used it as a demonstration lesson, as does the United Nations Cyber School Bus.

Almost all the versions I’ve read are interesting. This was the case with my students as well. Nearly every poem my students wrote was powerful in some way—either through the language, imagery or experiences conveyed. Students seemed to appreciate the chance to think about and share what pieces of their pasts had shaped them, and I found that the short assignment really did help me understand where my students where coming from.

Posted by Christa Umphrey on 01/19 at 12:48 PM
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