Poetry Fridays: Playing With Poetry

May 20, 2011

Michele Russo, Poetry Coordinator

That’s Dodge Poet Peter Murphy.   And that’s Thayana, a student at Cumberland Regional High School in Bridgeton.  You’re might be wondering why Peter is high-fiving Thayana.  But it’s not a high-five. It’s Peter and Thayana playing that mirror game we all played as kids.  Remember the mirror game?  You had to watch your partner closely in order to follow their moves.  You wanted to be able to predict what they’d do next, but they’d usually surprise you.  And it took you a moment to catch back up with them. If you had a good partner who would make it just challenging enough, it was lots of fun.

Peter played this game on Wednesday, May 18th at Cumberland Regional High School’s 10th Annual Mini-Festival to show students how a poet and a reader are in a way, playing mirror.  The poet has to make the reader work, just enough, while keeping it interesting.  If a poet writes above the reader’s head, he loses her.  If the poet moves too quickly, the reader gets frustrated and will probably put the poem down.  But a good poem invites the reader in to follow, to wonder what’s next, to be surprised and most of all, to enjoy themselves.

Here’s another Dodge Poet, BJ Ward, playing Simon Says with students at Voorhees High School in Glen Gardner.  You’re probably thinking, “Now really, Simon Says? With high school students??”  Simon Says one of the simplest games in the world.  But if you miss the most important words, you’re out.  If you lose focus for a moment, you’re out.  We have to fight against our natural instinct to keep moving.  BJ does this to show students the importance of listening to every word in poetry.  Every word.  Pausing to pay attention to what comes next. Poets craft their poems with great intention–choosing just the right words in just the right places.  It takes a lot of work to craft a poem that feels natural and spontaneous.  A careful reader gets a great reward when they absorb the whole poem–not just the gist of the poem, but all the images, ideas and emotions that are there to discover.

High School has gotten more and more pressured lately with test preparation, college decisions looming, and the challenge of growing up in our complicated world.  Dodge Poets bring not only their love of poetry and their talent as poets, but a way into poetry for students.  They give them a way to think about poetry that makes sense to them, and through their modeling, encourage students to be lifelong readers.

At Cumberland Regional High School, JC Todd (pictured above with student Antonio) brought a poem she’d recently written into a Creative Writing class.  She asked a student to read it out loud so she could hear it, and see where she needed to revise it. She asked the students what they thought, what they got out of it, what pictures they saw in their heads.  How often does a student get to be part of an artist’s process in this way?  When you go to a museum, listen to music or watch a dance, you’re seeing a finished piece.  JC opens up her work so that students experience it as living and dynamic.

Dodge Mini Festivals in High Schools typically last one or two days.  There’s no test afterwards, and students are not typically required to write poetry during them.  In that short time, students have the luxury of being listeners and readers of poetry—which we hope will continue for the rest of their lives.   The festivals always end with a large group reading where students hear Dodge Poets read their work, often in the auditorium or other performance space.  After a day of meeting poets in the classroom, the reading gives students a chance to really listen—perhaps like they never have before.


The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Program co-sponsors school festivals in New Jersey high schools. For more information, contact Michele Russo, Poetry Coordinator, mrusso@grdodge.org.

Did you know that the Dodge Poetry Program has a YouTube channel? Take a look – view video clips from past Festivals! You can also join the conversation on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @dodgepoetryfest. See you there!

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