Sibongile Fisher

Teaching the Art of Bending Language to Understand One’s Memory

by Sibongile Fisher

“language disrupts, refuses to be contained within boundaries”

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

Traveling through patches of moments long gone, some marsh land that blends timelines and events and some parched areas rigid in both memory and emotion. I remember my first understanding of good poetry as an old white man, with a beard, a balding head and history on his side, who died the best of his generation and many others that followed. A long reading list of old white men followed. And one by one we would tear at the skin of our bored teenage minds just to get the easter egg of the beauty in their work. Their English was foreign to my teacher and made their poetry difficult and boring to us. Their poetry was different from mine, which meant that my poetry was not good.

I would give my scripts to my English teacher who would encourage me to continue. She would never really criticize my work, and in retrospect, I think it was out of fear that I would stop writing. Instead, she would encourage me to continue alluding to the fact that I would get better with time. In her class of about twenty students or more, only three or even less loved poetry. This is why I think she chose the approach to nurture our love by telling us our work is great rather than by giving critical feedback. This is why in later years, after being introduced black writers and specifical black female poets, I made it my mission to read them widely and avidly.

I started to appreciate constructive criticism and became a better writer because of it. I also understand that my teacher’s encouragement, void of criticism, was what I needed to build my writing muscle and to unlearn that good was synonymous with old, dead white men. This essay is rooted in that unlearning and in our daily quest for who we truly are. The essay is connected to how memory both betrays us and offers us a knitted quilt of moments that form our textured identity, our personhood. And how we strive to teach against and towards ourselves.

Building the Muscle

Teaching younger students spoken word poetry, especially those whose main reference to poetry as a form of study are the old white men with their old language, requires a need to facilitate a process of unlearning what good poetry is and teaching what bad poetry is not. As the mentor, you also need to operate within the boundaries of safety by understanding that their writing muscle has not yet been strengthened by time. The third wall you have to acknowledge and break down is that the medium of instruction is in most cases not their first language. To do this, I often borrow from bell hook’s pedagogical paradigm as elaborating in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, “that the classroom should be an exciting place, never boring.” She extends that “Excitement is generated through collective effort. Seeing the classroom always as a communal place enhanced the likelihood of collective effort in creating and sustaining a learning community.” I usually introduce play, early on in the process as it helps shuffle the dynamics of power by giving me enough to guide but also giving the students enough to engage and influence the lesson. Play becomes the tool that encourages excitement and balances the responsibility of learning on both myself and the students. Through devices such as games, which I share later on, I aim to excavate memories that are tied to the student’s perceptions of themselves,their identity and in turn their work. This device echoes Lebo Mashile’s observation that “Memory is story” and that it is this story about who we are that defines how and why we write. In an interview with Charles H Rowell for JSTOR, Keorapetse Kgositsile says that his earliest memories are of his grandmother and mother and that “practically everything I write is tied up with some kind of wisdom I got from them in that hostile environment.” Kgositsile cements the idea that memory, whether collective or individual, shapes our writing. One of the games I play with the students early on in the lesson, is that everyone writes a memory of an event or emotion and we jumble them up in a bowl. Each student then picks one out and reads aloud to the class. It is then our challenge as a class to determine who the memory belongs to. The aim of this game is to connect the students and myself but to also start introducing memory as an aspect of identity and how it informs our writing. Thereafter I task the students to use their chosen memory,whether it belongs to them or not and to write a stanza inspired by it. If we are in a space where students have access to wifi and library resources, their task is to find a poem written by a living poet that evokes the same or similar memory, they will then share this poem with us in the next session. Students are encouraged to write a stanza a day without concern of whether it is good or bad, this exercise is meant to build their writing muscle.

Poetry as a Cathartic Vessel for Change

I often joke around and say that poetry and hip hop culture saved my life. This exaggerated stance is owed to the environment I grew up in. My first reference of spoken word poetry outside of my friends in our little poetry club of about six people, was Lebo Mashile in her television show Latitudes. Thereafter, I’d scavenge the very slim shelves of our local library for poetry collections by black poets. Needless to say I hardly found any and that it wouldn’t be until university where I would read and engage in critical thinking on poetry as an art form. My passion for poetry influenced my personality and created new memories that were now tied to my identity. This is why I think of poetry as the cathartic vessel that changed me.

