Write about something you’ve never told anyone before. That was the prompt a few years ago, given to a tableful of sundry people sitting in a library far from the big city. You have twelve minutes. I’ll let you know when you have two minutes left. Pens to paper. Fingertips on keyboards. We went around the room and read aloud, everyone listening intently.
One older man read about the night in Vietnam when his best friend died in his arms. How he tried to keep him from dying. How they were both nineteen. How he had whispered to him and his friend whispered back as he bled to death. How he had thought of that boy every day of his life since. When he finished, we were all silent. He looked up at us in confusion and wonder. I have never told anyone about this before, he said, not even my wife.
Prompts (for high school teachers who teach poetry), by Dante di Stefano
Write about walking into the building
as a new teacher. Write yourself hopeful.
Write a row of empty desks. Write the face
of a student you’ve almost forgotten;
he’s worn a Derek Jeter jersey all year.
Do not conjecture about the adults
he goes home to, or the place he calls home.
Write about how he came to you for help
each October morning his sophomore year.
Write about teaching Othello to him;
write Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven.
Write about reading his obituary
five years after he graduated. Write
a poem containing the words “common”
“core,” “differentiate,” and “overdose.”
Write the names of the ones you will never
forget: “Jenna,” “Tiberious,” “Heaven,”
“Megan,” “Tanya,” “Kingsley,” “Ashley,” “David.”
Write Mari with “Nobody’s Baby” tattooed
in cursive on her neck, spitting sixteen bars
in the backrow, as little white Mike beatboxed
“Candy Shop” and the whole class exploded.
Write about Zuly and Nely, sisters
from Guatemala, upon whom a thousand
strange new English words rained down on like hail
each period, and who wrote the story
of their long journey on la bestia
through Mexico, for you, in handwriting
made heavy by the aquís and ayers
ached in their knuckles, hidden by their smiles.
Write an ode to loose-leaf. Write elegies
on the nub nose of a pink eraser.
Carve your devotion from a no. 2
pencil. Write the uncounted hours you spent
fretting about the ones who cursed you out
for keeping order, who slammed classroom doors,
who screamed “you are not my father,” whose pain
unraveled and broke you, whose pain you knew.
Write how all this added up to a life.
For more information on Dante di Stefano, please click here.