The following poems were written by students in a creative writing class that took place in Shanghai, China, hosted by the Stanford University EPGY Honors Academy summer program. My students in this class wrote and read stories and poems in English, but most spoke Mandarin as well as other languages. Many of my students were totally fluent in English, while others were still practicing their English spelling and grammar.
I have noticed that students write the most original poems when they are a little bit wild and lost in their own imaginations. To do this, we read experimental poems that break the rules of English or the rules of poetry. We also read fantasy, like The Patchwork Girl of Oz or The Phantom Tollbooth. I think fantasy and ancient literature and experimental poetry do the same things for students: they challenge them to think of new structures, whether new worlds or new ways of using language.
For the same reason, I tried to make all their writing assignments weird:
- Write a poem while sitting somewhere you have never sat before
- Write a description of humans as if you were an alien who had never actually seen a human
- First draw your friend without looking at the paper. Then draw your own face by putting a piece of paper on it and drawing (don’t poke your eyeball). Then look at yourself in a mirror and write a poem about your eyes, nose, teeth, hair, or other part of your head
- Write a long poem as if you were a whole bunch of fairies all speaking at once
- Write down one of your main character’s deep secrets, then fold the paper up into origami and never show anyone what you wrote
When I challenge my students with funny, scary, and strange poems and assignments, they challenge me right back, writing work that is original, spooky, heartbreaking, or just hilarious. Somebody surprises me in every class. For instance, when I told my students to write somewhere they’d never written before, one student squeezed onto a shelf of the bookshelf!
So here are some weird, wild poems that came from these assignments, or assignments like these. These poems surprise me every time I read them.
Sophia Dahlin is a poet and teacher who lives in Oakland, CA. She is a teaching artist for Bay Area schools with California Poets in the Schools, and has taught creative writing in Bangkok and Shanghai for Stanford Honors Academy. She has an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.