Often when working with young students in marginalized communities, poetry is seen as a means to end. A vessel to channel the unspoken and a therapeutic exercise to replace the therapy and counseling that they can’t afford or are reluctant to engage in due to privacy concerns. I think of Audre Lorde’s words in her powerful essay ‘Poetry Is Not A Luxury’ when she laments the loss of an inter-generational vocabulary for our experience living on the margins and how poetry becomes the necessary vehicle with which we accept old truths and welcome new notions about who we are and where we are going, and furthermore how this language that manipulates silence and the unexplainable can help us get there. In the essay she declares that:

“Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

Audre Lorde, Poetry Is Not a Luxury; 1985.

As a vessel for change, I’ve seen poetry allow young students to expand and understand their own feelings, ideas and notions that would have otherwise remained without a language and buried in the silence of the unexplainable. Lorde who speaks of ‘poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean–in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.’ understood as intimately as any poet of her calibre would be that the art of bending language to understand one’s memory and to give a vocabulary for one’s experience, is the key to profound creative insight into human knowledge and the ideas or thoughts that encapsulate culture.

I usually task the students to write a minimum of five and a maximum of ten ideas or notions that they have about themselves and how they are feeling. With the feeling, I challenge them to go deeper than the immediate,surface emotion. So, for example, if a student is feeling sad, they have to identify why they are feeling sad and if there are other emotions associated with that sadness. Then using poetic devices, students need to rewrite these perceptions and feelings. We repeat the exercise three or four times until students have excavated a new understanding of how their perceived identity impacts their poetry. I also encourage students to journal during the duration of the course and thereafter. I borrow the exercise on Morning Pages from Julia Camron’s The Artist’s Way published in 1992 as this exercise has enhanced my understanding of who I am as a creative person and how my experiences influence my craft.

Poetry as Protest Against Erasure

It was Nina Simone, in the Netflix documentary, ‘What Happened, Miss Simone’ who was recorded saying “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” Often, when working with young students, the vigor of their youth inclines them to not only view poetry as cathartic but also as an opportunity to give their politics a language. My first poem was titled depression, my second poem, which was very controversial and based on a song I’d heard by a local artist, Fifi, was titled Hang Mandela and was an outcry on how little faith I had in our democracy. I was seventeen when I wrote it and before then, I couldn’t articulate my frustrations with our ruling party and how disappointed I was with our freedom. The older I grew, the more I started understanding that freedom has many definitions and that one of them is the ability to archive one’s existence and experience and in so doing, you give others access and a language for their own experiences.

Though many argue that it is not an artist’s duty to reflect those times, what remains true of Miss Simone’s words is that ‘You can’t help it’. For this session, I task the students(those who have internet access) to find a poem about one thing that their passionate about and this can range from politics(race,sex or gender) to preservation. For students who don’t have access to the internet, I ask them to write down the things that they are passionate about and then ask them to choose one, I then go out and find them a poem on that theme or subject matter. This depends on the school I am teaching at. I never give both options. In a privileged school, I’ll task the students to find a poem and in poor schools, I either bring poems on a spectrum of themes or I ask the students to list them for me at the end of the lesson as a preparation for the next class.

I encourage active participation from the students as Andrienne Rich once said in a speech delivered to graduating women at Douglass College in 1977, titled ‘Claiming an Education’, “ you cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education: you will do much better to think of being here to claim one. One of the dictionary definitions of the verb “to claim” is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction. “To receive” is to come into possession of: to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true. The difference is that between acting and being acted-upon, and for women it can literally mean the difference between life and death.”

It is important to me for students to engage in discussion, to argue my methods and thinking, and to introduce their own, however, it is a fine line to walk with young students, who oftentimes need structure and rigid rules to participate in the lesson. One thing I’ve learnt is common among younger students is that they appreciate being heard and they value being taken seriously. This invitation into their thoughts and ideas needs delicate and yet serious criticism which they soak up like a sponge. Younger students can be impressionable and look to the teacher to give them the vocabulary they need to discover on their own so it is a constant negotiation of teaching them your ideas without erasing their own.

The Tool-Kit

The tool-kit is tools that I have been gathering along my journey either by attending other writing workshops, through my training as a poetry and performance facilitator, or during my own schooling years as a student in drama and the performing arts. I mostly teach writing poetry for performance rather than for the page, and as a result I borrow often from theatre and performance activities. I share a lesson plan of the course with the students ahead of the first lesson, this way I manage their expectations and also give them an opportunity to share with me anything that they particularly want to achieve or address through the course.

Lesson One: The first lesson is a discovery lesson that zooms into the students lives, why they write and why they perform or want to perform what they have written. This lesson focuses on the solitary act of writing poetry and the collaborative act of performing it. We start the lesson with an introduction exercise, which I mentioned earlier, where students write something about themselves, usually a memory about an experience or event, then we put it in a hat or bowl and then they pick and guess who it belongs to. Or we play a two truths, one lie game. The students tell each other three things, one of them is a lie. Then the others have to guess which one is a lie. We then break into discussion groups and students have to find similarities or differences in what they think poetry is, why they write and why they perform. The students pick a spokesperson and then they give feedback to the group. Here after I task the students to use their earlier memory to write a stanza which is then read outloud to the group. The students then give each other feedback. I then ask them to rewrite the stanza but this time into a full poem and keeping in mind the feedback from the peers. This can be challenging as the students often need to be reminded of the ‘safe space’ we are in and the responsibility to be delicate without negating honesty in their feedback. We then have a short break and the second half of the first lesson is an introduction to performance. We do a warm up exercise, usually stretching and breathing and then the students are given time to learn and rehearse the first part of their poem. They will then recite it back to the class and this time I will give them feedback which they need to take home with them and implement. We will open up lesson two with a performance.

Lesson Two: In this lesson, after the performances of their lesson one poem as an icebreaker, we then discuss the experience of writing, rehearsing and performing their poems. The aim is to get students used to the diversity and validity of each and everyone of their voices and to understand that writing poetry is a journey of understanding one’s memory and how it shapes their experience of the now. We will look at structure and form in this lesson, the students will use printed out poems that I have sourced from a diverse range of young,living and published poets to cut out lines that stand out for them and to use those to recreate a poem of their own. I will then break them into discussion groups to discuss their experience of the task and then feedback to the class. This lesson is focused more on crafting the poems than on performance. Depending on the school and the children’s access to the internet, I will then task them to either list themes that they are passionate about or ask them to go find a poem that addresses that theme. This will lead to the third and final lesson.

Lesson Three: In this lesson the focus is on the students and what compels them to write. I structure the lesson as a reflection on the past two lessons and what the students will take and do going forward on their own. The lesson echoes Assia Djebar’s words, ‘Sometimes fear grips me that these fragile moments of life will fade away. It seems that I write against erasure.’ These form the spine for this lesson. It is my aim for the students to be able to articulate these fleeting feelings and thoughts that they often don’t know how to articulate. Using the poems based on their chosen themes, the students are tasked to analyse as best as they can, the poet’s silent observations.They need to look at form, the style and the language used and how it supports or impacts the delivery of the theme. The lesson challenges the students to also look at their own work and how their writing choices impact the themes they choose to address. Each student then reads the poem out loud and shares their analysis with the class, which we briefly discuss. The students are then tasked to write their own poems and to revise and rehearse them for the week in preparation of their public reading or performance.

The structure of my lessons depends on the program and the amount of contact I have with the students. The above is an example of how I would structure a one month program with a limited contact of one lesson a week. I have taught varying programs with the maximum being three months with a contact level of two lessons a week. The final week is usually for public reading or performance.

Teaching the art of bending language to understand one’s memory
Teaching poetry is a responsibility which weighs much like that of raising a child. Poetry gives us the vocabulary to articulate our collective memory, our culture back to ourselves and to find new ways of experiencing the redundant markers of life.

“The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.”
These words by James Baldwin in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings; 2011, ring no truer now then when he first delivered them in the form of a speech at the New York City Community Church. This loaded claim rests on the shoulders of poetry teachers and facilitators to breed the next generation of the only people who can, through words, hold humanity accountable by placing a mirror in front of our spirits and beckon us to do better. Which is why I believe that teaching poetry is difficult and requires you, the teacher, to collapse your own notions of what is good poetry and bad poetry and rather discover with and through your students the truth that hums beneath the silence of the times. This is my aim when teaching. I try to understand where my students come from and what their experiences or memories are as these shape their voice and thus their writing.

* * *

Sources and further readings/watching:

bell hooks, Teaching To Transgress: Education As The Practice Of Freedom. New York: Routledge. 1994.
Charles H. Rowell, “With Bloodstains to Testify”: An Interview With Keorapetse Kgositsile. Callaloo, no. 2, 1978, pp. 23–42. Johns Hopkins University Press:
Audre Lorde, Poetry Is Not a Luxury; 1985.
Netflix documentary, What happened, Miss Simone? 2015
Adrienne Rich, On lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose (1966-1978); New York: W.W. & Norton & Company. 1979.
James Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption: uncollected writings. 2011.

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Hi, I’m Lillie. Previously a magazine editor, I became a full-time mother and freelance writer in 2017. When I’m not spending time with my wonderful kids and husband, I love writing about my fascination with food, adventure, and living a healthy and organized life! Read more

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